It was inevitable, really. Plan B is probably the most high-profile British artist to address the current political climate in song and no sooner had it hit the internet than the usual grumblings could be heard. In short, they are a variation of:
- Plan B is capitalising on the perceived ‘edginess’ of the riots and at the same time glamourising them.
- People praising the song are sheltered middle-class folk who would cross the road to avoid the kids portrayed in the video but enjoy a ‘cheap holiday in other people’s misery’ in their efforts to appear ‘liberal’.
It’s infuriating. We certainly have no shortage of artists who make every effort to ignore what happens in society, or only tip a head towards events in an incredibly superficial and/or reactionary way. Yet when someone sticks their head above the parapet and acknowledges a wider role for an artist, we do our best to drag them down. It’s no wonder that so few bother to do it – they get wilfully taken out of context, they get accused of cashing in, they get accused of deigning to deliver a sermon from their Mount. Best stick to singing about love, then.
‘Ill Manors’ is the first single from the soundtrack to a film of the same name, apparently about four young people living in Forest Gate. Not coincidentally, Plan B was born and raised in Forest Gate. Although it infuriates me that we have to defend an artist singing about what’s going on in the country, I’m guessing Plan B actually has some idea of what he’s talking about. There was also a glimpse of what was to come in his Brit Awards performance last year which pre-empted the riots. Now, if that imagery of that performance had been used after August, there could be accusations of misappropriating it, but the lyrics to ‘Ill Manors’ are intelligent and thoughtful and warrant more discussion than such trite dismissals would allow. As Plan B himself puts it:
I feel it has been swept under the carpet and forgotten about and it still needs to be properly addressed. Since the riots happened I haven’t heard enough people within the public sector asking the two most important questions; ‘Why did it happen and how can we prevent it from happening again?’ Society needs to take some responsibility for the cause of these riots. Why are there so many kids in this country that don’t feel they have a future, or care about having a criminal record? If you’re born into a family that’s has enough money to educate you properly, you are privileged. You’re not better than anyone else you’re just lucky.
This is a far cry from the response of many ‘liberal’ commentors and musicians (e.g. Caitlin Moran’s plea to get the tanks out on the street or Calvin Harris’ demand to ‘shoot the dickheads’). He’s clearly thinking about this and the lyrics to ‘Ill Manors’ read as someone brilliantly, angrily doing just that.
Now, the second point. As aforementioned Moran’s response to the riots showed, it’s not unreasonable to claim that many of our commentors live in different worlds from these people, some of whom may indeed praise this video because it’s the ‘liberal’ thing to do. It’s also not unreasonable to claim that some are making a pretty nice career out of expressing ‘solidarity’. All of this should be open to discussion and criticism but personally I ultimately think…so what? I’d rather these people were out there pushing an alternative to the ‘shoot the feral scum’ narrative, whatever their background. I also find the idea that you have to explicitly be a part of the group you express an opinion about to be rather odd. Tony Benn is perhaps the most famous ‘far-left’ (certainly in today’s language, at least) politician of the past 50 years and he is an Aristocrat. If being middle/upper-class means that you could never understand life at the bottom, our entire society is pretty much fucked. As Plan B puts it:
We’ve had it with you politicians
you bloody rich kids never listen
The key word is ‘listen’. The problem is the disconnect and the sense that those in power don’t care, not a simple case of ’those in power are not working-class’. Of course, I think many of us want more working-class voices in positions of power (whether in government or the media) but if we use that desire to completely dismiss alternative voices because they aren’t working-class, aren’t we needlessly pushing for an even narrower range of voices?
Of course, we generally have no way of knowing the background of people expressing praise for this video/song. A more sinister undertone to the criticism is that people who are eloquent enough to articulate their praise for it couldn’t possibly be working-class. It’s that old thing I’ve written about again and again where the working-class is seen as something ‘out there’, a subject to be written about that no-one able to string a sentence together can really understand. We seem to want to keep our class definitions as neat (and as stereotypical) as possible to the extent that we try and ‘prove’ people aren’t working-class if they say they are. Again, this idea of ‘slumming it’ is not something that should be beyond criticism (e.g. Pulp’s ‘Common People’) but it becomes insidious if taken to mean that anyone with an education can’t possibly be working-class.
I did write when I first watched the video that it reminded me of Asian Dub Foundation’s ‘Real Great Britain’ and that I believed this tackled similar issues in a better way. This wasn’t because I had any problems with Plan B’s thoughts but because I knew it was inevitable that his explicit use of ‘riot imagery’ would cause people to ignore the words and immediately go for the arguments above. Perhaps it will only preach to the converted as a result but when you look at the apolitical train-wreck that is the current Top 40, it’s difficult not to believe that a million-selling, Brit-winning artist being playlisted on Radio 1 with this song isn’t potentially powerful. Whatever the problems with it, I think that’s something to be celebrated.