Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Fear, Success and Taking Sides: Living in The Future of The 90s

The 90s: Brtain was a nation divided into Mockneys and Mancneys, Sports Casual was the dominant youth culture and everyone you met was either from Manchester or East London, even if they were from Surrey or Stoke. All of them seemed to be on some sort of nose dessert, even the ones that were deeply offended by that sort of thing.

Britain was becoming politicized, or polarized. It was all about taking sides. The English Elite - politicians, pop stars, media icons famous for simply being, were defending the Best of British 60s Mod Culture (conservative, drug-fueled, nationalistic, elitist), against an uncertain future of illegal drugs, Tory Rule and elitism. Erm...

Sports Casualties

In many ways, they succeeded. We're living in a future where even Labour are Tory, where Sports Casual is once again the dominant Youth Culture and the counter cultures - the Post-Punk, the Gothic, the Retro Rockers and Electronic Greyscale are populated by the best of the bourgeoisie.

Even that staple of Brit culture Doctor Who is back boldly gallivanting about the British universe in hip Modish clobber with women several hundred years his junior. Now that's what we call success!

Doctors Matt Lowe and  David Tennant

Once again, working class children won't be going out and getting ideas above their station by experimenting with higher education, unless their parents can afford it. That's one way to ensure that only the brightest, most intelligent people get the best opportunities. Erm...

You are safe because you are living in a future where your enemies are clearly defined: disabled people, poor people, single parents, asylum seekers - the weak, the needy, the humble: people clearly responsible for the state of this country, as opposed to the people that have all the power and resources.

They are people who have failed to succeed. It's not that the system has failed to meet their needs - because it's not the job of the people in charge to actually care about you if you can't take care of yourself. It's only fair. So fit in or fail.

Every decent British person knows: success is everything. And hard work is the key to success. Just look at all of the people born to wealth, they're so successful they don't even have to work at all!

Inevitably, as we look to strengthening our own national identity through arts and culture, immigration becomes the hot topic of the day. Everyone is understandably worried about all those people coming over here from all the places we bravely invaded or helped defend us from invasion, taking up all the jobs that decent honest hard working English people don't want to do.

Because they're not like us: they worship in places that are different to the churches we don't worship in, and they are taking homes from the poor English homeless people (that we suddenly seem to care about but still work damn hard to ignore). There just aren't enough new homes being built.

The million of existing uninhabited properties in Britain don't count because they're old and far less money will be generated by allowing people to inhabit them. Plus, they don't pay their taxes - you can read all about it in the right wing tabloids, edited by good honest successful men who don't pay taxes because they're hard working enough to have foreign passports. It's the English way.

Don't get us wrong, we're passionate about our cultural diversity, providing it's celebrated by well-educated, heterosexual, properly Cis-Gendered, Christian white people, obviously.

But our 90s future is creatively strong: everyone you meet is in a fun little Afrobeat band or an arts collective or putting on events and running workshops. Plus, these people are really passionate about transforming those quirky old venues into quirky luxury homes for needy bohemians. They just want to give something back to the most successful elements of the local community.


In the 90s, Oasis were particularly successful (popular) because they fulfilled the establishment's fetish for over-confident working class men with big mouths. They love a bit of rough because the confident working class person is exactly the kind of thing the upper-class should be afraid of.  So it's important to tame them by celebrating the dumbest, most easily controlled and recuperated manifestation of that.

Oasis fitted a well-established stereotype and the image and music were easily recognizable (familiar, safe, marketable) to anyone between the ages of 6 and 76. They weren't even the best of their kind. There must have been a dozen or more arrogant Dad Rock bands in bowl haircuts, Christmas jumpers and saggy jeans in every town in the country at that time.

Blur were similarly plucked for success because they fulfilled an equally familiar cliché: the vaguely arty but ultimately harmless middle-class rebel. Equally safe, equally marketable.

Blur : The Bee Gees to Oasis's Savage Garden

When the music journos (celebrating good old fashioned cultural binaries) set them up as warring factions - they were indulging in the same old nostalgia and fetishism of The Beatles versus The Stones, The Sex Pistols versus The Clash, Take That versus West Life, or Elvis versus Baby Jesus. It's great for business. Even people with no interest in music were obliged to have a preference.

West Life: The Clannad to to Take That's Weezer

The industry was doubling its money by suggesting taking sides was somehow akin to national service. As if choosing one thing you have no relationship with over another thing you don't care about will in someway validate your existence, save the planet, or defend Britain from Evil.

The idea that you are making some essential political decision in choosing sides was a total fiction: The Beatles were just as equally clean-cut and laddish as The Stones; The Sex Pistols were perceived as art-school despite being working class and hopelessly under-educated, The Clash were art-school and very well fed (hell - Joe Strummer was an upper-class hippie!). And it was certainly never really about class war was it? Blur were as popular with working class people as Oasis were with middle-class students.

The more middle-class, privileged Stones, Clash and Blur played up to the working class stereotypes the industry was fetishizing over. Rebellion and youth culture were mere spectacles, pornography rather than the real thing.

The Shamen: E's a Drug

For better or worse, there were a myriad of 90s bands embracing a broader spectrum of music from the past (Pulp, The Happy Mondays, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Garbage, The Stone Roses, Elastica), sounded vaguely contemporary (The Prodigy, The Shamen) or even genuinely innovative (Aphex Twin, Autechre, My Bloody Valentine). 

The Happy Mondays

And people embraced these acts equally, if not more passionately. But all that tech-savvy, drug-fueled, Sexual Questioning stuff was a little bit too un-British, a little bit too Marxist for the establishment.


Today, Oasis are a distant memory, sitting on shelves and dusty external drives. Like Titanic, War of The Worlds or 'Haunted Shortbread' by Stephen King, you'll find a Best Of in almost every home. They sound like they sounded then: safe, overblown, vaguely irritating, something your grandparents would like.

Blur revealed themselves to be the old-school upper-middle class men they always aspired to be become: schmoozing with Tory MPs, running farms, validating themselves as more than mere pop musicians by jamming with black people and members of The Clash, writing operas.

Take That's Robert and Gareth

Both bands, like their real contemporaries Take That, Robbie Williams from Take That and The Spice Girls - will ultimately be forgotten. They cling to life now only as a form of nostalgia - because they always sounded like the past.

The Spice Girls: Mel Baby and Mel Orange

My Bloody Valentine, Autechre and The Prodigy didn't re-invent the wheel, but there is still something vaguely other-worldly and futuristic about their sound.

If the key to success is to play it safe, to recreate the sounds of the past, then success dooms our culture to a slow death. There are only so many times you can copy a copy before the degradation become irreparable and the meaning and intentions of the original are lost.

In the 90s, the idea that choosing sides, between Rock or Electronic music was equally unhelpful. The reality was that the best of the bands from both camps, and everything in between were just as much influenced, motivated and interested in both.

By creating these false choices, the establishment - whether in the form of a corporation, a magazine or a political party - merely keeps us all that little bit less empowered, by keeping us distracted and divided.

Next time: Negative Romanticism, Radiohead and The Art of Faux-Depression

Gilbert and George
If a performance artist started going on about England and our culture like that-in fact that's happened to Gilbert and George... It seems to me that (American) artists can talk about flags and America and all this… you can play such a close game with them without anyone being offended. - Rob La Frenais