February 12, 2011 § Leave a comment
If you want to know the stylistic development of culture and pop culture in the 20th century and you don’t have that much interest in the details of its content, I think you just need to look at and watch as many adverts as you can. This advert from the 1930s uses art deco stying – look at the head of the woman to the right of the Nestle picture! – to advertise small, mundane things. Advertising moves almost as fast as we do. Right now it’s stuck in some kind of hideous viral video rut, which I find particularly annoying. People just watch something funny and talk about it, same as ever; I think aiming for the style of stupid videos on Youtube is a bad idea, because it’s not really the style that makes them go viral – it’s whether or not it’s funny, or whether or not people find it genuine and entertaining. Maybe we’ll get more great adverts like the Hovis one that swept through the 20th century, which takes the style of some popular homegrown British films and telly shows and runs with it, clutching a small loaf of bread as it goes (becoming a minor viral hit itself in the process), or maybe we’re just going to be stuck with stupid men singing annoying songs forever, as they become less and less interesting. Or maybe the marketers and ad men will find other things to become obsessed with.
Sorry I haven’t posted much recently – I’m spending a lot of my time reading Lorine Niedecker, Shakespeare plays and Charles Olson for essays and general university stuff at the moment, which doesn’t leave that much time for other things. I am really glad, though, that the BBC is running a lot of shows about books at the moment, and if I get time I want to talk about In Their Own Words, which was on last year and is being repeated at the moment. It’s amazing and smart and unassuming, in all the ways that Sebastian Faulks’s show (the first episode of which I found sexist and irritating) just isn’t. It’s educational and mentions issues to do with gender etc. without needing them to be the focus of the show. It talks about Barbara Cartland, Evelyn Waugh and Alice Carter. If you didn’t catch it last year, you should watch it now. It’s on iplayer. Go on.
January 8, 2011 § 3 Comments
I got back from Gloucestershire (via London, where money seems to just osmose out of me) today, and on the journey back this song came up on my mp3 player’s shuffle. I then proceeded to play it about a thousand more times. It was written in 2004 in reaction to what people (well, mostly the media, I think) said about the death of Ronald Reagan, but six years on, and despite the fact that Margaret Thatcher hasn’t died (which the song kind of hinges on, but it’s not really about that – more on this later), and despite the fact that the UK’s political landscape has changed (as much as a two-party/two-and-a-bit-party system can) in the intervening years, it seems to pretty much nail what’s happening in UK politics at the moment.
First of all, it’s not a song about the death of Margaret Thatcher. No, really, it’s not. I know one of those when I hear it. It’s about the way that modern political history gets rewritten – the way that politicians who did horrible things while in office start rehabilitating themselves by turning up on the telly whenever it’ll have them. He sings about Steve Norris and Edwina Currie becoming personalities rather than politicians, and all I can think about is Ann Widdecombe on Strictly Come Dancing, and how awful she is, and how people found her entertaining and funny and voted to keep her in for weeks. She’s against abortion, when she was an MP she consistently voted against equality for gays and lesbians, she voted against removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords, and she doesn’t believe in climate change (that’s a fairly horrible website and I don’t want to give them hits, but I can’t find her actual column anywhere else). If you’re interested, there’s a list of the abhorrent things she’s done here.
He sings these lines, and she dances through my head, while people from the telly say inane things like “you always get a contestant who brings humour and fun to the show. I love Ann”:
All the smiling lying psychopaths we finally deposed
Are now creeping into reality TV and phone-in shows
Yeah. Happening again. And we need to fight it, you know? Because this is the kind of revisionism – the kind of short-sightedness – that allows us to forget what the Conservatives did in the 1980s. The kind of short-sightedness that makes us giggle at a politician who only stood down from her position as an MP in May this year. May! And before Christmas everybody couldn’t wait to talk about how much they giggled at her on Strictly. It’s this kind of revisionism that leads to what features in the next verse in the song, after a description of how “preening pamphlet-headed peacocks” only ever talk about ooh wasn’t his hair glamorous and mad in the eighties etc.:
As if the miners’ strike, the poll tax and BSE never happened
As if Section 28 was never passed into the law
As if Osama Bin Laden wasn’t paid to fight our wars
As if the institutionalised weren’t turfed onto the streets
Into a new society they said did not exist
This is it. This is it exactly. David Cameron showed, earlier this year, how out of his depth he was when it came to gay rights. He wasn’t an MP when Section 28 became law – but he didn’t turn up to the vote to repeal it, either, and in Europe the Conservatives are aligned with a Polish party who are peddling the same sort of homophobic views that we finally managed to expel – at least in law – seven years ago. In 2009, one of his MEPs even defended a homophobic insult used by the party’s leader – claiming it had been taken out of context. As if homophobic abuse is something that can just be explained away. David Cameron mostly just tries to shrug off talk of his party’s past in this sort of area as if it’s a faint but inconsequential embarrassment.
It’s his party’s lying that caused 2010’s second budget to be known as an “emergency” budget, so that they could start a regime of unnecessary cuts, that hit the poorest hardest, no matter what various members of the coalition say. It wasn’t working particularly well when it came to polling day – despite an incumbent Labour government that nobody liked, led by the increasingly blunder-ridden Gordon Brown, the Conservatives didn’t manage to win a majority of seats. But they joined up with the Lib Dems (as was always going to happen – there was a reason that I voted Labour) and their combined “wave of lies”, to use M.J. Hibbett’s words… have kind of beaten the media, and a lot of people, down. Why is nobody other than like Johann Hari, Laurie Penny, and the people at UK Uncut talking about the weird economic lies that the coalition – and the political establishment in general, Labour have done this too, to a lesser extent – use to justify cuts, use to justify the austerity that we’re now facing? They’re all great, and I thank them – but we need more people in the media talking about this, and less just repeating what the politicians say. They’ve shown time and time again that they can’t be trusted. They’re just waiting to retire with their millions and a quick route into telly fame.
The Conservatives cut themselves off from their past – as M.J. Hibbett sings about here, and as Stewart Lee talks about here (go about two and a half minutes in), and this is what allows them to continue to lie, continue to do the same things over and over again. Yes, regeneration is important to any political party, and new leaders and members believe in different things, and can legitimetaly break with what went before. But the Conservative party was unpleasant in the past, and remains unpleasant now – it tries to pretend that it’s not full of old men who rubbish the hard times that people less well-off than them are facing. It tries to pretend that it’s not full of MPs who don’t believe in equal rights for people and couples of any sexuality, but… the evidence keeps popping up, like garden weeds. They said they’d be the greenest government ever, but they’re going to sell off the forests and don’t seem to have started any radical plans to help stop climate change. They’re cutting funding for regional public transport. They’re allowing train ticket prices to rise to the point where nobody will be able to afford them, and will end up just using their cars again. They pretend that they’ve changed when they haven’t, and it’s the short-sightedness of the media and voters that lets them get away with it. Ann Widdecombe is being used as some sort of distraction from what’s really happening. This song recognises what her appearance on the show was really about, six years before she even pulled on a pair of dancing shoes. Because it’s a constant cycle of lies and apologies and every year the same thing.
In his long commentary about the song, M.J. Hibbett says:
It’s a strange experience to stand on stage singing songs about something which feels so current and relevant to me, in front of adults who were only toddlers when it was all happening. Sometimes it feels like a history lesson, sometimes it feels like Folk Music, but sometimes I see people my age with a gleam in their eye when I sing it, and it’s always lovely to talk to them afterwards. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels like his adolescence is being re-written.
I was born in 1989, and I’m writing six years after his own commentary. But I still think this song is important – I think the ideas it contains need to be expressed. I think that what it says is true. It’s what allowed Boris to become mayor of London.
Politicians are not celebrities. I wish the programme controllers or whoever the fuck it is who books people for all these programmes about famous amateurs doing something in a studio every week would fucking realise it. They are, or were, important, and we need to not let personalities and wardrobes and all that shit get in the way. It’s hard enough to understand who’s telling the truth and who is responsible for what without all of this cluttering everything. STOP. Stop now. Don’t help them push their agendas, don’t laugh at what they say. An aide who did a weekend course in comedy probably told them to do it anyway. Just stop.
And finally. Of course this song isn’t about wanting Thatcher to die. Come on. It’s not an empty, earnest, political song, the type that people love to say they hate. It’s so much cleverer than that.