“The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all
They just stand back and let it all be” –
Bruce Springsteen, Jungleland (from Born To Run)
Regular readers may have noticed how I have recently been despairing about the fear of values and integrity characteristic of the Labour party and the mainstream British left in general. I now turn my attentions to art and culture. Particularly music which has been worrying me for sum years now through the deafening silence emanating from the world’s leading artists on the state of the world.
About this time last year before leaving university to enter the wider world I was talking to one of my lectures about the general political state of Britain. Both of us being similar shades of red, but my mentor being 20 plus years my senior we got talking about the depiction of politics in pop culture, and the lack of alternative political ideas in TV fiction, which in previous years where there for all to see. The BBC was at the time running the second series of its remake of Reggie Perin staring Martin Clunes as the shows eponymous hero.
The shows premise, following the travails of a man that pathologically hates his job, the modern workplace and the modern boss doesn’t seem particularly radical but it certainly appeals to virtually everyone. Especially me who at that time had gone from studying International relations, war peace and revolution to selling car insurance with Swinton (a workplace I refer to as paint stripper for the soul). What I found amazing is how Reggie Perin despite changing little from its original 1970’s formula is still perfectly comprehensible to someone born in the 80’s or 90’s. Whilst it is hard to imagine the fellow 70’s sitcom Citizen Smith starring Robert Lindsey as a Marxist ‘urban guerrilla’ in Tooting London complete” with power to the people” chants, beret, Che t shirt and Red Flag theme tune being capable of the same feet.
Watching said series recently what struck me was how this show could never work again because of its political content. Opposed to the visibly dated 70’s fashions, decor and humour that haven’t hampered the longevity of other shows from the period such as Fawlty Towers. A deeply depressing thought because it is representative of all left wing/alternative politics in Britain, they seem to have given up on the idea that they exist to change the world, not just distract us momentarily from the world’s flaws. The fact that millions can connect with a character who hates the way the world is set up is fine, everyone hates their job, but that a fact of life isn’t it? The idea of a character who actively seeks to change the world is a step to far, the world is how it is we all have to do things we don’t like, and TV (and other cultural mediums) are there to let us forget how much we don’t like life, not help us change it.
My mentor then ventured that you could measure the fate of radical Britain by Robert Lindsay. The actor who in the 70’s portrayed the Marxist leader of the tooting popular front now can be found as the dentist father in My Family. A show which I would say is a brilliant satire of the bourgeois absurdity of urbanite middle classes. But I can’t as that isn’t the show’s intention at all (even implicitly) it is the classic case of something created to anesthetise us, because thinking is too hard. If I was to try and discuss the socio economic relations on show with one of its regular watches (or one of its writers I am sure) I can’t expect much of a reply other than something along the lines of “its funny (and clever) right because their a family…..and families are supposed to love each other but they all make jokes about hating each other….”.
Betoldt Brecht the German playwright who fled Nazi Germany because of its intolerance of the expressive power of art believed “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”. The only philosophy of art clearly articulated today is “art is a cash machine and cash is the measure of art”. And yes I am sure everyone knows who I am going to stick this gripe to but I am doing it anyway: Simon Cowell. I am sure I am not the only one who finds it impossible to imagine Cowell ever having to flee for his life because he has had a hand in creating something that threatens a government anywhere.
Music used to be the ultimate forum of expression of angst, rebellion and dissatisfaction. Giving a voice to the voiceless; lifting and liberating the spirits of the even most forgotten and making us feel alive and positive when all empirical evidence tells us we’d probably be better off dead. Not anymore. The music industry today exists purely to reflect the world. Or more specifically the world as it wants it to be seen. Where music isn’t made by musicians with a story to tell but by puppets using it as an accessory to sell a life style complete with clothes, fragrances, jewellery, cars, or whatever else it is possible to use to distract from the idea that art can be rewarding spiritually not just materially, and that the world around us might require our creative criticism once in awhile
I am sure I am not the only one who can just imagine what would happen if some of music’s most iconic figures appeared on the X factor; Johnny Cash wearing black and singing about life in prison is far too depressing, no one will want to hear or see you; Bruce Springsteen you mumble too much and only sing about poor people, if you want to make it you need to think about shiny pretty things; Bob Dylan you just have a singing voice like a bizarre cat and appear to be singing about nothing at all. Admittedly this last point would probably help as singing about nothing at all seems to be the point of music today.
My favourite example is When I Grow Up by the Pussycat Dolls; the lyrics to which list things the girls dreamed about becoming when they were younger. That list included being; rich, famous, a star and driving nice cars. Tellingly being musicians, song writers or anything requiring genuine talent or passion aren’t included. The sheer vacuous nature of the majority of today’s most popular music probably means most of you reading this are straining to think who this particular group is and are a bit perplexed by the example, as they aren’t that prominent anymore, which I want to try and assure you is my point.
Okay, the music business due to the effects of technology is totally different than it was just 5 years ago, and unrecognisable to way it was in the 60’s and 70’s when the greatest political musicians thrived. And there are bright spots today such as the inspired and inspiring Frank Turner but I can’t be the only one dismayed that there aren’t more protest singers out there in a county that a week ago tour itself apart on the streets, and whose government has spent the last year (in preparation for the next four) bludgeoning the young, the poor, the bewildered and the lost into a stupor so they don’t realise there being left to rot so those who already have the means to help themselves can help themselves to even more of life’s pleasures. Most “musicians” never dream of making music for these people, they make music so they can make the money they dream of and thus get as far away from these people as possible.
Politicians; journalists; business leaders; religious leaders and sports men and women have all disgraced themselves through the never ending scandals, and ridiculous lifestyles they indulge in and that we have been subjected to over the last few years. Cultural icons have disgraced themselves through their detachment from our reality and their insistence that their job is to help us forget that bad things happen opposed to helping us resolve them. We all need role models capable of inspiring us, adults more so than children because adults have the capacity to appreciate how truly terrifying the world can be.
We all need someone or something to believe in, that truly embodies the qualities we find valuable and inspire us to believe it is possible for us all to create and achieve our own definition of greatness and fulfilment. Most importantly someone that can prove to us we don’t all need to be the same to be happy. As much as we need another Rage Against the Machine to scream “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” at the established order we need another Oscar Wilde to chide us for obsessing over “knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing”.
I don’t want anyone to get the idea I am solely picking on pop. I don’t believe there to be a distinction between high and low culture, apart from an arbitrary and meaningless one. Proved to me by Professor John Street another of my university tutor’s and a leading analyst of politics and popular culture who demonstrated how the composition of the album Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band is far more complex and intricate than that found in some of the most prestigious classical music including Beethoven and Wagner. It must be remembered that the plays of Shakespeare, today’s epitome of high art, were entertainment for the masses in their day akin premiership to football matches today.
Admittedly in my mind creates the nightmarish thought that in hundreds of years’ time the most respected actors and scholars of the age will be found disassembling and reassembling Big Brother, and Sex and the City. Convinced that there must be something present that explores and sheds validating light on the human condition or else why would so many people have dedicated so much of their lives to their viewing? Little knowing that it was to avoid doing exactly this which is why people happily sat themselves in front of the comforting glow of shows creating the blissful state of ignorance.
Perhaps I am just irate because complaining about music film and television the way I just have makes me feel old. If possible I think I have found a post modern way of complaining at least. The most stereotypical complaint the music I listen to receives from older generations to myself is “you can’t understand the words” (in reference to punk, or metal where the point is to express anger and teenage inarticulate-ness…obviously) Whereas my complaint about today’s music is I can understand the words but it doesn’t matter because when you put them together you realise the singer hasn’t got anything to say!!