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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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The Okay Place: the psychological value of mediocre TV

Why do we watch comedies that don’t make us laugh?

I’ve been watching Brooklyn 99 on the train. The comedy cop show makes me laugh roughly once an episode, but nonetheless I watch it compulsively. I watch it on my commute, and I watch it while cooking dinner. It’s in the background when I’m paying my bills. I consumed so many episodes last night, Netflix sent me its most notoriously judgemental pop-up: “Are you still watching?”

Yes, Netflix, I was still watching. The real question was: why?

Brooklyn 99 doesn’t really make me laugh, and it’s far from the most critically-acclaimed show available on the streaming service right now. It’s not technically mediocre – the sitcom has won two Golden Globes – but it is to me*. It provokes the same feelings in me as Netflix’s The Good Place, a kitsch sitcom set in the afterlife. I am compelled to watch at all costs, but on the whole unamused and occasionally frustrated by formulaic storylines. (Sometimes, The Good Place even makes me cringe.)

I enjoy both shows, sure, but I don’t love them. So why am I wasting my time?

(*Because this is the internet, it's a good time to specify that "mediocre" here means in the view of the person being quoted, not objectively.)

“To understand why people are drawn to certain shows, it’s helpful to look at the type of feelings the shows elicit,” says Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist and assistant professor at West Virginia University. Cohen says media often has a “mood management function”, in that we use it to make ourselves feel better.

“Sometimes we are looking to be emotionally stimulated, so we might choose to watch something that we think will thrill us,” she says. “But other times we might decide to forego the dark cerebral drama on our DVR and opt for a safe sitcom instead. That could be because we need something that will help us wind down, relax, and boost our mood.”

Photo: Netflix

A desire to unwind is one of the reasons Oliver Savory, a 30-year-old grad student from London, watches The Big Bang Theory, a comedy that has inspired much ire.

“It fills a niche of something to watch while eating, when you can’t focus fully, or you’ve just got in and want to unwind without thinking too hard,” he explains. Oliver says “average” TV comforts him more than “good” TV because he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up to date. “Good TV you have to make time for, average TV can fit around your own schedule without imposing itself.”

Cohen says this is referred to as “comfort food TV”, the entertainment equivalent of eating boxed mac and cheese even if you have the recipe for mum’s spaghetti. “These are shows that people watch not because they are exceptional in quality, but because they are simple, predictable, or nostalgic.”

Sometimes, we watch “okay” shows because we feel they have the potential to be great. Karen Dill-Shackleford is a media psychologist who explains this was her experience with The Good Place.

“I love The Good Place, but there was a stretch when I thought it was poor,” she says. “I kept waiting for it to right itself because I thought it had real potential.”

The potential many of us see in the show is its fresh premise, and its engagement with moral philosophy. As Dill-Shackleford puts it: “[the show] is a palatable way to ponder life’s biggest questions. So, even if the jokes are lame, the potential for real value is still there.”

Charlotte Mullin, a 23-year-old illustrator, says she doesn't laugh at the jokes either. “But what keeps me watching is the premise, and the characters. I’m a sucker for good character development, and The Good Place has it in spades,” she says. (Cohen tells me she does laugh at The Good Place, once again illustrating that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder.)

Photo: Netflix

Ross McCafferty is a 27-year-old journalist from Glasgow who couldn’t tell you anything about NBC’s Parks and Recreation, even though he’s seen every episode. During a difficult time at work, he consumed the entire show.

“It’s actually quite a derivative, even mediocre show,” he says. “But I still ate it up, because at the time it was oddly comforting to me, self-contained and uncomplicated and unobtrusive, like so little in my life at that time.”

The reasons McCafferty liked the show, he says, is because it was “nice”, “brightly lit”, “nonthreatening” and “so sweet it was cloying”.

Bright lights and pretty colours certainly feel like one of the reasons I keep going back to mediocre sitcoms, but I also find comfort in certain characters: Chidi in The Good Place and Boyle in Brooklyn 99 are comfortingly familiar – I almost switch on to keep up to date with them, as if they were friends.

George Clarke is a 25-year-old management consultant who finds similar comfort in Seinfeld characters, even though the show doesn’t make him laugh much. “Some days I might fancy Netflix’s latest psychological thriller, but most of the time I’d just prefer to sit and watch Kramer doing something ridiculous or George stuff it up with the girl of his dreams for the fourth time that season,” he says.

But couldn’t Clarke and I find our televisual buds in prestige dramas?

“I find the idea of watching prestige shows non-stop to be exhausting,”  says David Renshaw, a 30-year-old news editor, who jokes it can feel like you “need a map” to keep up with Game of Thrones. When he finishes watching something acclaimed, such as Breaking Bad, he “cleanses the palette” with shows like Masterchef or Gogglebox. “They are much lower maintenance… especially if you’re switching between TV and phone as often as I do.”

Photo: Netflix

The comfort of the mediocre is so powerful that it can often override other emotions, such as the cringing I experience during some of The Good Place’s more strained jokes. Lizzie Roberts is a 25-year-old masters student who enjoys Gilmore Girls even though she dislikes the character Lorelai’s “painfully unfunny monologues”.

“It’s my way of letting my brain reset,” she says of the show, as well as reality TV such as Towie and I’m A Celeb. “It’s not taxing, it’s tolerable.”

“Not taxing and tolerable” are perhaps the words that best sum up the complex psychological reasons we continue to watch mediocre TV during the Golden Age of Television. Streaming services like Netflix are also designed to keep us watching, with episodes auto-playing one after the other (plus it's easier to find a show you've essentially already paid for on the Netflix homepage than go out and hunt for something more prestigious).

Although watching mediocre TV can feel like a waste of time, it does seem to have a psychological purpose. When we're stressed, busy, or tired, it can be exactly the entertainment we need. Nothing is more stressful, busy, or tiring than a commute – so I'll be watching Brooklyn 99 on the train home.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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