I’ve been watching the BBC’s brilliant ‘Punk Britannia‘ series for the past few weeks. I always tend to love such potted histories of genres, especially when they attempt to link the musical trends to wider socio-political issues. Of course this is particularly easy with punk, yet the eagerness to draw comparisons between the late 1970s and the present day has at times been rather clunky. A country on the verge of economic collapse, workers on strike, a ‘nation coming together’ to celebrate a royal jubilee – you get the idea. Nonetheless, it’s been striking to watch the artists of the period being interviewed. They speak of reacting against not only the politics of the period but also the culture. A picture is painted of a smothering, pervasive banality; a mass of artists with nothing to say and no interest in saying anything anyway. Glam rock, once a subversive pleasure with sinister undercurrents, had already descended into a neutered pantomime of self-parody. David Bowie had notably left glam behind with the dystopian hell of ‘Diamond Dogs’, moving swiftly onto the ‘plastic soul’ of ‘Young Americans’. T Rex were already in terminal decline, while Roxy Music were on hiatus and would return with ‘Manifesto’, a move towards accessible stadium acceptability. Even to look at a list of the biggest hits of the period is to wade through treacle – a mass of saccharine rubbish which would soon be forgotten alongside brilliant pop so removed from any societal context that it could feasibly be released tomorrow.
In this context, then, ‘God Save the Queen’ truly was radical. It’s easily forgotten (or in the case of us who weren’t yet born, not understood in the first place) now that time and distance has led to it becoming a ‘classic’ (that worst of capitalist detournements) but the storm which surrounded the Sex Pistols and this, only their second single, was something which felt truly dangerous. Indeed, it’s widely accepted now that the charts were fixed in order to prevent the song from reaching number one and even its title was blanked out on some chart run downs. It is no small irony that, 35 years later, the song was the only note of radicalism and dissent in a top 100 filled with songs about absolutely nothing.
Yesterday I also watched ‘The U.S. vs John Lennon’. There can be little doubt that in 1977 Lennon was one of the patriarchs of pop music which punk railed against yet, once again, his activities look unimaginable today. One of the biggest stars in the world not only associating with but also funding radical groups like the Black Panthers and campaigning for the release of the head of the White Panthers? Using his position to campaign against war and speak eloquently about capitalism and class (not least in ‘Working Class Hero’, included on his first post-Beatles album)? The documentary is hagiographic and certainly overstates its case but the fact remains that it’s simply impossible to imagine a 2012 equivalent of this. It’s certainly impossible to imagine John Lennon being so revered in 2012 if he was still around and still being outspoken – as with ‘God Save the Queen’, time and distance allows an easily-digestible version of Lennon to be adored.
We need only look at today’s politically and socially engaged artists and the reactions to them to see this. They don’t tend to be engaged in radicalism as Lennon was, yet even their involvement in mainstream politics is viewed with ridicule and contempt. We try and tear them apart, looking for evidence that they are hypocrites, that they aren’t living perfect lives – indeed, whenever anyone criticises John Lennon’s politics these days, it’s almost inevitably to make the trite observation that he couldn’t be a radical as he was wealthy (‘Imagine no possessions’!). I wrote earlier in the year about this exact response to Plan B for deigning to have an opinion. I have absolutely no doubt that if any of today’s stars became involved with radical politics, they would be absolutely crucified. In our post neo-liberal world the only ‘opinions’ we tolerate are those which enforce consensus politics. Thus artists will be praised for expressing utterly tedious support for gay marriage or supporting Children in Need; if they go beyond this, however, and start speaking about power and economic structures which lie behind these issues, they quickly run into opposition.
More than this – the anti-‘authenticity’ brigade would be out in force. Statements about the banality of mainstream culture such as those made by artists in ‘Punk Britannia’ would be pounced upon as ‘snobbish’, ‘superior’ and ‘sneering’. The funny thing is, they’re meant to be sneering, even superior. They aspired to something more. There was undoubtedly a streak of nihilism running through punk, yet as a movement it ultimately railed against apathy and detachment. They believed that people could shape their own destiny and that, together, people could change things. As one interviewee succinctly put it, “It’s not ‘negative’ to think about politics and the way our lives are run”. No, it’s actually hugely positive, borne out of a deep respect for people and their potential. We are capable of so much more than banality.
Yet in 2012 we undoubtedly live in an age where banality and mediocrity is encouraged. As I’ve noted, we jump on anyone who goes against the grain and our individualistic entitlement encourages a race to the bottom where any respect for popular music as an art form, capable of effecting real debate and even change, is discouraged. That horrendous Gary Barlow and Cheryl Cole debate was more representative of our time than anyone involved could ever have possibly imagined.