Here Chris Hedges offer the kind of angrily coruscating analysis of power which would see you dismissed as a ‘trot’ in mainstream political circles in the UK. In fitting with neoliberalism’s reduction of politicians to a manager class, it has become de rigueur to present yourself as being reasonable and concerned with matters of realpolitik, as if this is not in itself shot through with ideology. I was surrounded by such attitudes at university, prematurely middle-aged youngsters speaking of ‘tough choices’ and viewing power as something to aspire to rather than an almost-endless series of relationships, often hidden from plain sight, which governed the world around them. The past year has, of course, brought a series of scandals which has offered us a small glimpse into many of these relationships – yet many of the politically-engaged keep parroting the same lines, shoving their fingers in their ears and labelling anyone who seeks to expose, understand and even destroy these relationships as an extremist.

The American election which Hedges writes about offered yet another example of how degraded our politics has become. Some would call it ‘post-ideological’, I’m sure. I wrote previously about how in many quarters it became little more than a contest between the one commonly-viewed to be the ‘good guy’ and the one commonly-viewed to be the ‘bad guy’. What was perhaps more shocking than this was how power became reduced to a checklist of utter banalities, separate from any real-life impact. I saw several columns in support of Obama which did acknowledge his use of torture, his complete disregard for the rule of law and civil liberties (to name but two of Hedges’ concerns.) Yet they were presented as marks in a column looking at his good and bad points, counter-balanced by his positive words about gay people, his rhetoric about ‘ordinary Americans’. Of course we all must do this to a degree – but if we have dearly held principles, there would also surely come a time where we drew a line in the sand and said “No more. Not in my name.” We have become so brutalised and desensitised that ‘he kills thousands of people with no explanation, justification or oversight, but I like his tax policies’ is viewed as the argument of reasonable people while those who focus on the former are tarred as puritanical radicals, demanding the world from their well-meaning elected representatives.

I wrote frequently during the Summer about how efforts to discuss the Olympics and, to a lesser extent, the Jubilee celebrations as political events were greatly frowned upon. You were again liable to be viewed as a bitter crank, overly critical for the sake of it. Yet we should always be critical of the narratives which govern our worlds, in the sense of questioning them and how they serve power. Instead, this critical approach so maligned in ‘the political sphere’ (as if anything can possibly be outside of this) is diverted to the sphere of entertainment, where critical thought has become scathing skepticism and knee-jerk cynicism. We consume our entertainment while believing ourselves to be ‘above’ it, from X Factor and 50 Shades of Gray to Twilight and reality tv shows. We believe we understand how these things work, how they seek to manipulate us and play with our expectations. We share endless Youtube clips to engage with our peers in laughing at them, tearing them apart, asserting our dominance over a culture which we instinctively refuse to view with any sincerity.

This form of critical thinking is largely empty and perhaps even damaging. Fundamentally, there are no principles involved here – we don’t ridicule because these things offend our sense of what culture should be, rather they exist solely so that we may ridicule them. So we have an enormously odd arrangement where a critical approach to entertainment (albeit a corrosive, empty one) is celebrated while one which speaks of politics and power is beyond the pale. It’s notable that one of these approaches leads absolutely nowhere while the other threatens to ‘radicalise’ people.

Of course, so-called radicalisation is only part of a path and a critical approach to power which stops at your front door is arguably one which is as much about flattering egos as choosing the ‘good guy’ is. This is another common criticism of ‘trots’ – that they are either inactive, or engage in actions which have little effect, merely in order to feel right rather than engage in often-difficult and laborious reform. To the extent that our politics has increasingly become an extension of our egos rather than our principles, this is probably accurate to some degree. The crucial point however is that it’s accurate to some degree for people of every political hue, with countless people engaged in ‘mainstream’ politics doing/achieving little yet enjoying a smug superiority because they have hooked their wagon to something larger and frequently unchallenged (and the fixation on reformism is undoubtedly one of the manifestations of real politik.)

Personally, I think that the true challenge with your politics is how you live it day to day, not how it manifests itself on marches, protests and so forth. This isn’t for a second to deny the importance of the latter. Yet they offer platforms for political action, opportunities to be part of something bigger. As incredibly important as that is, it’s far more difficult to articulate your principles and attempt to live a life true to them in your office each day, or with your family, or with your peers. Because it is here that you again and again will encounter the dominant sense that any significant deviation from commonly-accepted interpretations (ways of interpreting, even) is bitter, angry, sad, smug, superior and countless other aspersions. It’s here that you are personally challenged. Of course, it’s important to guard against the temptation to fragment the world into those who understand and those who do not. It’s so easy to see yourself as a true believer and this offers only a self-gratifying cul de sac as ultimately pointless as the idea of the ‘trot’. Engaging with people, especially those who challenge your views, is the only way to prevent this.

Hedges’ piece undoubtedly reads as pessimistic and would be portrayed by some as nihilistic. Given its source, it’s debatable whether it will reach anyone who isn’t already sympathetic to its argument. This will be enough for many to dismiss it as the self-gratifying ramblings of a bitter man (much like my much less well-written blog!) Yet those who instinctively feel that urge would do well to question why it is so, especially when it is so rarely the approach taken to opinion pieces which parrot more conventional views. It is clear that Hedges has been on an intellectual journey regarding his beliefs, his principles, his identity even, and this rigorous questioning of the things we hold dear can only be healthy.

Death of the liberal class

Cheryl Cole: She’s Not About That

I’ve written before about how Cheryl Cole is basically a television personality who ‘sings’ and, with the promo for her new album kicking off, that is now clearer than ever. I want to take a few moments to look at what she says about certain attitudes towards pop music.

A couple of weeks ago she appeared on ‘The Voice’ and jumped around a lot while miming:

Sure, it takes some chutzpah to mime on a show called ‘The Voice’ but the response from her supporters (and supporters of a certain idea of pop) was instant and obvious – she’s not about singing live and all those ideas of ‘authenticity’ beloved of ‘music snobs’. She’s a vehicle for pop songs and her ‘talent’ is her charisma.

Now, let’s take that at face value. Let’s ignore the fact that the song she is a vehicle for is derivative pap which desperately wants to be ‘We Found Love’. Let’s even ignore the fact that the above argument was almost always followed up by ‘Anyway, she IS singing beneath a backing track!’ which rendered them utterly self-defeating. Let’s look at this instead:

Here, Cheryl is most definitely singing live. And it’s absolutely dreadful. The entire thing is a car crash – more than that, a motorway pile-up. Aside from sounding horrible, she seems utterly flat and blank, as if she feels completely exposed. There is no ‘charisma’ here. So no, Cheryl is most definitely not about singing. So why is she there, then? Because she’s here in her role as a personality. That woman from Girls Aloud whose husband cheated on her and who cried a lot on ‘The X Factor’. Her role is really no different from that of Miranda who introduced her – she’s a face that people recognise and generally like. Being presented as one of the nation’s favourite pop stars, then, confuses this and ultimately demeans pop.

Cheryl being of modest talents is absolutely fine when she’s part of the team that is Girls Aloud. I use ‘team’ in the widest sense as the song-writing and production of Xenomania are as much part of Girls Aloud as the five women are. This is a singular vision – an often daring, exciting one which five women of varying talent present magnificently. It is evidently irrelevant if they write their music, just as it was irrelevant that The Supremes performed songs written within the Motown factory. Everyone involved has their role and it just works.

As a solo artist, Cheryl is front and centre and her shortcomings are woefully obvious. She is a dreadful singer and even on record her voice isn’t unique enough to be instantly identifiable (unlike, say, Diana Ross). The songs she’s performing are brought to her and intended to be generic enough that they could be performed by a plethora of interchangeable pop stars. She has absolutely nothing to say (even back in the infamous Times interview where Nicola Roberts expresses her reactionary right-wing views, Cheryl is clearly too media-savvy to say anything beyond throw some tidbits about her celebrity partner and celebrity spats) yet aims for a ‘Northern lass done good’ persona which prevents her becoming a fascinating vacuum like Britney. 

Yet aforementioned personality, combined with a classical beauty, was formed in front of millions and has made her a mainstay of the gossip magazines. Cheryl Cole is comparable to the stars of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and the responses to both are similar – they are working-class folk ‘done good’, achieving a strange celebrity where viewers/readers feel they know them and what they actually do is secondary. It’s not difficult to imagine Cheryl presenting shows on ITV2 a la Mark Wright – the only difference is that she has come from a pop band. So that’s where  Cheryl the personality goes. The music is completely subservient to the brand that is ‘Cheryl’; at times, in fact, it seems completely irrelevant (as I’ve noted before, Cheryl’s miming on ‘X Factor’ demonstrated astounding contempt for the contestants whose singing she was judging). It’s pop as the path-of-least-resistance, ‘will this do?’ songs which are intended to do nothing more than sell. Any concept of pop as an art form or as a performer and song as a skillful, deliberate match capable of something transcendent is absent. Cheryl is the product to be sold and, as with Peter Andre, pop is merely part of the whole brand. She is literally a step above having a cd player placed on a stage and someone pressing ‘play’. Pop done well is an art and art necessarily involves human creativity – if all we cared about was whether a song was ‘catchy’ or not, we could literally listen to the product of a computer which had been programmed with algorithms for countless pop hits. Perhaps it would be catchy – it certainly wouldn’t have any soul. That is the logical conclusion of the argument that it is irrelevant what Cheryl does. The funny thing is, plenty of people have brand loyalty to inanimate objects and it’s easy to imagine some dystopian future where people bicker over whether equivalents of Apple or Microsoft produce the best pop songs.

Really, when people justify Cheryl’s lack of involvement – in every possible sense –  in her own pop music by saying that it’s not what she’s about, they are more right than they know. She’s not about pop; certainly not about music. She’s about fame-as-product. I think pop music deserves better.

‘X Factor’, Britney Spears and ‘The Voice’

When ‘X-Factor’ first arose from the ashes of ‘Pop Idol’ in 2004, it was intended to be different. Michelle McManus had won the second ‘Pop Idol’ and, while undoubtedly a nice person and able to carry a tune, she was by no means a pop star. As its name suggests, then, ‘’X-Factor’ was intended to be about more than singing. It explicitly aimed to recognise that there was something almost indefinable which made a truly great pop star – something which made a mediocre singer like Madonna infinitely more interesting than ten thousand big-voiced pub singers.

It was certainly an interesting concept but one which (whether by design or by necessity) was quickly jettisoned. “It’s a singing competition!” became a mantra for the judges and audience alike, though even that became less true as the series progressed. In the endless chase for ratings it became very much a modern reality show, emphasising the personalities of the ‘contestants’ and ramping up the cruelty and contrived conflict at every opportunity. In the 2011 series Misha B was arguably the only contestant who had ‘it’, yet she was mercilessly undermined for dramatic effect and we ended up with three bland acts in the final (though certainly Little Mix are enough of a blank canvas to facilitate some decent pop singles). In short, ‘X-Factor’ these days shows nothing but contempt for pop music. ‘Talent’ is defined as being a) likeable and b) being able to hold a tune, and little else. Acts with a sense of their own artistic identity are maligned. ‘Versatility’ is fetishised but in a very narrow sense equated with the willingness to sing anything that sells records. The biggest crime of all is a desire to be creatively involved – if you want to do well from ‘X-Factor’, do not under any circumstances say that you wish to write your own material or, God forbid, aren’t particularly interested in ‘pop music’ (in its most narrowest sense  – taken to mean dance-pop).

It is perhaps naive to believe that it was ever different yet the show’s progression/degeneration can be easily traced in the lineage of its judging panel. It initially began with three industry people who could ostensibly spot ‘talent’. From there we have overwhelmingly moved to more ratings-driven choices, with each judge playing a set ‘role’. You could conceivably argue that people like Cheryl Cole or Tulisa are meant to illustrate the original concept of being pop stars despite rather modest talents, yet this is nonsensical given the decisive shift away from that idea. Indeed, when Cheryl launched her solo career on the show she mimed her performance, a quite staggering display of contempt for both contestants and audience of the ‘singing competition’. It both highlighted and undermined the charade – Cheryl is a pop star who began life as a tv personality and, despite the frequent brilliance of Girls Aloud, the latter has remained her most prominent role. This meant that she could perform as a tv personality – the singing (and even the song) were incidental. We are encouraged to buy into the person as an individual brand. This is the idea of a pop star being pushed by ‘X-Factor’ – a personality first, a singer second, an ‘artist’ a very distant afterthought. In this sense Olly Murrs is the archetypal contestant – someone who is able to present tv shows while churning out catchy, undemanding singles – while Leona Lewis’ swift decline could be attributed to her failure as a ‘personality’.

What ‘X Factor’ has become has reached its apotheosis with the appointment of Britney Spears as a judge on ‘X Factor USA’. She is in many ways the perfect ‘X-Factor’ pop star – Britney as a brand & persona long ago eclipsed Britney as a person. It’s almost irrelevant to ponder Britney as an artist because she is the ultimate blank canvas, reflecting everything and nothing, at once devoid of personality and containing everyone’s personalities. She may still put out albums but really, at this stage, no-one would bat an eyelid if she was used to advertise hedge funds.

It is a dead-eyed idea of pop as something which, at its best, sells. That becomes its primary purpose and, to this aim, it must not be demanding, difficult, too interesting or have aspirations towards being an art form (other than as, perhaps, a Warholian commentary on the cultural void at the heart of pop which has been replaced by the marketplace).

The launch of ‘The Voice’ in deliberate contrast to ‘X-Factor’ has been interesting. It already seems clear that it cannot hope to even begin to challenge the notions of pop disseminated by the latter. Yet in some ways it seems like a sincere effort. The instant admission that the contestants have all been pre-vetted is a hugely positive move, moving away from the deliberate cruelty and humiliation of the audition stages of ‘X-Factor’. It does try to avoid the traps of modern reality tv with its emphasis on the contest rather than the contestant. We aren’t led to believe that the contestants all mess around in a house together; there are no ‘profiles’ of each individual every week and no ironic ‘quizzes’ wherein we are encouraged to ‘get to know’ the individuals. It displays a very self-conscious interest in ‘talent’, from its judges performing live to contestants who play instruments and speak about song-writing.

All of this is much mocked, usually with an appeal to the oft-derided notion of ‘authenticity’. This criticism works in two ways – firstly to suggest that the show is obsessed with the sneering notion of ‘real music’, secondly by highlighting that it’s a tv show and involves manipulation and so isn’t actually ‘authentic’. I think the first is unfair – I don’t think the show is overly concerned with ‘real music’ in the sense of any specific genre or even the idea that artists write songs – indeed, the two favourites to win, Ruth Brown and Jaz, are simply singers. However they are singers who seem to be treated with respect, guided to improve and grow in confidence without artificial hoops to jump through such as singing ‘big band’ or whatever. The ‘authenticity’ being pursued is one that is in opposition to the ’X-Factor’ ideal of blankness. Yet it almost goes back to ‘Pop Idol’ and its idea that a good voice is enough. Madonna certainly wouldn’t make it past the pre-audition stage of ‘The Voice’.

The second criticism, though largely facile, does inadvertently highlight another big problem with ‘The Voice’ – it doesn’t quite work as a tv show. In avoiding the contrivances which make ‘X-Factor’ entertaining and aiming for an ostentatious sincerity, it ultimately misses both the entertainment of a trashy reality show and the honesty which it aims for. How could it not? The American version is far more astute regarding this and is based almost entirely around the relationship between the superstar judges.

Ultimately, I do prefer ‘The Voice’ to ‘X Factor’. The latter feels exploitative and unpleasant; I feel grubby when I watch it. The greatest crime of the former to date is that it’s a bit dull. I suppose if there’s a ‘lesson’ here it’s that pop music can never be reduced to a magic formula which works on television. ‘X Factor’ is explicitly aimed at a television audience while ‘The Voice’ naively aims itself at an audience who will appreciate ‘good singing’, assuming that this is enough. Both, perhaps, contribute to the reduction of pop music to a talent show and the increasing emphasis on pop stars as next-door ‘personalities’. To coin a phrase, the next pop revolution will not be televised.

This is of note purely for this:

It’s the erosion of true character – especially vocal character – in favour of spurious “personality” that may be talent-show telly’s most damaging effect on pop.

Yes yes and yes. I said to the MANMYTHLEGEND Wotyougot.com the other day that, the way pop is these days, artists like Madonna and Prince would never become hugely popular because they never had ‘reality show’ personalities. Witness the hysterically overblown response to Lady Gaga hugging some reality show contestant she had met (at best) hours before. Once we revelled in our pop stars being slightly alien creatures, now we fawn over their insincere interactions with ‘the plebs’.

X Factor and its ilk are hugely depressing circles that most people never seem to cotton onto. The contestents in the shows have to fit into very defined and digestible boxes. Anyone stepping outwith these boxes is completely crucified. People with passable-to-very good voices and inoffensive personalities – Olly Murrs, Rebecca Ferguson, Marcus whateverhissurname is, Little Mix – are lauded out of all proportion to their abilities. Yet every year the same complaints will be made that most of the contestants are boring, as if the above response is disconnected and of no relevance.

Being old enough to have been around when X Factor began, I remember distinctly that it started as a response to ‘Pop Idol’ being a ‘singing competition’. In interviews Simon Cowell would mention people like Madonna and David Bowie as artists who would never do well on a ‘Pop Idol’ format. That’s where the name came from – the idea was that they would find pop stars with ‘the x factor’ – that indefinable quality that makes a technically mediocre singer like Madonna one of the greatest pop stars in history above hundreds of accomplished wailers. This purpose was quickly forgotten and now I hear people who work for record labels praising the fact that people like Marcus and Little Mix are ‘blank slates’ waiting on managers, producers and songwriters to do whatever they want with. Someone with a strong sense of their artistic identity such as Matt Cardle or Misha B (whether you like their music or not) finds that it counts against them. ‘Pop music’ becomes about what sells, and what sells is a chirpy personality saying inoffensive things and singing catchy songs which fall into an ever diminishing range (electro-pop, sub-Winehouse r&b, MOR balladeering).

Of course, it’s hugely relevant that the vast majority of people who watch and vote for these shows are not big music listeners, if they are music listeners at all. There is no sense of pop music as something that can be profound, something that has real value. It is treated as plastic entertainment, a degrading approach which would be pounced upon were it to be verbalised. Indeed, I gathered from a ferocious response on Twitter that one of the contestants on X Factor last week said that they didn’t like pop music. The people treating such a statement with scorn would do well to think about what ‘respect’ X Factor actually has for pop music in the first place. It has none.

Arts & Ents | Music | Reviews Album: Olly Murs, In Case You Didn’t Know

Impossible Dreams

Last weekend I had a chat with a friend about growing up. Specifically about the moment when you accept that, in all likelihood, your life is going to be pretty average. You’re not going to be famous. You’re not going to hugely wealthy. You’ll make no more or less contribution to the wider world than countless other people. You’ll be one life amongst billions, forgotten in a few generations.

For some, it’s quite a big deal having this realisation. If you’ve somehow been convinced for much of your life that you’re going to be famous and/or wildly successful and/or will change the world, it could be a huge blow to your whole identity to face up to a rather more obscure and low-key life. That’s a very obvious example and it could (probably will?) be a lot more subtle than that. You could have spent decades chasing status amongst and the approval of your peers only to realise that this is always going to be just ahead of you, just beyond your grasp. We all want to feel important, after all. 

During this chat I mentioned a very interesting article which I read a couple of weeks ago. Its basic point (or at least what I took from it) was that only two or three generations ago, the problem with the class system was that it made most dreams seem out of reach for the vast majority of people. Yet, it argued, what was now the case was that the class system had adapted to present different dreams as being within the reach of everybody. Dreams which didn’t threaten the system, dreams which didn’t actually further social mobility in any meaningful way. ‘The Apprentice’, ‘The X Factor’, ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and countless other reality shows present images of ‘betterment’ which don’t rely on self-improvement, education and personal toil (personal as in not done for the benefit of your peers). Instead they push ‘being yourself’, even if the ‘yourself’ in question does not possess any particularly admirable qualities or character. They push a sense that the dreams they dangle could happen to anyone within a matter of weeks, if you just have the right temperament and are ‘entertaining’ enough. They push entitlement, competition and the idea that other people are obstacles or tools on your way to success – no more, no less. The qualities they elevate and enforce are a neoliberal dream of individualism and solipsism – you can make it if you just try hard enough, that’s the only force that matters and any curiosity about the wider world is foolish. Do not question how power operates. Do not question what you are told is ‘natural’. Do not question what is ‘accepted’.

I thought of all this when I saw that Vice Magazine thing about Dalston. However caricatured the characters in it were, they merely represented a wider attitude which Vice Magazine is very much a part of. This is the fetishism of ‘creativity’. In common with the above shows, stemming from the same place as them (and now reinforced by them) they present creativity as an almost supernatural quality which is possessed by a blessed view and exists in a way which can be easily seen and understood by the mere mortals around them. This is the more mundane yet ingenious version of the non-threatening ‘dream’ that is dangled in front of us. It is perhaps even more mundane than the dream of chasing wealth because at least, in the unlikely event that you become wealthy, you become a powerful player in the system (albeit one unlikely to wish to change it). ‘Success’ in being ‘a creative’ tends to be measured in a far more limited and localised way. So people scramble to be photographers, to be writers, to be actors, to be film makers, to be artists, to be creatives and so many of them don’t really have any idea why just as, 20 years ago, so many would chase money just because it was the done thing. The idea that creativity resides in every single person, that creativity can be an intensely private thing and still have value, the idea that self-improvement is perhaps the most powerful form of creativity possible – this has all been lost.

This isn’t to argue that people shouldn’t chase dreams, not at all. In growing up, however, there is huge value to be found in questioning the dreams which hang heavily in the air; value to be found in thinking about what is truly valuable both in terms of our own lives and in how we perceive others. Even if you are pursuing something that you really love, there is value and enormous freedom to be found in accepting (if indeed you must) that you are not going to be a ‘success’ at it in terms of how most judge success. Whether you are famous/wealthy/renowned or otherwise, your life is creative and your life can always be a success.

One of the people who inspired the conversation I mentioned at the start is indeed chasing one of those traditional dreams. But they’re getting older now. They have a family and the responsibilities that come with that. The ‘X Factor’ interpretation of this would be that, even if the dream has to be put on hold because of these responsibilities, you should keep chasing it and never give up. I think the grown up (and only possible happy) interpretation of that is to think how fortunate your life is that you can do something you love and have people who love you, even if you have to balance it with some things you have to do which you don’t enjoy as much as the other stuff but do nonetheless because of dignity, love, pride and a desire to always keep trying to do better. Isn’t that creative? Isn’t that, ultimately, a success?

Another article about the lack of overt political messages, or even a political context, in today’s popular music (this time from an American perspective). Yesterday I mentioned Marilyn Manson’s statement that he ‘preferred’ Republican Presidents as people raged against them and aspects of that sentiment are echoed here by Dorian Lynskey. I wasn’t referring to music when I mentioned it but rather the protest that has been, if not exactly sweeping, then massively increasing across the UK in the past year. It’s difficult not to wonder if it would be happening if Labour had regained power and implemented a cuts programme – not because the action is unjustified but because a right-wing ‘centre-left’ party can get away with things that their explicitly right-wing counterparts would find much more difficult (the introduction of tuition fees and the increasing marketisation of the NHS being perfect examples.) So yes, it would make sense that Obama being in the White House would stifle the tendency of musicians to speak out. That doesn’t explain the equal lack of activity in the UK, where we have an aggressively right-wing government facing a weak opposition party.

The effects of the media and technology could be investigated and debated for years to come (I’ve long said that we will have no idea how much technology is changing us in very fundamental ways until long after it has already happened, if we realise at all) but it does sadly seem to have become a truism that a ‘political’ musician is an absurd notion worthy of ridicule. It’s as if our collective judgement of popular music has regressed to the days before anyone took it seriously as an artform and now all people want from it is dancing and synthetic, obstentatious emotion. This has gone hand in hand with the acceleration of the ‘Idol’-isation of music. On these ‘reality’ shows you progress if you fit into an easily digested box, don’t stray from it, keep smiling and do what you’re told. If you can have a ‘journey’ which involves you having trite realisations about your self-worth and crying, all the better. If you actually love music, have a firm idea of what you want to be and are not afraid to speak about it, you’re doomed. Our celebration of blankess and conformity reaches ever more perverse heights and where does an opinionated, politically aware pop star fit into that? They’d do better to shut up and sing another song about clubbing.

At the Protests, the Message Lacks a Melody

Seriousness needs to be pursued and protected. It cannot be magicked into life by august committees, as each crisis unfolds in our public life. It ultimately comes down to our own individual choices and priorities.

This is quite an interesting article and ties in quite neatly with some recent conversations I’ve had about the “Age of Irony”. I don’t think this is confined to our public life (where Prime Ministers feel the need to comment on ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘X Factor’ in order to have the right image) but is woven through our whole society. Being ‘serious’ is not seen as a desirable quality. Being “too serious” is a big turn-off. It’s all about being ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ and ‘not taking yourself too seriously’, which often doesn’t seem to mean being able to laugh at yourself and your foibles but being able to discuss reality tv in great detail.

When I look around me it seems that there is a common fear of being serious and/or sincere. Entire relationships are conducted under the guise of ‘an irony that scorched everything it touched’ (as Coupland brilliantly put it) and people perform a personality for each other, contorting to make things easy for each other. Don’t break the spell, don’t undermine the performance and whatever you do, don’t be ‘serious’. It’s a superficiality which seems to pervasively overwhelm and flatten all social interactions so that absolutely everything becomes merely another way of illustrating the character. This will, counterintuitively, sometimes involve brief ostentatious and insincere touching on ‘serious’ matters as one character seeks to demonstrate that, hey, they can chat about BIG ISSUES as well as ‘The Only Way is Essex’. In the Age of Irony this is what counts as a ‘well-rounded individual’. It struck me in several of the responses I saw to Amy Winehouse’s death where people took time out from their rigid jollity to suddenly develop a very public concern for perceived ‘serious’ events that were happening in the world. This interest appeared to develop for no other reason than to berate others for earnestly responding to Winehouse’s death. This was a betrayal of the performance. ‘Hey, if you’re going to be serious, I can be more serious than you!’

Much of this thinking stems from my sitting in a bar and suddenly being aware of a very earnest discussion that was happening next to me. It was completely jarring for me to hear two people quietly chatting in public about various things with seeming disregard as to how others would perceive them or their subject matter. Some of what I heard wasn’t far off the author’s example of “I would be able to discuss human rights in Uzbekistan in the pub without being laughed at” and it struck me that so many of us have become used to a self-enforced censorship where we wouldn’t dare venture to be so earnest in general company, at least not without serially undermining what we were saying with humourous nods to the character such discussions would be perceived to ‘belong’ to. In short, it was jarring to hear two people having an exchange where each seemed genuinely interested in what the other had to say and weren’t just using each other to validate a self-image.

Politics on a personal level has been warped by this too. It fascinates me that we are all eager to be seen to have opinions but as soon as you draw links between what someone says/does and their political beliefs, this is frequently seen as going ‘too far’ and being ‘too serious’. Politics is seen as some completely separate and intensely private realm which must only be ventured into carefully and with mutual consent. Believing that someone’s political beliefs are an integral part of their personality is seen as pompous and while we will happily argue with each other about whether we like Cheryl Cole, we will keep clear of anything that could be perceived as ‘political’. Then, despite this unspoken agreement, we will attack anyone who presents a discussion of pop culture devoid of social or political context as being in any sense ‘lightweight’ as being a ‘snob’ (and there is a clear link to be made between this and the ‘Golden Snitch’ argument I made here).

Perhaps this has all come across as rambling nonsense. It’s something I’m still very much thinking through and the conversations I’ve had about it in the past week have been enormously stimulating (and perhaps those very conversations completely destroy my argument?!). If you feel you have any thoughts to contribute, please do!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/02/hackgate-trivia-911-new-seriousness

The ‘Golden Snitch’ argument: ‘snobbery’ and the working-class

Last night I finally got around to reading this piece on ‘scripted reality shows’ and my heart sank when, almost inevitably, Paul Flynn’s defence of them began with:

You can sniff the snobbery at 20 paces here. Yes, of course there are lovely middle-class people in Newcastle who have dinner parties discussing their trips to exhibits at the Sage and Baltic, but they’d make deathly dull TV and wouldn’t want to be on it, anyway.

and adding:

Regional types exist on TV because they exist in life.

and celebrating that:

In the unforgiving, compelling frames of reality TV, people really are, as Dave Gahan once sang, just people.

The instant recourse to ‘snobbery’ and class as a defence of the shows is something I have heard time and time again, despite being one that falls apart even in the hands of its user. Flynn acknowledges that Made In Chelsea is about ‘Posh West Londoners’. Is Flynn arguing that these shows are only hated by ‘middle-class’ people with a snobbery about both working-class people and ‘posh’ people?! You would hope not, since such a position would be incoherent.

The bottom line of the argument is quite clear: these shows portray working-class people being working-class, and if you dislike them you are a class snob. It’s like some perverse rhetorical game of Quidditch with ‘working-class’ as the Golden Snitch – whomever manages to claim it most effectively instantly wins the argument (does referencing Quidditch make me a snob?!). It’s a pernicious tactic which is used in many different spheres of life. As the recent media brouhaha has neatly demonstrated once again, the tabloids excuse the nastier elements of what they do with an appeal to the ‘ordinary/working-class person’ who apparently wants to read everything they print. When Hugh Grant appeared on Question Time and eloquently demolished the morality of the tabloid media, he was asked ‘Who are you to tell ordinary people what to read?’ (Grant’s response of ‘Who is Murdoch to tell us who to vote for?’ was a brilliant reposte, quickly revealing that such demagogic arguments are invariably a smokescreen for the influence and interests of the powerful.) Again, the bottom line is clear: if you criticise the tabloids printing dubious stories about celebrity affairs etc, you are attacking the working-class and are a snob (and again, it’s not an argument which really holds together given the strong middle-class readership of papers like the News of the World).

It’s a frequent argument in politics too. Usually it is again used to mask and defend the interests of the powerful, even if well-intentioned. The current project of ‘Blue Labour’ is a perfect example. It summarises its appeal to the working-class as “faith, family and flag”, arguing that this community is fundamentally conservative and Labour should defend its interests and identity. I won’t write an essay on Blue Labour here but suffice to say that its appeal to working-class conservative is implicitly an appeal to a white working-class (though of late this has become rather explicit, with Glasman’s courting of the EDL and recent demand to stop immigration). The way it speaks about this community has the air of people who haven’t met a working-class person in decades telling everyone else what they think and relying on the Golden Snitch argument to undermine any and all criticism. No real evidence is offered for this working-class conservatism. The spectre of organisations like the BNP is wheeled out as justification, conveniently ignoring the fact that research suggests that there is no correlation between being working-class and supporting the BNP, and that it in fact it is the lower middle-class who are most represented in its supporters.

When did everyone become so scared of criticising anything that is perceived as working-class, to the extent that quite indefensible ideas go unchallenged for fear of being labelled a ‘snob’? Isn’t it more malign to argue that the vacant, self-obsessed characters (of all classes) typical of scripted reality represent the working-class and that any educated person attacking this is a snob? The implication here is that working-class people cannot be educated, eloquent and engaged without somehow being a class traitor. This is drivel. The implication with the tabloid argument is that you cannot be working-class and try to be moral and/or believe that much of the substance of tabloid ideology is debasing and damaging without being a class traitor. This is drivel. The implication of the Blue Labour argument is that you cannot be working-class and believe that racism and bigotry in working-class people is their own responsiblity, and inexcusable, without being a class traitor. This is drivel.

We should not be fighting to ‘level down’ by romanticising stupidity, bigotry and prurience as working-class ‘qualities’. They cut across class boundaries and they are open to criticism wherever they may be found. We also should not be fighting for a world where ‘working-class’ is romanticised to the point where everyone is scared to criticise anything which identifies with it – especially other working-class people, the vast majority of whom do not watch scripted reality shows, do not read the News of the World and do not vote for extremist parties.

I am unasamedly working-class, grew up in a working-class community and had (and continue to have) many working-class friends. I think education is a good thing. I think being engaged in the world around you is a good thing. I think believing racism and bigotry is wrong no matter where it is found is a good thing. Am I typical of the working-class? Maybe I am…some would say I’m not. Am I a snob? If you believe that, I think it says more about your own attitudes to class than anything else.

Read all about it

It goes without saying (though it’s probably still worth saying it) that the latest in the News International phone-hacking scandal is beyond the pale. Completely indefensible in every way. I couldn’t care less if The Sun and News of the World went down the pan (though I know they won’t) and everyone working at those rags was thrown onto the dole.

 It strikes me that there is a wider point to this whole affair, however. As it stands, the likelihood is that this will follow the same trajectory as the outrage that followed Princess Diana’s death: the media will isolate a certain section of itself (the paparazzi then; NOTW now) and condemn it, declare it unacceptable, demand that standards are raised (though the failure of other tabloids to do this today speaks volumes about their own practices). Readers generally will join in. There may be short-term boycotts, promises of change and ‘codes of conduct’. Then…it will all blow over and we’ll all be back where we started. The paparazzi went back to their business without comment and, at some point, the tabloids are going to return to underhand (perhaps illegal) methods to gain ‘stories’.

 And why? Well, just look at the stories which DO dominate the tabloids today. Utter drivel about some celebrities built around grainy paparazzi photographs, reported fights and reconciliations which have such detail that they are either made up or obtained in ways that are, at the very least, morally dubious. This is the bread and butter of the tabloids and there must be a reason for that. It sells. It sells in the same way that Heat magazine sells, or ‘documentaries’ following the latest Kerry Katona breakdown sell, or ‘simulated reality’ shows which promise the amoral participants a taste of ‘tabloid fame’ sell. There is a line to be drawn between all of these things and yet we do all that we can to avoid drawing it, and compartmentalise our tastes. It’s alright for us to watch the debasement and humiliation of people if they are willing participants. But surely, taken to an extreme, this is exactly the appetite which the tabloids are seeking to satiate with phone-hacking? They want ever more personal, ever more extreme, ever more embarrassing stories about public figures, even if the people in question are only in the public for horrific reasons that are not of their own choosing.

 If anything is to really, fundamentally change, I think each and every one of us needs to accept some personal responsibility for the society we live in. We need to try and stop fuelling the demand for all of this shit and recognise that our prurience and delight in devouring rubbish about public figures has real consequences for everyone. It collectively debases us. In supporting the purveyors of this we are supporting a specific ideology and encouraging (not merely allowing) the debasement of public life, of our politics, of our morality. To coin a phrase, we are all in this together.

Even catching the trailers for all of these ‘reality shows’ (a true perversion of the term if ever there was one) makes me feel like we’re living in the last days of Rome. Television devoid of any thought or merit whatsoever beyond purient voyeurism at truly horrible people. Ignorant, apolitical, greedy, amoral, superficial fame-hungry idiots with absolutely nothing to say and given an enormous platform on which to say it. It’s bad enough that one of the sole purposes of the shows seems to be so that we can all feel superior to what’s on screen; worse is that there seems to be an underlying encouragement to see these people as lovable, harmless folk who are ‘just like you’. A strained division, certainly, but one that obviously seems to work for many people.

I remember when Madonna was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame (whatever happened to that?) back in 2004, she said something along the lines of ‘I wanted to be famous because I had something to say and I wanted the world to hear it.” Now people have ‘something to say’ because they think it will help lead to fame. And that ‘something to say’ is incredibly banal – bitchy, rude, so-called ‘sassy’ remarks about nothing of importance whatsoever. Hell, WAGS are role-models compared to this lot – at least they had to *marry* someone famous.