Saturday, 13 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher and British Protest Music

There has been a lot of interest in the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz following the death of Margaret Thatcher. Widespread debate has raged about Ding Dong, the witch is dead and BBC Radio 1’s decision to only play an excerpt of the song if it reaches number one. The reason I don’t want to hear this song is because it offends my sense of what makes for decent political music. It is an insult to the venerable tradition of the protest song. Ding dong, the witch is dead is politically vapid. It possesses no political traction or heightened feeling. This is a novelty exercise in viral tastelessness. It is instantly disposable and forgettable, rather than having anything daring, memorable or challenging to say.

For centuries, Britain has produced political protest songs. The 1381 Peasants Revolt produced the well-known rhyme, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" The civil and religious wars of the 17th century produced such movements as the Levellers and Diggers with their hymnal of incendiary ballads. Founded by Gerrard Winstanley in 1649, the Diggers were inspired by the Acts of the Apostles vision of living in community and sharing everything in common. Diggers attempted to farm common land in small egalitarian communities. Suppressed by the local authorities who viewed them as a threat to the status quo, very few of their protest song lyrics survive. Those that do, give us a flavour of their radical boldness:

The lawyers they conjoin, stand up now,
to rescue they advise, such fury they devise,
the devil in them lies, and hath blinded both their eyes
stand up now, stand up now!

The clergy they come in, stand up now,
the clergy they come in and say it is a sin
that we should now begin our freedom for to win.

Stand up now diggers all
'Gainst lawyers and 'gainst priests.
Stand up now, for tyrants they are both,
even flat against their oath, to grant us they are loathe
free meat and drink and cloth.
Stand up now diggers all!

The industrial revolution was the catalyst for an increase in protest songs and ballads, such as The Triumph of General Ludd. Using a fictional persona, a Robin Hood character, the song expressed the concerns of the Luddite movement that had grown up in the cloth industry with the introduction of wide-framed automated looms. These could be easily operated by low-paid, unskilled workers and highly skilled weavers and textile workers found themselves unemployed:

No more chant your old rhymes about old Robin Hood
His feats I do little admire
I'll sing the achievements of General Ludd
Now the hero of Nottingham Shire
Those engines of mischief were sentenced to die
By unanimous vote of the trade
And Ludd who cannot a position defy
Was the grand executioner made
Whether guarded by soldiers along the highway
Or closely secured in a room
He shivers them up by night and by day
And nothing can soften their doom
Shall the whole team of humble no longer oppressed
And shall Ludd sheath his conquering sword
Be his grievance instantly met with redress
Than peace shall be quickly restored
Let the wise and the great lend their aid and advice
Never ere their assistance withdraw
Till full-fashioned work at the old-fashioned prices
established by custom and law

In more recent times, the work of the folk singer, Ewan MacColl, articulated concerns about nuclear weapons and the cold war. Young people found the folk song was, MacColl believed, “tailor-made for expressing their thoughts and comments on contemporary topics, dreams, and worries.” Donovan’s 1965 folk song, Universal Soldier, and his anti- Vietnam song The War Drags On gave musical expression to anti-war protest, as did John Lennon’s 1969 na├»ve anthem Give Peace a Chance. British folk music in the 1960’s was socially engaged and had real political bite. Today, we have the insipid, Mumford and Sons.

During the 1970’s Punk became the voice of musical protest. Songs such as God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols and If the Kids are United by Sham 69 gave vent to anger about youth unemployment and poor opportunities. To my mind, the greatest protest songs of this period came from the pen of Joe Strummer and The Clash. Writing about class, political, economic and racial inequalities gave Strummer’s writing a tensile energy. The lyrics to the 1977 song, Career Opportunities, is an example of Strummer’s political concerns:

They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I'd better take anything they'd got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunities, the ones that never knock
I hate the army an' I hate the RAF
I don't wanna go fighting in the tropical heat
I hate the civil service rules
I won't open letter bombs for you
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunities, the ones that never knock.

Bus driver
Ambulance man
Ticket inspector
I don't understand
They're gonna have to introduce conscription
They're gonna have to take away my prescription
If they wanna get me making toys
If they wanna get me, well I got no choice
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock,
Every job they offer you is to keep you out the dock.

I associate three great protest songs with Margaret Thatcher and her government. The first is Ghost Town by The Specials released the day after the first Handsworth riot in central Birmingham (10 July 1981) and two weeks before the wedding of Charles and Diana. The song made number one in the charts with its themes of social disaffection and decline. Blending melancholy and menace, the song captured an urban landscape eroded by dole queues, simmering violence and deep social divisions. It has lost nothing of its resonance today.

Elvis Costello’s Tramp the Dirt Down is full of naked rage and venom. This haunting protest song with its lyrical tautness is in the tradition of Shelley’s 1819 poem, The Mask of Anarchy, written following the Peterloo Massacre in that same year. Like that poem, Costello is less interested in political analysis and more in capturing the emotional anger that Margaret Thatcher provoked in some people. Morrissey’s Margaret on the Guillotine would be another example of this. Unlike Ghost Town which provided a description of the social effects of the Thatcher government’s policies, Costello’s song documents the feelings of frustration and impotence that many people felt during the Thatcher government. These feelings were not universal – “Basildon man”, for example, applauded Margaret Thatcher’s policies and non-consensual style of politics – but the feelings Costello captured were real for many people.

I saw a newspaper picture from the political
A woman was kissing a child, who was obviously
in pain.
She spills with compassion, as that young child's
face in her hands she grips.
Can you imagine all that greed and avarice
coming down on that child's lips?
Well, I hope, I don't die too soon,
I pray the Lord my soul to save,
Oh I'll be a good boy, I'm trying so hard to behave,
because there's one thing I know, I'd like to live
long enough to savour
that's when they finally put you in the ground
I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.

When England was the whore of the world
Margaret was her madam
and the future looked as bright and as clear as
the black tarmacadam.
Well, I hope, that she sleeps well at night,
isn't haunted by every tiny detail,
'Cos when she held that lovely face in her hands
all she thought of was betrayal.

And now the cynical ones say that it all ends
the same in the long run,
try telling that to the desperate father who just
squeezed the life from his only son.
And how it's only voices in your head and
dreams you never dreamt,
try telling him the subtle difference between
justice and contempt.
Try telling me she isn't angry with this pitiful
When they flaunt it in your face as you line up
for punishment.
And then expect you to say "Thank you"
straighten up, look proud and pleased,
because you've only got the symptoms,
you haven't got the whole disease.
Just like a schoolboy, whose head's like a tin-can
filled up with dreams then poured down
the drain,
try telling that to the boys on both sides,
being blown to bits or beaten and maimed,
Who takes all the glory and none of the shame.

Well, I hope you live long now, I pray the Lord
your soul to keep,
I think I'll be going before we fold our arms
and start to weep.
I never thought for a moment that human life
could be so cheap
'Cos when they finally put you in the ground
They'll stand there laughing and tramp the
dirt down

But for me, the leading protest singer in Britain during the 1980s was Billy Bragg, the Woody Guthrie of Barking. His most personal song, Between the Wars, was released in 1985 at the height of the miners’ strike. The proceeds from the record went to the miners’ strike fund. Beneath the politics, Bragg captures the profound disillusion experienced by individual lives and communities destroyed by poverty and unemployment. I kept the faith and I kept voting/ Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand./For theirs is a land with a wall around it/ And mine is a faith in my fellow man./ Theirs is a land of hope and glory/ Mine is the green field and the factory floor./ Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers/ And mine is the peace we knew/Between the wars.

Here is an example of British protest song writing at its very best. Angry, but full of human compassion. It is this song that should be number one this Sunday…and then, let us pray for Margaret Thatcher.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

David Bowie is...

I am standing in a queue at Burger King in Liverpool Street Station, when I spot, loitering in the middle of the central concourse, two subversive figures. They’re dressed in identical, tweedy suits, brogues, matching shirts and ties. On one man, this bespoke, dandy look would be interesting, but worn by two men, it starts to feel creepy and threatening. They look like Saville Row clones who have escaped from the set of Dr Who.

People, catching trains and making their way to the tedium of the office, cast looks at the improbable pair. Some even stop in their tracks to get a better look. A young woman takes a photo of them on her mobile phone. It’s impossible not to take a sneaky look. Of course, that’s what they want you to do. After all, they believe they are works of art. They are Gilbert and George.

The art of Gilbert and George is not only to be found in contemporary art gallery collections, but exists wherever they are – whether it’s having a builder’s tea in an East End caff or schmoozing with the art crowd in a Venice Biennalle pavilion. “Art for all” became their democratising slogan. Their art is provocative and populist. Art is not something Gilbert and George do, it is something they are. Their work and who they are have fused into one.

The first room of the David Bowie is exhibition contains a “singing sculpture” by Gilbert and George dating from 1969. Captured on film, the artistic duo, with their faces painted silver, dance and sing the Flanagan and Allen vaudeville standard, “Underneath the Arches” – a song in which two tramps describe the pleasures of sleeping rough.

In the polite atmosphere of the Victoria and Albert museum, opening this exhibition with Gilbert and George is like being welcomed with a Glasgow kiss. It’s not what you are expecting. It floors you and gives you a nosebleed. It’s a statement of intent. This is not going to be some reverential homage to an ageing pop star or a marketing exercise for his new album. This exhibition is going to make outlandish claims about David Bowie that will raise blood pressures, make pupils dilate and cause people to dance and sing along to some of the greatest songs in popular music. The curators, Victoria Broackers and Geoffrey Marsh, write in breathless fashion:

David Bowie is one of the most important artists of the last fifty…who channelled the avant-garde into the populist mainstream without compromising its subversive, liberating power. Bowie forms a link that connects Andy Warhol, Bertolt Brecht, William Blake, Charlie Chaplin, Antonin Artaud, Salvador Dali, Marlene Dietrich, Philip Glass, Nietzsche, Hollywood glamour, graphic design, platform shoes, film, music, Kurt Weill, Berlin, New York, London, Alexander McQueen, the 2012 London Olympics, Jim Henson, the moon landings, Kansai Yamamoto, Kate Moss and Marshall McLuhan.

If they'd included Obi wan Kenobi, we would have had a full house of cultural icons. With any other rock star, this overblown catalogue could be written off as the spliff-induced ravings of the beret wearing, pretentious squad. But with Bowie, it all rings true and it becomes even more convincing as you make your way round this incredibly vibrant exhibition.

The exhibition claims a place for David Bowie among the artistic and cultural radicals. This is David Bowie as a performance artist. We are being asked to see the music, the costumes, sets, design, photos, mime, video, theatre and cultural references as a piece and not to separate them out. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, in Aristotelian terms. In other words, we come to understand that what Bowie does and who he is have become indistinguishable in our imaginations. Bowie is living as a complete performance and that is why we can’t take our eyes off him. He is the art and his art is for all.

Raiding the extensive Bowie archive, the exhibition curators reveal the range of Bowie’s artistic enterprise and ambition. For example, there are the costumes which allowed Bowie to play out his artfully constructed character fantasies: Uncle Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, Clockwork Orange Droog, White Soul Boy, New Romantic Pierrot. Bowie sheds costumes like snakes shed skins. Some sixty dresses, suits, kimonos, jumpsuits, capes, frock coats and leotards are on display. They are evidence of how Bowie’s sartorial ambitions matched his musical ambitions.

Bowie’s clothes defy conventions. They break the rules of what men are supposed to wear. There is nothing grey, functional or Marks and Sparks about them. His clothes are all about androgynous glamour. They play with silhouettes, shape, form, texture and colour. Sexual ambivalence is stitched into their seams. Every pleat, vent and button hole is tailored to provoke a reaction. Bowie’s wardrobe belongs to him alone. No other man would be man enough to dress that way – Bowie’s way. Camille Paglia in her thoughtful exhibition catalogue essay, Theatre of Gender: David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution, writes:

Like Wilde, who free-lanced as a fashion journalist, Bowie is a dandy for whom costume is an art form. But his lineage descends not direct from Beau Brummell but refracted through the English dandyism imported by French decadents such as the poet Charles Baudelaire, who portrayed the dandy as an arbiter of distinction, elegance and cold apartness – exactly like the Thin White Duke persona of Bowie’s 1975-6 tours. Barbey d’Aurevilly, Baudelaire’s friend and ally, called dandies “the Androgynes of History”.

One can only imagine what the local denizens of Bridlington Town hall and Torquay made of Ziggy Stardust as he strode their stages in a Kansai Yamamoto red leotard. I suspect they found it both appalling and thrilling…and isn’t that the point? The greatest art and artists have always subverted our mundane, bland versions of the world. They shake us from our imaginative and intellectual torpor and wake us to some new way of imagining ourselves.

The exhibition’s designers use every trick in their creative arsenal to expose you to the full power of Bowie’s creative vision. There’s the music, of course, but there is also innovative use of video, stills and documentary footage (I particularly enjoyed a piece from BBC’s Nationwide with a pompous Bernard Falk barely disguising his disgust at teenage girls screaming for a “freak with makeup”). Biographical details are scattered throughout the exhibition, the books that influenced Bowie fly above your head, Bowie’s story is found between the vinyl records you flick through as if you were in a Carnaby Street record shop. You do not move from one room to the next, but from one set to the next – one moment you’re with Bowie on Top of the Pops and next you are in a Berlin recording studio beside the great man and Brian Eno.

There are the pages of song lyrics written on scraps of paper with scrappy schoolboy handwriting. It looks like nothing and, you get nearer, and you read (scrawled on copy book paper):

Ziggy played for time
Jiving us that we was voodoo
The kids was just crass
He was the Nazz
With God-given arse
He took it all too far
But boy could he play guitar

And, in your imagination, the music kicks in and the rock anti-god, Ziggy Stardust, claims the stage again. It sends shivers down your spine. There are Bowie’s paintings, excerpts from his films (for example, Bowie playing a camp hobgoblin King in Labyrinth – not one of his finest moments) and theatre work (for example, Bowie played to critical claim, Joseph Merrick, in Bernard Pomerance’s play, The Elephant Man), storyboards, set designs…and all this leading you to the centre piece of the show: roof high video screens with Bowie performing “Heroes” live. It is mesmerising.

This is not an exhibition. This is full immersion into a single man’s creativity. It will make you gasp with excitement. It will make you laugh and smile. It will make you want to applaud and cheer. There is nothing solemn or “anorak” about this exhibition. It’s just super cool, super intelligent and super exciting…like the man himself.

If you are a Bowie fan, this is a reminder of why you are – why, like me, you love the man and love the music. If you think you might be a Bowie fan, this will make you one. If you are not a Bowie fan, go see a doctor.

David Bowie Is... at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Friday, 5 April 2013

On Facebook

Confession. I am a member of that billion member constituency made up of the emotionally retarded. I am on Facebook.

I will look at Facebook on an almost daily basis. I waste too much time chatting, posting and checking my status update and those of others. Yes, I want to look at photos of people’s sleeping cats. I want to be liked, poked and invited to events. I want to know who is single, in a relationship, straight, gay or any combination of the above. I want all the moral and political complexities of life to be summarised in ten words. Only when someone posts me that Tupac Shakur inspirational song lyric will I be able to get through a bad day in the Brentwood ghetto. I need to know the names of those people who think The Shawshank Redemption is the best film ever…I need to know so that I can keep away from them.

Andy Warhol was right when he said that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. Facebook is exactly like that except that the people on it are not famous and the fifteen minutes goes on forever and ever and ever…

This year’s Lent seemed an opportune time to practise some Facebook self-control. It also gave me an opportunity to think a little more deeply and seriously about my uneasiness about this form of social networking and my relationship to it. Was there any ethical substance to my Facebook anxiety?

For the forty days of Lent, this is what has been on my mind:

(i) Facebook and Profile Identity Fraud Facebook is largely populated by people who are constructs - social media fabrications. These are incomplete or airbrushed representations of a person. They are online identities or to use the Facebook jargon, profiles. In other words, they exist in closer relationship to the avatars of Second Life than to human beings of real life.

Because of the sheer size of Facebook and the possibility that anyone can view your profile, identity construction and self-representation become extremely important. Profiles, pictures and posts are manipulated in order to make a person appear interesting, smart, witty or in-the-know. There is no place for modesty on Facebook. Keeping up appearances is everything.

In his seminal article, The Brave New World of Digital Intimacy, the social scientist, Clive Thompson, uses the concept of “ambient awareness”, the idea of “being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does – body language, sighs, stray comments – out of the corner of your eye.” On Facebook, ambient awareness is heightened. Every movie or music preference allows people to feel like they can actually “see” you and “know” you. Every photo is chosen to influence how the viewer perceives you – is this person attractive, friendly, having a good time? There are not many photos on Facebook of people in distress or with tears in their eyes.

Unlike journals and diaries which were a personal and unedited view into a private world, Facebook is a public and manufactured view of an online image. The purpose of this image is to get oneself noticed. The Facebook user is advertising and selling a product to others and the product is a kind of fiction about who they are. And to be successful at this, knowing which details to reveal about yourself and which to edit and delete is essential if you are to become desirable in Facebook terms. Those who have not mastered this dark art become Facebook embarrassments.

The sophisticated Facebook user assembles cultural references and images to shape how others will see them. These may not be lies, but they are reductions and simplifications of who they are. Simplifications that they are then expected to conform to and those around them are expected to believe in. Only those who really know the person outside of Facebook are in a position to correct what has been altered and fill in what has been edited out.

The Facebook profile trivialises the true identity of a person. Online life consists of premeditated decisions that cosmetically determine the user’s identity. In the Facebook world, ambiguity, complexity and suffering are anathema. In the real world, these are the things that make us more than a profile and worth loving.

(ii) Facebook and Narcissism I came across a University of Georgia psychology study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin which suggests that there is a strong correlation between the numbers of “friends” you have on Facebook and the “toxic” traits of “socially disruptive” narcissism. It gave me pause for thought.

“Simply put, narcissists are people who think they’re pretty great…They think they’re more attractive, more intelligent, more unique and entitled to special treatment,” writes Lauren Buffardi, lead author of the study, “They’re well-liked upon initial meetings, but have more difficulty maintaining warm and intimate relationships.”

The researchers focussed on two particular elements of narcissism:

(a) The Grandiose Exhibitionism aspect which includes “self-absorption, vanity, superiority and exhibitionistic tendencies.” People with this personality aspect are constantly seeking to be the centre of attention. They expend significant energy promoting themselves and making sure they get noticed.

(b) The Entitlement/Exploitativeness aspect which includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others.”
People who exhibit such traits find in Facebook a readymade vehicle with which they can self-promote. The “friends” they acquire are, more likely to be, affiliates, fans or awestruck followers who hope that some of the narcissistic glitter will rub off on them. But that doesn’t matter. They are an audience.

“Narcissists use Facebook and other social networking sites because they believe others are interested in what they are doing, and they want others to know what they are doing,” claims Buffardi. However, the research goes further than considering how narcissism finds expression online, it also suggests that it can have a detrimental effect on healthy and mature relationships offline.

Narcissism is often based on a fear of failure or weakness, a focus on one’s own self, an unhealthy drive to be seen as the best, and a deep-seated insecurity and underlying feeling of inadequacy. Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist believes that Facebook allows narcissists to remain disconnected from true intimacy and accountability for their behaviour. She writes:

At the core of most people who are narcissistic, underneath they often feel inadequate, lonely and a sense of shame because they haven’t learned the skills to connect with someone in a real way. Facebook allows them to stay in hiding.

(iii) Facebook and Alone Together At Christmas, a friend gave me Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other. It lay beside my bed. I decided to make it part of my Lenten reading. It is provocative and convincing because Turkle has no desire to romanticise an analogue age, but thinks we must rein in our digital excesses before they do us permanent emotional damage.

Her thesis is simple. Turkle argues that, more and more, we live our emotional lives through the technology at our fingertips. Technology has become the medium by which we shape our intimacies. So, for example, how often do you pick up the landline phone and have a conversation with someone? We will text, tweet, Facebook, but for most of us the phone exists to provide an internet connection for our digital technologies. Phoning another person has come to feel like an act of intrusion. We are less likely to communicate with each other in real time and face to face. Facebook allows us to process a response in our time and at a remove from the person we are communicating with. This is a form of communication but one achieved without intimacy and the vulnerability of revealing yourself to another in their presence. “Talking on a landline with no interruptions used to be an everyday thing,” writes Turkle, “Now it is exotic, the jewel in the crown.”

Perhaps, Facebook has made us less attentive to each other. I find myself asking some of my friends to turn off their mobiles when they are with me because I know, if I don’t, I will never have their attention. The opportunity to be present to each other, to talk to each other is eroded by the constant digital percussion tempting them to engage with their virtual relationships. I want them to talk to me, a real flesh and blood person, rather than to connect with me from the safe haven of the internet.

“Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” Turkle claims. In other words, we think we can have companionship through the likes of Facebook but without any of the demands of intimacy. We conduct our “risk free” relationships as avatars on Second Life and confuse the skewed, scattershot postings on Facebook as authentic communication. In the desperate attempts to connect with others, whoever they are, the new technologies risk becoming a crucible for a new solitude. The engine that drives Facebook is an abysmal existential loneliness. Turkle writes:

The networked culture is very young. Attendant at its birth, we threw ourselves into its adventure. This is human. But these days, our problems with the Net are becoming too distracting to ignore. At the extreme, we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other…we expect more from technology and less from each other…We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, and yet we have allowed them to diminish us. The prospect of loving, or being loved by, a machine changes what love can be. We know that the young are tempted. They have been brought up to be. Those who have known lifetimes of love can surely offer them more.

Will I ever go back to Facebook? Probably. Doubt it. Though, I miss the sleeping cats and Michael's posts. Who knows? But maybe I need to relearn how to use the telephone, write a more human.

Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other, Sherry Turkle, Basic Books, New York, 2011