Speaking recently to the NME about his frustration at the nation’s failure to embrace the philosophies and opportunities that punk initially suggested were possible, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie directed his ire at the current crop of bands within the anaemic strata of what now appears to constitute the British ‘independent’ scene: ‘We’re living in extreme times and if you listened to modern rock music you wouldn’t know that. I just think it’s odd there’s no protest, resistance or critique of what’s going down. It’s like people are tranquilised. All the rights people had fought for – people like trade unionists, anarchists, artists – are being clawed back by extremists’. It’s a theme that Rhian E. Jones recurrently references in this minimalist and heroically uncompromising powder keg of a book; a timely and single-minded exposition that seeks to lay bare, and ultimately skewer, the false prophets and unabashed hypocrisies of British pop culture post-Britpop. In much the same way that Burchill and Parsons picked over the rotting carcass of punk rock in their inflammatory 1978 call-to-arms The Boy Looked at Johnny (like Jones’s book, a slim publication in terms of its pages, yet a broad undertaking in the scope of its ambition), the author trains her sights upon the unseemly bastardisation of alt-pop culture via the twin cross-hairs of class and gender; in themselves, the motivation and inspiration for much of this nation’s greatest ever pop music output. Her scrutiny, in particular, of the latter-day ‘chav-shaming’ burn-the-witch agenda – so beloved of the Daily Mail, reactionary politicians and much of what now constitutes prevailing pop culture – underpins large sections of the book and ventures the proposition that ‘chav’ might be far more of a feminist issue than many of us might previously have considered.
Britpop itself was an almost comically contrary phenomenon. In part, it was a heady, wide-eyed celebration of the storming of the palace gates yet, at the same time, it confirmed how easily the supposed leading lights of the British cultural underground would succumb to the tedious textbook rock clichés of the industry-endorsed cabal they had initially set out to render obsolete. At the height of Blur’s mid-nineties celebrity, a period during which the band’s guitarist Graham Coxon pursued a relatively modest existence whilst in a relationship with Jo Johnson of uncompromising agit-prop feminists Huggy Bear, his band-mate Alex James saw little dichotomy in openly cavorting with Page 3 girls and boasting about how he’d spent over a million pounds on champagne. Such extreme dissent at the core of what had previously been a notionally art-school band epitomises the compromise and carpet-baggery at the heart of a supposedly liberal ‘alternative’ arts scene; one in which Liam Gallagher could publicly exhort Elastica’s Justine Frischmann to ‘get your tits out’ without fear of rebuke, censure or the kind of career implosion that had befallen The Happy Mondays only a few years previously, having been deftly ‘outed’ by the incendiary Steven Wells as a rump of lumpen, homophobic rubes. Jones recalls how Huggy Bear had been ‘regarded as the last gasp of politically correct joylessness’, to be rightfully abandoned with the rest of the eighties at the same time as James himself sought to jettison at the earliest opportunity any remaining trappings of art-house subversion in favour of an ironic Club Tropicana lifestyle.
In more recent times, it seems that Alex James’s ‘ironic’ take on life has sunk to unfathomably baffling depths. When challenged about his decision to hobnob about his sprawling cheese-funded estate with the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and David Cameron (as grimly artless as it gets) his response was both depressingly confrontational and perceptibly defensive: ‘You know, if the Prime Minister wants to come to your fucking place, it’s your fucking civic duty to welcome him’.
It’s the author’s focus on the nineties music press coverage of Shampoo and Kenickie that underlines how regressive much of that period’s preoccupations had become. Though latterly dismissed as either froth or trash, both bands – female, defiantly working class, and Manics acolytes to the core – blazed a fleeting technicolor trail through the monochrome columns of the male-dominated music press. As the authentic originators of the term ‘girl power’, a phrase subsequently appropriated and diluted for mass-market consumption by EMI and Pepsi, Shampoo’s Carrie and Jacqui were a genuinely inspirational duo; their vocal displeasure at the anodyne anonymity surrounding them famously condensed into what, to them, was the ultimate insult – ‘baw-ring!’.
However, it was Sunderland’s finest, Kenickie, to whom the music press revealed its most prejudiced and unreconstructed face. The band’s north-east upbringing and their brazen, giddy devotion to the thrills, spills and teenage kicks of that eternal working class playground, The Night Out, provided the laziest of writers with the laziest of clichéd comparisons. Jones references the perception of the band’s unaffected and breezy self-expression as signifying an ‘easy’ sexuality and how they were subsequently caricatured via an ‘unstable mixture of lust and disgust’. Vocalist Lauren Laverne (yes, that one) responded glacially to an astonishing interrogation into whether they were like Viz’s Fat Slags ‘only thinner’ with the only retort open to her in such an unexpected ambush: ‘so what you’re asking us, then, is: are we slags?’
Almost two decades later, and at a point when (according to Word magazine) 60% of British artists in a recent UK top 10 had been to public school compared with just 20% in 1990, it might be refreshing to think that one of the world’s most famous acts is not just female and working class, but resoundingly British too. It’s discouragingly bleak, therefore, to hear the head of her record label spouting a message that sucks any life, joy or charisma out of the whole affair; one that Rhian E. Jones is keen to present as a neutered, scripted and vanilla form of what pop music is truly capable of achieving. ‘The whole message with Adele,‘ decreed Richard Russell, ‘is that it’s just the music, it’s just really good music. There is nothing else. There are no gimmicks, no selling of sexuality. I think, in the American market, particularly, they have come to the conclusion that this is what you have to do’. It’s this promotion and marketing of what should be a thrilling and primal experience in the same way that one might flog a new car or a mobile phone that strikes so fatally at the heart and soul of what pop music is ultimately capable; it cuts it off at the knees, reduces it to an arid husk, and renders the artist a flimsy shadow of his or her former self. As the author herself reflects, ‘for all of her undoubted talent and likeability, Adele’s ‘radicalism’ is about as straightforwardly progressive as the idea of Thatcher as the original Spice Girl’.
And it doesn’t get any more depressing than that.