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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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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