Culture and Class
Public meeting organised by the CPI, 28 April 2012

Class and popular culture

Barry Healy

I would like to thank the CPI for organising this talk and for asking me along to speak.
     The reason why cultural workers appear to have little to say about the deep economic, social and cultural crisis is a complex one. Others on the panel may discuss the theories as to why this is so, but I will explore popular culture—music and TV in particular.
     Over the past thirty years or so in Britain and Ireland there has been battle of ideas, one unlike the past, where media bosses openly bragged about using their newspapers etc. as propaganda tools. It has become far more subtle and persuasive, resulting in the narrowing of what is and isn’t acceptable through a process of depoliticisation. This phenomenon can be seen everywhere in our lives: for example in sport, we are told politics should play no part, or in the news, bank bail-outs and austerity are presented as being ideologically removed: “There is no other way,” we are told. As a result, we are presented with a narrow consensus of opinion, where consumerist, capitalist and middle-class values dominate and are expressed as the norm, common sense and non-political.
     The depoliticisation of culture and ideas is deeply ideological, dangerous, and damaging, and it has, unsurprisingly, filtered into music and TV also. Mainstream cultural output from music and TV lacks political awareness, social commentary, and proper representation of working-class issues. In fact it tends to reaffirm stereotypes and gender roles and even openly ridicules or discriminates against working-class people. The depiction of the “chav” is a good example; they serve as the butt of all jokes within British TV and news. The “chav” is a media construct of essentially poor working-class people, yet they are mocked for having no money and being poor, etc., preferring to trivialise rather than looking at the various reasons, social or otherwise, that they find themselves in this situation.
     Closer to home, the recent “Ireland’s Rappers” documentary had the potential to offer a keen insight into an interesting topic, yet RTE went with a hack job, poking fun and ridiculing those involved (subtly) and playing on stereotypes associated with working-class people.
     Was it ever different? And why has this happened?
     Yes, in the ’60s and ’70s British writers set out to depict experiences from working-class life which had previously been ignored and attempted to reflect it fairly, through shows like “The Lump,” “Cathy, Come Home,” “Days of Hope,” and even “Coronation Street.” These programmes challenged the existing views of the status quo, pushed boundaries (both of ideas and of their art) to the limit, and openly discussed political ideas. This was seen in popular TV and radio comedy too, in shows like “Till Death Us Do Part,” “Steptoe and Son,” and “Citizen Smith.”
     This was done against a backdrop of hostility. The BBC vetted all its writers at the time and even had an MI5 agent in the BBC, called “the man in the mac,” who vetted “subversives.” It was in no way an easy task, yet politics was everywhere in TV and radio, to be discussed and challenged—something we rarely (if ever) see today. I would be surprised if issues like the household tax, the austerity treaty or the water tax even got a fleeting mention in “Fair City,” yet people can be overheard in pubs up and down the country discussing these issues.
     This is in contrast to the celebrity death of Michael Jackson, which made its way into the dialogue on “Eastenders” and “Coronation Street,” emphasising the trivialisation of ideas.
     Something changed drastically within the structures of broadcasting in the ’80s as the Thatcherite onslaught took hold, when ideas of social mobility and individualism took root. In the BBC’s “Left of Frame” documentary on left-wing drama, Ken Loach and others felt that the devaluation of ideas led to a sermon of blandness, a lack of imaginative ideas, and a sedating effect. In Ireland meanwhile it could be argued the the purges in RTE of the early ’70s, aimed at rooting out republicans and their sympathisers, and censorship by successive governments have had a lasting and negative effect today.
     TV and music have increasingly been seen solely for their financial value—just another commodity to be bought and sold for a profit, investing the very least capital for the greatest return. Even public-service broadcasters, like the BBC, get drawn into the issue of “value for money” and battles for viewing figures with ITV and Channel 4 to “justify” the licence fee.
     The search for profits has had a huge effect on the media and journalists as well as the on art forms themselves. In his book Flat Earth News, Nick Davis talks about how journalists today are overworked and underpaid compared with the journalists of the past, whereby the news industry has become one of “churnalism.” These pressures no doubt play a part, be it the music or film journalists or DJs or TV presenters. It is these pressures which feeds a bias towards and over-reliance on official sources by allowing PR companies to influence reporting. Big stars from big labels dominate news and coverage. These “stars” are not always getting the spotlight because of merit or talent and tend to have little of worth to say and more often than not perpetuate this ongoing cycle of blandness.
     “The X Factor” (and the like) are good examples whereby the public are bombarded with mediocrity, encouraged to vote every week to pick their favourite. In reality it is an exercise in market research, which the viewers willingly pay, for and the record labels get what they want: a sellable product. During and after the show Cowell and his cohorts reap massive viewing figures and revenue and dominate the news, taking the spotlight from artists who are more deserving of it, artistically speaking.
     Another recent phenomenon is that journalism has become an almost exclusively middle-class profession. The Guardian ran a piece recently where it cited the number: above 90 per cent of graduates in the UK from this background. (I don’t have the exact figure.) It’s likely to be a similar if not worse situation in this country. It is hardly a stretch to say they feel more comfortable with ideas which fit with their background and values.
     So is music—probably the most powerful medium, through its energy, emotion, and inspirational qualities—doomed to this future?
     As with the changing representation of working-class issues on TV, a similar trend has occurred in music. The ’60s saw the emergence of artists willing to push a political message: Dylan or Lennon, for example; even the Kinks and the Small Faces, who while not overtly political, portrayed the issues and frustrations of working-class life. Then there was the explosion of punk, from the Clash to Crass or Stiff Little Fingers: they all had a message and something to say. This continued in the ’80s with the Jam, the Smiths, and many more, to the ’90s, with Pulp, RATM and the Manics.
     Challenging the political and social opinions of those in powerful positions is not easy. The establishment are clever in how they deal with and respond to threats, both political and financial, to their stranglehold on output. This in itself may put people off choosing to say certain things not deemed appropriate by the establishment. It is worth looking at a couple of examples of how these challenges were tackled by those in power.
     Take Public Enemy, who opened the eyes a generation to the black struggle in the US—initially a violent backlash from Middle America but later labels decided to repackage hip-hop but without the political message; gangster became marketable, and the materialist vibe took hold too.
     Rough Trade records broke the distribution stranglehold of the major labels in Britain in the late ’70s and ’80s. In response they set up their very own indie labels and poached artists away.
     John Lennon is now seen as a “man of peace,” yet his opposition to US imperialism, his radical politics and support for civil rights campaign in Ireland and elsewhere are overlooked. They have made him safe, nullifying what made him who he was so as to sell him.
     What of more recently? I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked where all the political music is. The fact is, it’s all around us. While the mainstream propagates music which appears devoid of politics, as mentioned earlier, this is deeply ideological.
     There are many artists, respected artists, some with a bigger impact than others, who continue to comment and challenge the world around them: Captain Moonlight, Jinx Lennon and Damien Dempsey in this country, or the Manics, Akala, the King Blues and Billy Bragg in Britain. There are still plenty of acts who fly the “social commentary” flag of the Kinks. The Streets’ and Arctic Monkeys’ first albums depicted modern working-class life; the Rifles, Jamie T and others continue to do so today.
     The rise of the DIY culture and the use of the internet as a way of getting music out there offers potential for the future too, although the reaction of the entertainment industry to the internet and file-sharing once again shows how serious they are when it comes to maintaining their control and profits.
     It is true that the airwaves and TV screens are dominated by artists who have little or nothing to say about the crisis we find ourselves in, but from this short snapshot we can see why it may be. It is also true that there are still plenty of artists willing to speak out and use their music to inform people about real issues. There are very real “underground” scenes or cultures all around us which are ignored by the mainstream media, but importantly they do exist.
     How can all this be changed? That is a much bigger issue that I can’t answer on my own.

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