An irritable day, trying to put together a Pecha Kucha talk. It’s supposed to be on Underground Music, Post-Capitalism & Twitter but in my heart I just want to show people my photos of toilets. (it’s HERE by the way)
Anyway, THIS piece by Eleanor Margolis in the New Statesman grinds my gears so much I have to respond. I tried to write (via iPhone) in the NS comments section but it got eaten by a shit authentication process, so I’ll do it here:
First, it’s unfair to pick on Grace Petrie. Petrie is a young, developing, as-yet unsigned artist (still works a day-job) who specifically sings in that classic sincere Bragg-esque acoustic protest style. That’s her schtick. It stinks to hit her simply because it’s a style (or hers a voice) you don’t dig, especially in such a high profile leftist space as NS.
Secondly, I think you’re dead wrong to extend that disdain out to make a universal point. It’s meaningless – for example even on the same bill, on the same night (Robin Ince’s beautiful Book Club night, 1000+ people in the woods), you’ve not mentioned (missed or ignored) two other music acts with political content, with markedly different style to Grace (me, and Jim Bob from Carter USM). For my part, I was fucking hilarious, even my miserable eco-song had talking trees and time travel.
Thirdly, the piece overlooks what’s happened to the entire music industry, regardless of politics, by assuming that ‘success’ equates to the old stuff, the ‘status’ of mainstream pop stardom. It doesn’t work like that anymore – there are a thousand new, different, better ways to build careers in music-making. So of course progressive or radical artists across all genres (just like all artists) are liberated from the hegemony of the ‘radio hit’. There are huge successes all over the shop that debunk your argument.
Fourthly, you missed the boat: where were you six weeks ago when we had this debate? NME editor Krissi Murison wrote a piece in The Guardian saying roughly what you’re arguing. Back then I wrote a rebuttal in the Morning Star (which you can read by scrolling down), there was a ton of comments across social networks and even Mr Bragg chimed in, in NME and on his blog. It concerns me that you feel able to make universal points about the modern music community, without having even been aware of the previous debate.
And yet again you focus on artists themselves, when clearly an argument along these lines needs to be framed as a critique of the establishment gatekeepers, who decide which artists will get mainstream TV and radio exposure.
Fifthly/finally, you’re simply wrong. Your readers would’ve benefitted far more from being pointed to: The Agitator, Sam Duckworth (Get Cape Wear Cape Fly), Scroobius Pip (solo or with Dan Le Sac), Rumour Cubes, Emmy The Great, LowKey, me, folkies such as Spiers & Boden, Chris Wood, Eliza Carthy, Frank Turner (a different political hue but still making powerful points), a whole bunch of successful heavy rock acts, plus huge amounts of UK grime, electro, dnb and hip hop stuff. And the rest. Especially if you include the Americans, there’s container-loads of the stuff.
To my mind, you’ve missed all this music because you’re not listening out for it, you only spotted an artist when she appeared to conform to your “cling for its life to another era” stereotype and then berated her for doing so.
Once again someone with a relatively high profile in the music world bemoans the lack of ‘political’ artists in pop music. Usually it is an artist who makes the claim, which is disheartening enough but at least they have good intentions.
But this time it was Krissi Murison, editor of NME, writing not in her own paper but in The Guardian. Now I admire Murison’s editorship of the paper; I think she’s the best chief NME has had in over a decade. She has brought structure and good – sometimes great – writing back to a magazine that lacked it for too long.
But what she wrote is problematic, simply because she herself is such a powerful gatekeeper; bemoaning the lack of people in a room, while choosing who is allowed in. I scarcely need tell you, it’s not remotely true: as ever, there is a great pile of high quality, openly political, socially radical and progressive UK artists of all genres, banging on the door. They’re also well marketed, with better tunes and more savvy than the generations before – they’re not crusty losers. Any creative across any art form will tell you, these are fecund times for radical, polarised art.
Ms Murison, it is the arts critics and their editors who suppress the political, radical, or truth-speak in modern culture, not a mysterious lack of people doing it. In your case, it is the writing of your critics and your own editorial decisions that have been unable to lift the post-Bragg exclusion zone around radical music in the UK. Not for party-political reasons, nor even for the often rolled out stuff about image being everything (plenty of sexy pop singers are socially conscious too). But simply because the relentlessly corporate energies that drive papers like NME (and many others, as well as review sections in tabloid and broadsheet), find sincerity, optimism, commitment and opinion so unattractive, unnerving, that they instinctively force to the periphery people who edge into those areas.
What these machines are comfortable with is schtick.
Modern pop cultural critics like style, form and rendering much more than they like content, intent or layers of meaning. They do so because it’s immediately apparent: you know what a show looks like long before you unpack what it’s trying to say. It’s quicker and easier, so you filled up your notebooks with vivid experiential fluff long before any actual meaning began to sink in.
Worse, meaning itself is always debatable – and there’s nothing critics fear worse than being made to take a position that might isolate them from their peers. The deepest, darkest fear in the arts critic’s heart is that he or she will get a review ‘wrong’; flying against everyone else’s deeper understanding of a piece.
So shrug off intent and write up the hats.
Meanwhile, the editors are so busy worrying about the business, they forgot what they wanted to say in the first place. Even as newspapers diminish and music splinters, even as blogs dominate, the NME remains a powerful voice in the music industry. If you get the NME vocally onside, you will likely break your band – or at least give them a workable shot. I don’t mean reviews per se; I mean a slightly grander sort of feature-led coverage, alongside regular referencing in the news and other sections, that places a band firmly at the heart of the reader’s perceived ‘scheme of things’. NME support also powerfully encourages Radio 1 to commit; which in turn is still perhaps the UK’s most powerful method of kicking an act into the mainstream.
These decision-makers are not the faceless business types that artists, especially struggling bands, might believe. They do love music and they work in the music world for that reason. However, at key moments their assessment inevitably has less to do with music and more to do with judging how much money is being invested and who is doing the investing. And here is a truth long established by such organisations as Media Lens: the nearer you get to the top of any profit-making heirachy, the more the views will be concentrated in pragmatic, non-confrontational centrism.
So the radicals sit where they are perceived to be best suited, where their meaning doesn’t need too much unpacking: outside the door.
Ms Murison, let them in, or shut the hell up moaning. Don’t go to a broadsheet and gripe; run a ‘new reds’ special and radicalise your own charge.