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The insipid rebellion of the new "rock royalty"

The bloodless brats of pop have nothing to rebel against - sadly they are the role models for a new generation of teenagers.

What does it say about modern culture when so many of our pop icons are famous primarily for being someone's son or daughter? Following the late 20th century, when musicians, models and artists from every sort of background briefly replaced society belles and high-born dandies in the gossip pages, the children of those artists and musicians have become the new aristocracy, wealthy young debutantes whose arrival on the party scene is breathlessly anticipated in every weekly glossy. Coco Sumner, the pouty progeny of Sting and Trudie Styler, has just announced her arrival in the rigid ranks of pop primogeniture by releasing a debut album with her band, I Blame Coco. I don't know about you, but I can hardly contain my ennui.

"Rock Royalty" is the term that the fashion press uses to describe these phlegmatic youngsters and it couldn't be more apt. As social mobility implodes, we have once again become a society that openly fetishises heredity, aristocracy and class. The real royal wedding is shuffling towards us like the terrifying reanimated corpse of deferential 1980s austerity culture, but in fact we've been comfortably obsessed with the couplings of high-society debutantes for years.

Forget The X Factor. If you really want to make it in show business and can't find a footballer to marry, you'd better have a famous father, like the Jagger daughters, or the Geldof girls, or the Richardses, the Allens, the Osbornes, the Winstones, the Lowes, the Ritchies, the Ronsons and the Hiltons.

The expensively groomed good looks of these young people offset the erstwhile dishevelled, grungy glamour of their parents, but we live in a different world now: one where money and connections are far more important than talent, in the creative industries and everywhere else. Contestants on reality singathons sacrifice every scrap of dignity for a shot at profitable D-list celebrity, but it was barely whispered that Young Mistress Sting was thinking of making a record before every weekend supplement was wetting itself to get an interview.

The album itself, The Constant, is nothing to write home about. Bloated with watery ballads about the symbolic colour schemes of bourgeois young love, it's the sort of unthreatening shopping muzak that plays in every Urban Outfitters in the northern hemisphere. Coco has a huskily acceptable singing voice, and producers who know how to spin out a bridge section -- but Sting she ain't.

This is precisely the album that any listless adolescent might produce if she just happened to have grown up surrounded by top-of-the range recording equipment and most of the wealthiest people in the music industry. It's not dreadful, but you could pick any suburban street in the country and find a teenager making better pop songs in their bedroom.

Pop, of course, is about far more than the music. It's about the making and breaking of cultural icons. Just as there was more to the Beatles than the first jarring chord of Hard Day's Night, and more to Bowie than the off-beat drumline of Rebel Rebel, there is far more to Coco Sumner than vaguely rubbish call-waiting tunes. She is part of the new cultural orthodoxy of rock royalty: a pampered princess in a musical world that has come to worship wealth and heredity every bit as much as the establishment it once rock-and-rolled against.

Many of these dull, rich young people seem genuinely convinced that they are in some way subversive artists, and the press is only too happy to facilitate this delusion. A gushing interview with young Ms Sumner in the Independent recently noted that "although she owns a house in Victoria and has just bought a cottage in Wiltshire, she has refreshingly dirty nails". The dirty nails probably contributed less to the record deal than the millionaire rock-star father, but for the purposes of her personal branding, Coco is definitely a tearaway, a young lady who claims to have found her "rebel" spirit when her nanny played her Blockheads records while driving her to prep school.

Publicists expect a bit of stage-managed rebellion from today's debutantes -- just a soupcon of the sort of bad behaviour that boosts album sales without actually challenge anything, like turning up to Bungalow 8 in a really low-cut designer dress. Iconoclasm, though, is not something that one just inherits along with the family pile. Truly subversive creativity often emanates from personal struggle, and that doesn't tend to feature highly in childhoods where people rush to tell you how wonderful you are every time you fart out a couple of chords.

Whatever she claims, Coco is not to blame. Her tedious songs, however, are the writing on the wall -- precisely the sort of music that French anarchists The Tarnac 9 were referring to when they wrote:

It's enough to listen to the songs of the times -- the asinine "alt-folk" where the petty bourgeoisie dissects the state of its soul, next to declarations of war from [rap artists] -- to know that a certain coexistence will end soon, that a decision is near.

The young people of Britain have grown up being asked to honour the uneasy coexistence of the super-rich and the so-called underclass -- but if this week's planned protests are anything to go by, that coexistence may well be at an end. Real rebellion isn't just a fashion accessory. It's a last-ditch response to social conditions that have become intolerable.

With a few exceptions, pop culture today is more about dynasty than dynamism. The ageing rock stars of the 1960s and 1970s may have sold out, shuffling cheerfully into endorsement deals for butter and car insurance, but those who grew up with their music and iconography still took away the message that with enough raw energy, ordinary people could change the world. For my generation, with only their bloodless brats for role models, it's back to the old rules: look good, do as you're told and make sure your daddy is rich and famous. There's only so long you can follow those rules before something snaps.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.