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Stuart Maconie: The privileged are taking over the arts – without the grit, pop culture is doomed

With school music spending down and the benefits system crippled, the voices of pop have lost their bite.

It takes chutzpah to gainsay Richard Hoggart, especially on class and pop culture. But when he wrote in The Uses of Literacy (1957) that “the finest period in English . . . popular song seems to have been between 1880 and 1910” he was wrong, or at least premature. Hoggart believed this was the era when working-class performers and audiences held greatest sway, dominating British music. Though he couldn’t have known it, that golden age was just about to come. As he wrote his venerable text in the Hull of the mid-1950s, not far down the road in another northern port a bunch of Scouse teenagers was strumming the overture to an entertainment revolution (albeit one with music- hall roots) that would eclipse the reign of Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno.

Entering Paul McCartney’s council-house childhood home at 20 Forthlin Road, Allerton, Merseyside, American visitors are often visibly shocked by how tiny it is, how plain – spartan even. (Lennon’s was slightly bigger, so he is routinely and wrongly labelled as “middle-class”. His dad was an itinerant galley hand, and after his single-parent mum died he was brought up by an aunt in a modest Liverpool street. It’s hardly Downton Abbey.) From these little houses, from terraced streets across the north or unlovely London boroughs, from mill towns and ports, factories and coalfields, came working-class kids who’d shake the world with every shake of their head.

But those days are gone – whether James Blunt thinks so or not. The former Guardsman-turned-balladeer has improved his media standing of late by building a genuinely funny and self-deprecating presence on Twitter. But he showed his more rebarbative edge on 19 January with an attack on the Labour MP Chris Bryant. Bryant had made the fairly anodyne point that posh kids such as Blunt and the actor Eddie Redmayne were becoming increasingly prevalent in UK entertainment. It’s not a particularly new or shocking assertion, but the vehemence of Blunt’s response was revealing. Replying by that most modish of platforms, the open letter, he called Bryant a “classist gimp” and a “prejudiced wazzock”, and invoked the threadbare sneer about the politics of envy. If nothing else, the rant by James, an Old Harrovian, gave the lie to the notion that the upper classes have better manners. Yet there is more to it than that; the note of wounded paranoia suggests that Blunt knows Bryant is right.

The great cultural tide that surged through Harold Wilson’s 1960s and beyond, the sea change that swept the McCartneys, Finneys, Bakewells, Courtenays, Baileys, Bennetts et al to positions of influence and eminence, if not actual power, has ebbed and turned. The children of the middle and upper classes are beginning to reassert a much older order. In the arts generally – music, theatre, literature for sure – it is clear that cuts to benefits, the disappearance of the art school (where many a luminous layabout found room to bloom) and the harsh cost of further and higher education are pricing the working class out of careers in the arts and making it increasingly a playground for the comfortably off. The grants are gone and the relatively benign benefits system that sustained the pre-fame Jarvis Cocker and Morrissey is being dismantled daily.

The actress Maxine Peake (Bolton-raised, resides in Salford, went through Rada in the 1990s) told me recently that she could not afford to train for the stage now. And the actor David Morrissey told the Radio Times: “We’re creating an intern culture – it’s happening in journalism and politics as well – and we have to be very careful because the fight is not going to be there for people from more disadvantaged backgrounds.” In the media generally, preferment often comes through nepotism, or through those internships that only children of well-off families can afford. A Sutton Trust report of 2009 found that the proportion of leading journalists educated privately had increased over 20 years. In 2006, only 14 per cent had gone to a state school, a statistic as worrying as it is remarkable. It’s happening even in the once resolutely proletarian world of football. Frank Lampard, Will Hughes, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Victor Moses are just a few of the Premier League players who attended fee-paying schools.

Actress Maxine Peake. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Returning to pop. The piqued Blunt was in the vanguard of a gradual but now almost total cultural shift by which popular music has become as essentially bourgeois as the Boden catalogue. When I worked at the NME in the early 1990s, writers from leafy suburbs would affect proletarian tropes, trousers and vowels to ingratiate themselves with Oasis, New Order or Happy Mondays. Nowadays, adroit navigation of the wine list or the ski slope is probably a more useful way into a band’s confidence. As the writer Simon Price put it wryly, it’s only a matter of time before a pop version of the infamous Johnson/Osborne/Cameron Bullingdon Club photo surfaces, featuring several leading members of future indie-rock acts looking supremely entitled in frock coats and wing-collared shirts.

This is easily dismissed (especially from above) as chippiness or, in Blunt’s terms, “jealousy”. To be fair, I should point out that I am referring to mainstream rock and pop. Grime, hip-hop and dubstep are still rooted in an urban milieu of zero-hour contracts and pound shops. It has been suggested that as much of 60 per cent of the pop charts of recent years has been occupied by privately educated musicians but this seems highly debatable. What is unarguable is that a curious gentrification of pop culture is ongoing – and the average pop star is a different person from the one who dominated this world just a decade ago. Damon Albarn of Blur was mocked as the posh boy of Britpop when in fact he’d gone to a comprehensive in Essex and his family was just mildly bohemian. Nowadays he’d be decidely “below stairs”. Sandie Shaw, who emerged from Dagenham in that regional and social upheaval in the 1960s, told the culture select committee that a career in pop had become unviable “unless you’re Mumford & Sons and come from a public school and have a rich family that can support you”.

Mumford & Sons. Photo: Tim Whitby/Getty Images

To Mumford & Sons you can add the likes of Coldplay, Laura Marling, Eliza Doolitle, Lily Allen, Florence Welch, Pixie Lott, La Roux and Mark Ronson, as well as talent-school academy graduates marshalled by one Simon Cowell, an old boy of the then £3,995-a-term Dover College (now £4,750). Unscientifically, but still persuasively, it is detectable in the names on sleeves. The top indie act the Maccabees include a Hugo, an Orlando, a Felix and a Rupert.

There has always been a handful of rock “toffs” but previously these were the exception. Their background made them figures of exotic curiosity if not exactly fun. The 1960s hit-makers the Zombies were bright Home Counties grammar-school boys with bags of O-levels and so this evident “poshness” was thrust upon them as a default gimmick in the teen press. Every early Genesis article relished how they formed at Charterhouse, so outlandish was it that touring rockers would be educated thus – though not for the public-school boys who played or put out their records, such as John Peel or Jonathan King. (If he’d written for the NME, Marx would have had a field day with this.) Even then, the greatest success for Genesis would come when they handed the creative reins to a savvy East End upstart called Phil Collins. It is revealing that Joe Strummer took great pains to hide his diplomat father and prep-school days from the press and that Jim Morrison claimed his parents were dead rather than admit that Daddy was, in fact, an admiral.

In 2010 the Daily Mail reported on the growing gap in music provision between the state and private school systems. In the state sector local authorities were spending less than half the amount on music teaching that they did 20 years earlier: as little as £1.15 a child per year. “On top of this, families who can afford private school fees are often affluent enough to pay for extra music tuition, for equipment such as drum kits, guitars, amps, and also for rehearsal space,” it said. When the Daily Mail bemoans this trend, you know there’s something afoot.

Does it matter? Surely Noel Gallagher is no better than Nick Drake just because he went to a Burnage comp rather than Marl­borough? Of course not. But pop culture should reflect the lives of its people in all their vibrancy, challenge and hurly-burly, not the rarified interests and experiences of a few. Most modern indie bands’ lyrics seem to be either turgid chunks of half-digested philosophy or indulgent disquisitions on the singer’s fragile emotional microclimate. It is telling that the last alternative bands to emerge with lyrics that observed the world around them wittily and pungently were Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys, both from working-class backgrounds in Yorkshire. One can go further. The best art, and the best pop music certainly, has always been made by smart, impassioned outsiders such as Cocker or Morrissey, or by the cussed and ornery: the likes of Lennon or John Lydon. Conflict, be it generational, geographical or economic, is the turbine that drives art forward, the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl. At the risk of sounding like a classist gimp, grittiness is surely not the prevailing ambience at Bedales and Harrow. The silencing of other, rougher voices brings with it a creeping blandness.

The Kaiser Chiefs. Photo: Tabatha Fireman/Redferns

The current economic climate is returning the practice of art to what it was 300 years ago – a rich fellow’s diversion, a pleasant recreation for those who can afford it, rather than the cultural imperative it should be. Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers, one of the last great bands to emerge from working-class Britain, put it memorably: indie should not be gap-year music.

Hand-in-hand with the fading profile of the working classes in pop culture has come an increased worship of wealth. Capitalism porn saturates our TV schedules. Shows such as The Apprentice, Dragons’ Den and the ubiquitous talent contests explicitly reject collectivity, preferring to celebrate rampant individualism and the acquisition of wealth and fame above all else. The heady mood of freedom, change and equality that characterised pop culture in the 1960s now seems as remote and naive as the spirit of 1945. Turn on a TV or radio in the decades before the millennium, and from Eric and Ernie to Lennon and McCartney, from Lulu to the Spice Girls, from “Tarby” to Oasis, you’d hear and see the faces and voices of working- or lower-middle-class Britain. People who’d gone to the same schools as you, walked the same streets, lived in the same sorts of houses but become celebrities by the miracle of social mobility that entertainment and sport had always promised.

You see ever fewer of those faces now, unless you watch Jeremy Kyle or Benefits Street or Saints and Scroungers, where the lower orders are held up for ridicule. James Blunt, calming down and channelling the Dalai Llama for a moment, concluded his spat with Bryant by tweeting: “To help people at the bottom of the tree join those near the top, give them a ladder, not a bow and arrow.” Maybe the bow and arrow, or at least a raised voice, will help them get a foot on your ladder, James. 

 

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling