A few years ago, during my tenure as Features Editor at NME, I went to the pub, picked up a copy of music supplement Observer Music Monthly (RIP), read the cover story about ‘The New British Eccentrics’ (contents: Foals, Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man, These New Puritans), got angry, got absolutely smashed on gin, then sent a text message saying the article ‘demonstrated an inherent fear of the working classes!’ (and a bit more besides) to every single person in my phone address book.
What followed was that someone in my phonebook spun said text into a news story on Drowned In Sound (NME FEATURES EDITOR THINKS POSHOS SHOULD BE LINED UP AND SHOT! or something), then a Guardian journalist rang me up and wrote this – then I felt awkward every time I had to go and review a Foals, Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man or These New Puritans gig. Oh, and I actually met the writer who wrote the OMM piece (she gave me a dead arm! But she’s quite nice! She doesn’t write anymore, she works on a farm now!)
Three years have passed, yet in light of the recent furore about the social strata that birthed The Vaccines (and to a lesser extent, the authenticity of (not-particularly-bright) new lad rock hopes Brother), I’ve been asking myself what it was that made me angry enough to run up such a monstrous phone bill.
In part, it was gin. It was also the dark old days, pre-Twitter, when such views couldn’t just be lobbed into the digital ether for mass debate. But in all honesty, I’ve started to think it was just outright jealousy. Why should others have what I don’t? Where’s my magazine cover? What does hummus taste like?
I’m wary of talking about privilege – I’m white and I’m male, within the grand scheme of things, how hard do I really have it? – but to explain my jealousy, having been born in South Yorkshire and bred in a small pit village, I’ve sometimes found it hard to relate to the backgrounds of some of the bands I’ve interviewed.
I spoke to a band once who told me they’d met each other punting in Cambridge. Another band told me they used to rehearse in a ‘room’ their father had built around the back of their ‘main house’. When I look at my student loan repayments and speak to my unemployed school friends, it’s often hard not to sit in the dark sobbing, occasionally self-harming and wailing, “IT’S SO UNFAIR! WHERE IS MY PONY?”
But this week it’s not the posh that’ve been making me angry, but what I consider to be similarly (but not equally) privileged types, pontificating the parameters of privilege. I find this odd: media isn’t especially dominated by people who went to my Comprehensive School. I know this because I just pitched an article to a magazine section editor called Rupert, and everyone I went to school with was called ‘Spud’ or ‘Dickhead’.
Many, many people who work in media got their jobs from hard graft, but some were helped by their parents subsidising them working unpaid shifts as interns. Any band that I reviewed for NME between the years of 2002 and 2003 might like to know that I did so on a taped together laptop, in a toilet cubicle, on a break from my cleaning shift. Maybe it shows, I don’t know.
It’s for these reasons that I think it’s pious that many are critiquing those Vaccines boys (and they are but boys, not Dukes) because of what they inherited. I’m not surprised though; after Smiths b-sides, class is British music journalism’s principal obsession. The Strokes are too posh! The Horrors went to public school! I saw quail on Coldplay’s rider!
I’ll admit it – I’m jealous of all three of these acts, but I’m jealous that my teachers told me to get a trade and theirs told them they could be anything they wanted – often privilege isn’t about monetary wealth, it’s about opportunity. Does that stop me from welling up a bit to ‘Fix You’? No, no it doesn’t. Similarly, does that make me hate The Vaccines? No! Does that make me question whether state funded education needs reform? Yes!
What do I think about the hottest new guitar band in the country owning half of Kensington? I think three years is a long time, and since sending that text, my views have evolved – maybe even matured. Sure, I’d like there to be a more even spread of voices in music, but I’d say the same about politics, and I know which troubles me most. It would make for a less newsworthy text, but these days I think good music is just good music, regardless of the socio-economic background of who’s making it.
That said, I’ll concede I like some music because it’s made by posh people; I’d much rather listen to the escapist aural drama of George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno – that’s Brian to you – than someone singing about a kebab in a kagoul. That’s not also to say I don’t think conversations about class have nothing to do with those about music, but when talking about a apolitical, pop orientated indie band like The Vaccines I can’t help thinking – they haven’t brought class into the conversation, why should you?
Maybe that disqualifies Brother – I don’t know, their music hasn’t inspired me enough to investigate how many acres of land their mum and dad own – but I haven’t heard any claims from The Vaccines suggesting they’re the natural successors to the Happy Mondays – if I had, this would be a different blog post. I’m thereby inducting them into the aforementioned catchment of good music (I like them, they make me dizzy).
It is songs – I’ll say, stating the absolute obvious – that are the great leveller when it comes to class. I maintain there are only three kinds of music: good music, bad music and The Ramones, who transcend all other music with their brilliance. Dee Dee Ramone or Nick Drake – what class you are never helped anyone, y’know, wail.
Returning to that text I sent, I stand by my claim that I worry about the way working class music is represented in many areas of media. I loved the Manic Street Preachers, Joy Division and Pulp growing up because they never conformed to the preordained expectations of working class music.
They were intelligent, sensitive and literate, they didn’t talk about whippets and coal, and married such traits with the outsiderdom that comes from having your back against the wall in a shitty council estate (though having developed a passion for public school punks The Clash in recent years, I’d question whether that’s an argument that really holds much weight – soul really isn’t something that’s given out to you in the dole queue, however good a soundbite that might be).
Not only that, but I worry when The Enemy’s Tom Clarke reinforces working class stereotypes, telling The Sun around the time of my text, ‘who wants to hear a fucking song about living in a castle?’ (much like the kebab in kagoul thing, anyone who’s ever lived in a terraced house would rather hear a song about living in a castle, Tom, or in the case of Oasis, something aspirational about being a rock and roll star).
I also worry about the how the working class is often fetishized (being working class isn’t some ephemeral badge of cool, it just means I went to a worse school than you). But most of all I worry about statements like: ‘where are the working class heroes, the Nicky Wires of tomorrow?’ No scratch that, that claim makes me crazy. Hang on, where’s my phone?
Truth is, British music is full of working class heroes. Thing is, most of them don’t have a white face, and few of them fit the template/straitjacket of what music criticism defines as working class. Dizzee Rascal is a working class hero. Baljit Singh Sagoo is a working class hero. Pretty much anyone who graduated from pirate radio in east London to birth grime can be considered both working class and – I say this clutching my worn copy of ‘Treddin On Thin Ice’ close to my heart – to these ears, pretty damn heroic.
I’d argue that economic circumstances have created a gulf between many minorities wider than what once existed between the traditional white working and middle class. Maybe that’s why the nu-meat and two veg of Brother seems silly to some, and those ‘new Nicky Wire’ statements seem silly to me.
There will be some who don’t like The Vaccines – you may be one, that is your right – but give them the respect of doing so because they don’t like the snotty imprudence of ‘If You Wanna’, not because you disapprove of how and where they grew up. As a working class man, I’ll tell you this, I’ve faced much snobbery because of where I’ve grown up too.
Only the contrary wouldn’t like to live in a classless society – a small step in that direction (equal distribution of wealth being the largest, let’s talk about the Royal Wedding sometime…) is learning not to prejudge anyone, regardless of if they’re affluent of not. If I’ve learned to accept my jealousy, others can too.