With Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson accusing Idles of "appropriating a working class voice", columnist Mark Beaumont argues that, in 2019, rock is all in the same boat.
There are several common assumptions that online review commenters make about me as a long-standing rock hack. That I’m a failed musician. That I’m obsessed with The 1975, and become instantly aroused whenever Noel expresses an opinion. That I have a supernatural ability to review gigs I wasn’t actually at and records I didn’t bother listening to. Best of all, that I’m a card-carrying, public-schooled member of the upper-middle-class metropolitan liberal media elite, who meet weekly over asparagus and quail egg focaccia in Islington gastropubs to crush the careers of randomly selected bands like emperors in a colosseum, and whose cultural map of the UK cuts off at Alexandra Palace, north of which it just says ‘here be chavs’.
Sat in my half-done doer-upper in Plumstead, home of Shampoo, I virtually choke on my Dixie Fried Pigeon Wings at the idea. Truth is, I’m an estate rat who got lucky. I grew up in a North London warzone of a council block which, today, makes the final scenes of High-Rise look like Downton Abbey. Were it not for my innate ability to find innovative weekly ways to slag off Bastille and my artful, if illiberal, deployment of the word ‘arse’ over several decades, I’d be one of those doley smackos that Channel 4 parade through documentaries like vagabonds being shame-drummed through medieval towns, just to help justify austerity.
Since I was 11 I’ve been accruing the trappings of middle classdom – grammar school education, university degree, bylines in The Guardian, fine wine holidays in San Sebastian, an informed opinion on immigration, an inability to recognise a single ‘celebrity’ on any show with ‘celebrity’ in the title – but in the back of my mind I know that the only things I’m likely to inherit are a wide variety of mental health issues and substantial lottery ticket debt. Wracked with class-based imposter syndrome, and just as much Danny Dyer as I am Colin Firth, it’s fair to say I’m a plastic Tarquin. The only cultural figureheads I can really relate to are the street-talking WWII pilots from Armstrong & Miller.
So when, last week, Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods accused the rather more middle-class Idles of “class appropriation” for smothering their record sleeves with photos of punch-up at 1970s weddings and singing about the goings-on in flat roofed pubs, racism, being “scum” and the inadvisable nature of fisticuffs with permed chaps, I found myself torn. The council flat battler in me was riled by the injustice of the middle-class kids that now dominate alternative rock music – because they can afford to have a gap-year crack at being a musician while papa picks up their running tab at Giant Robot – singing of underclass concerns when there are proper working-class heroes out there with stories to tell that’d make Daniel Blake weep, if they could only afford to tell them. And then the part of me that’s basically been appropriating a middle-class lifestyle for my entire adult life barges in like facts into a Christmas dinner Brexit argument, taking a broader, fairer view.
Let’s face it, cultural appropriation is the most fuzzy-headed part of being woke. Culture is fluid, inconstant and unfixed, and the evolution of ideas, aesthetics, sounds and imagery borrowed from vastly different cultures has been the lifeblood of all Western art for centuries. Without cultural appropriation there’d be no Beatles, Stones, Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Father Ted, chicken tikka masala, Shakespeare plotlines, Reservoir Dogs, Strictly…, yoga, hard drugs, soft drugs, the word smorgasbord, anything you might find on a smorgasbord and regretful ISIS brides. It’s a regressive, tribal and protectionist idea that, were it enforced by law, would see us spending most nights burning Italian teachers at the stake while the elders played ‘The Hokey-Cokey’ on lutes before expressing, though a series of guttural grunts, that it’s time to commence the evening’s heavy-grade incest. Oh, and Damon Albarn would have to beg for refuge in some kind of embassy.
And are Idles actually appropriating anything anyway? After so many years in what I’m told are the middle-classes, I still couldn’t dream of being able to afford the house next door to the one my working-class parents bought in their early 30s. So if my Thatcher-foiled attempt at social mobility has taught me anything, it’s that there’s precious little distinction at the lower end of society anymore. The middle-class has merged into the working-class, all embroiled in the same grinding hand-to-mouth struggle. Nobody can afford the average rent, we all have to live in a rotting rat nest somewhere stabby, we’ve all seen the everyday horrors and heroisms of an underfunded NHS and if we have to cram ourselves onto one more late, overpriced train we might all tut ourselves inside out. Sure, the middle-classes have advantages – nepotism, inheritances, unclogged arteries, teeth that don’t look like they’d better suit a minotaur – but they too have to risk the wrath of the perm to sneak in a Wetherspoons happy hour or two towards the end of the month.
Williamson considers Idles’ vision of Britain in 2019 to be “cliched, patronising [and] insulting” to the working class, and maybe their songs of “council house and violent” scumbags and coke-raging “Topshop tyrants” do stray too far down Benefit Street at times, as though they’ve been binge-watching poverty porn.
But who’s to say they’re not merely writing about the world they see around them, much as Sleaford Mods do, only shouting “FUCK OFF!” at fewer social workers? Middle class musicians don’t live some cushioned, rarefied existence set apart from reality; they’re drinking in the same grim pubs, scrabbling for just as much part-time work and getting leathered by the same arseholes as you. Neoliberalism has turned the wealth gap between the offshoring rich and everyone else into a gaping chasm – it’s not class vs class anymore, it’s Us vs Them. And if someone wants to make some noise about that, I don’t give a shit if their dad’s got a double garage.