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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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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge