The party's not over
Cool Britannia may be undergoing a name-change, but Andrew Calcutt believes that the New Labour combo of pop and politics will play on and on
Chris Smith's book Creative Britain had been trailed as a celebration of New Labour's first year in office. But publication day (20 May) was marked by resignations from the Arts Council, while the book's cover artist, Damien Hirst, stayed away from the launch party, as did Bill Woodrow, the sculptor who produced the artwork presented to Smith by publishers Faber and Faber (Woodrow went fishing). The following night Channel 4 broadcast an hour-long programme, The Party's Over, chronicling New Labour's love for Cool Britannia and the NME-led backlash against it.
In the Observer playwright David Hare dismissed Smith's book as 'a windy testament to impotence'. Like Robert Hewison, the cultural historian sometimes credited with coining the term 'Cool Britannia', Hare criticised Smith for failing to fund the arts properly. By Sunday, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport was in Cannes for the film festival, where Ken Loach, director of the prize-winning film My Name Is Joe, had already declared 'we'd run a mile from being associated with New Labour'. After all that, the minister for cool could have been forgiven for reflecting on the words of Victorian prime minister Lord Melbourne: 'God help the government that meddles with art.'
New Labour came to Cool Britannia in search of a rare shared national experience. Although Smith now 'reject[s] the flawed phrase', he is still hoping that 'cultural activity can help us with the development of our sense of who and what we are'. Renamed Creative Britain, the aim remains the same: 'drawing people together...to ensure social inclusion and to overcome isolation and rejection.' But by the end of May Smith appeared isolated, while New Labour's embrace of creativity seemed only to have pulled people apart (high arts v popular culture, opera v Oasis, pure art v applied arts). As Hare pointed out, New Labour was 'cycling furiously away from the notion of Cool Britannia with the same air of desperation with which John Major once had to abandon Back to Basics'. In both instances, the tag that was meant to represent harmonious unity of purpose only highlighted divisions and acrimony.
In one respect, the rift was not of New Labour's making. Outsider status is part of the equipment of every pop culture professional. Incorporation, aka 'selling out', has long been seen as the deadliest of sins, and everybody in the business is obliged to decry it or risk losing all credibility - and a drop in sales. As soon as Tony Blair took office it was inevitable that Creation Record's Alan McGee would walk out at some point (without slamming the door behind him, mind you). The backlash against Cool Britannia is simply this year's bandwagon.
The kudos of outsider status, and the complications this causes for New Labour, are exemplified in the recent manoeuvres over dole-queue rock. Identifying with the sense in which being on the dole is outside the world of work and, by implication, beyond conformity (supposedly), a host of professional outsiders complained that New Labour's 'welfare to work' plans would stifle the output of artistic claimants who have been using the dole as an unofficial government grant. In an attempt to restore unity and bring the outsiders back into the fold, New Labour has announced a scheme whereby employment officials will somehow identify the genuine creative types at the labour exchange and provide them with financial support and relevant training opportun- ities. Apart from bringing an unforeseen veracity to the rhyming slang for dole ('rock'n'roll'), this initiative can only be a flashpoint for more trouble as state functionaries take on the role of A&R men for Creative Britain (Spice Girls soundalikes - get a job stacking shelves; All Saints lookalikes - we may have something for you).
If Smith thought he could leave behind the naff bits of Cool Britannia by changing the label to Creative Britain, he is sadly mistaken. The secretary of state is probably the naffest of them all, behaving like a trendy vicar, trying to involve everybody while getting their names wrong (in his book drum and bass is spelt 'drum & base' and dj/record producers Roni Size and Jazzie B become 'singers'). Former Tory minister George Walden accused Smith of 'appalling condescension' and suggested that the secretary of state was 'dumbing himself down'. Perhaps he is. But there is a far more important casualty of this dumbing down. Most at risk from the stupefying effect of New Labour is politics itself.
Far from abandoning the attempt to marry popular culture and politics, New Labour remains intent on turning the entire political process into a pop-style charade.
With New Labour, the political realm has finally become a spectacle which the public is invited merely to consume, in the same passive way that we would partake of a rock concert or a pop video. It is de rigueur to be moved by New Labour: the model response is Noel Gallagher's declaration 'Tony Blair's speech brought tears to my eyes'. What we are not supposed to be is activated. At Cannes Ken Loach was articulating an Old Labour complaint when he said that 'these days being a Labour Party member just means supplying your Visa card number'. But his observation that 'they don't want activists' has a broader relevance; the New Labour experience is not intended to produce any form of political activity, but rather to prompt the kind of star-audience relationship which is the stock-in-trade of pop culture. As an experience which belongs in the world of emotion, the new politics depends on the suspension of rational appraisal on the part of the fan base (for that is what the voter has now become). We are meant to be blown away by Blair in the same way that generations of rock fans have been smitten by a wall of sound.
Just as the electorate has been dumbed down to the level of a teenage fan club, so politicians have become performers whose role is simply to sing in tune ('on message'), regardless of how banal the words might be. In this respect, the pre-election publicity photos of Blair strumming a Fender Stratocaster were not just a cynical ploy on the part of a middle-aged politician trying to look like he is in touch with the kids. That would have been a valid criticism of Harold Wilson and his photocall with The Beatles back in the sixties. But in Blair's case the pictures were an authentic image of him as the premier political performer for the nineties. His soundbites are more like song lyrics than logical arguments. And, like song lyrics, it does not matter all that much if they do not make sense.
In the Channel 4 programme The Party's Over, various commentators remarked that New Labour had enjoyed a one night stand with the pop world. But there is more to it than that. Cool Britannia is no longer cool, but New Labour is now joined at the hip to the pop experience. Indeed, with Blair as frontman, politics has been absorbed into pop culture and the political realm has been thoroughly degraded as a result. It is politics, not pop stars, which has been 'betrayed' by New Labour. *
Andrew Calcutt is the author of Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Cassell
Too much his way
Frank Sinatra's death prompted a mourning chorus. Singer Des de Moor sounds a discordant note
After the death of Frank Sinatra in May, Pavarotti tearfully compared him to Mozart. Bob Dylan cited him as an influence 'whether I knew it or not'. U2's Bono called him the 'big bang of pop', Ian McCulloch labelled him a 'dude' and even Snoop Doggy Dog proclaimed his 'love' for Ol' Blue Eyes. These days, when youth revolt seems a quaint anachron-ism and even the cheesiest easy listening vies for space on the trendy young ironist's leopard-skin CD rack, it is easy to see why Sinatra is 'in'. But unlike most of his contemporaries, he did not need the coming of the ironic condition to make him hip again. Sinatra was cool all the time.
Rock Dreams (1974), a collection of iconic images of rock'n'roll heroes by Guy Peelaert and Nik Cohn, begins and ends with portraits of Sinatra. Joy Division's Ian Curtis had the crooner on his turntable the night he strung himself up. In the mid-1980s, the (then) fashionable Frankie Goes To Hollywood named themselves after Sinatra. In recent years singers such as Bono and Annie Lennox queued up to duet with him. The man was the height of fashion for half a century.
It is difficult not to admire Sinatra's work. His repertoire spanned a huge range ('My way' is a version of a chanson populaire by the French sixties songwriter Claude François). Some of his recordings are electric, though they are as much the work of arrangers and bandleaders like Nelson Riddle and Neal Hefti. Yet I would contend that Sinatra's monolithic influence has done more harm than good in popular music. The quotes from 'My way' have been overdone in the past few weeks, but when it came to the interpretation of songs, Sinatra certainly did do it his way. Very early on he perfected that distinctive style, and proceeded to apply it without discrimination (or much variation) to everything he encountered. No matter what the tune, the performance projects the Sinatra style so strongly that anything the lyricist and composer have to say is obliterated.
The rich low-baritone register (Sinatra was at his best here; he can sound strained at the top of his range), the easy, subtly syncopated phrasing with its many little hesitations, the light vibrato, the distinctive portamenti (slides) between adjacent notes, all contribute to the throwaway quality of casual speech in his singing. Now and again he holds a note to prove he has the power, but mostly he is intimate and conversational. He always sounds controlled and confident, a man at ease with himself and the world. This is the 'Everyman' style which Mel Torme mentioned in his tribute. It suggests that anybody could be up there crooning these songs, but it is an illusion, a musical equivalent of cinematic realism in which high levels of technical skills are used to efface themselves. It is also a style totally unable to express conflict, fragility and anything approaching genuine emotion.
Sinatra is ideally suited to confident numbers like 'New York, New York', but he takes an identical approach to even the most sensitive ballads. Such is his skill that he usually pulls it off at first hearing: but have another listen to what the song itself is about and the approach quickly reveals its limitations. In 'What now my love?' he sounds positively cheerful for a man who has just been dumped by the love of his life. In 'It was a very good year' there is little sense of yearning or regret. Even William Shatner's (Captain Kirk) hammy rendition responds better to the content of the song.
Of course jazz singers have long disregarded lyrics in favour of virtuoso vocal display. But Sinatra does not even do that. On the surface he appears self-effacing, but by making his material unimportant, by stifling any problematic or emotional content it had, he comes the closest yet to reducing artistic interpret-ation to a simple and repeatable encounter with a manufactured and formulaic personality.
The consummate Las Vegas entertainer, Sinatra was top dog in a world which values the ability to smother real tensions and unpleasant realities in a glossy patina of phoney self-confidence. This may explain why, even though Torme could put in a credible r&b performance from time to time, Sinatra was always too slick to rock.*
Des de Moor is a singer, songwriter and promoter of Pirate Jenny's musical cabaret club (www.commex.org/jenny)
Pissing in the wind?
The Piss Factory - a multi-media, multi-venue event in London in May - combined film and music at Hoxton's Lux cinema and Blue Note club with a photography exhibition at the nearby gallery run by Dazed and Confused magazine. It is a bid to bring together those cultural/creative types not enamoured of the New Labour age. Named after a Patti Smith song, with references to the contro-versial artwork 'Piss Christ' and to Andy Warhol's Factory, the event was centred on Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a film by Johan Grimonprez which repackages documentary images of radicalism and terrorism, and the work of photographer Aldo Bonasia, who documented the social unrest in Italy during the seventies.
Was the Piss Factory, sponsored by trendy jeans company Evisu, an example of what Tom Wolfe called 'radical chic' - playing at subversion? Or did the event (and the luminaries who attended it, such as Wayne Hemingway from Red or Dead and Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream) represent a genuine attempt to explore subversion and creativity at a time when so much of what passes for art and culture is safe and predictable? Alessio Quarzo-Cerina, the Milan-born club-culture consultant who organised the Piss Factory, outlines his motivation for putting on the event.
'We saw Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y last summer and liked it a lot, because it's a collage of TV footage about consumerism, Cold War mentality and political movements, with a really funky soundtrack. It comes across as something beautiful, mesmerising, and it's only afterwards you realise you've seen some pretty serious, violent stuff. We wanted to do something with it because it seemed to have a very amoral point of view. The impression you get is of a nineties artist working with these events as images and putting you in the audience on the spot.
'I grew up in Milan in the seventies, which are known as the "years of lead": radical politics, right-wing groups, terrorism, bombings, kidnapping, looting, shooting in the street. On the days of demonstrations it was like everybody was preparing for war, putting on balaclavas and getting out huge spanners. At the time my best friend was the son of the photographer Aldo Bonasia, who took really beautiful pictures of what was going on. But he never considered himself an artist, he was a social documentarist interested in creating manifestos - manifesto in Italian means both poster and a political statement. He used his pictures to make cheap posters and put them up all over the place. So Bonasia was working with similar material to Grimonprez, but to a different effect. It seemed very interesting to put the two artists together.
'I think there is something really democratic about club culture. This was our opportunity to put some "serious" visual culture in a club setting, allowing people to enjoy these images and reflect on them if they wanted to. So we had this idea, and when we talked to other people they took to it. Wayne Hemingway became very passionate about it and wrote the best take on it in the Evening Standard. We struck a chord with thinkers and doers - pop musicians, architects, entrepreneurs, who are in strong positions and who feel uneasy that there is no politics today.
'There is a danger of being nostalgic, of saying 'let's go back to the sixties when culture was subversive'. But those currents have played themselves out and nobody believes that fully. Radical chic is current, yet there is something very dissatisfying about it. We are in a paradoxical position: as youth culture professionals we are completely incorporated in the system, but as political subjects we are marginalised. Then again, we are in a strong position at the centre of things here in London.
'I was happy about the event in that it attracted innovative people who have not been involved in politics, but who may want to use the influence they have to create a bit of a stir: people who make a difference in culture, but with no power in the political sense. I would love to have Piss Factory Two, and force the realisation that we can go round spouting our heads off and it makes no difference, unless we focus our attention. Maybe then we could write a manifesto and run a candidate for mayor of London.'
Alessio Quarzo-Cerina is the CEO of club culture inc. People with ideas for future editions of the Piss Factory are invited to phone him on 0171 275 9666
The beats go on
Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs are still revered by today's alt.rock generation as the elder statesmen of counterculture. The recent deaths of Ginsberg and Burroughs (Kerouac died 30 years ago, an alcoholic wreck) have helped foster a miniature industry of beat generation spin-offs aimed at today's angel-headed-hipsters-cum-consumers. Biographies, albums, magazines and a steady stream of new editions have materialised in a repackaging frenzy reminiscent of the heritage gift-shop.
Half-in and half-out of this nostalgia-fest is Barry Miles. Something of a veteran counter-culturalist himself (as plain 'Miles' he co-founded the underground paper International Times in the 1960s), he has written biographies of Ginsberg, Burroughs and now Kerouac. But at the launch of Jack Kerouac, King of the Beats: A Portrait, he spoke out against the way that the lives and legacy of the beat generation are being sanitised for mass consumption now that they are 'conveniently dead'. He mocked the Kerouac Commemorative, a $100 000 monument to the self-proclaimed 'dharma bum', and jibed at the Hilton Hotel in Kerouac's hometown (Lowell, Massachusetts) for planning to put a statue of the holy idiot in its pristine forecourt.
Miles' nostalgic take harks back to a time when there was a much greater distinction between the values embodied by the beats and the American way; a time when FBI chief J Edgar Hoover called the beatniks 'the third greatest threat to American civilisation' and the counterculture had some grounds for seeing itself as an opposition to the status quo. But now that the Vatican has announced plans for a millennial event in the spirit of Kerouac, it seems more like mainstream society has been co-opted by what was then the counterculture. Certainly the hallmarks of Kerouac's work - DIY spirituality, emphasis on private feelings and a confessional approach to writing - have become the dominant motifs of today's 'Oprah-atic' media.
Miles remains insistent that the counterculture has been victimised by corporate America. He has occasional insights into Kerouac and his work ('he didn't address adult themes, he was a perpetual child') and a heart-warming enthusiasm for a writer who 'captured the size and dynamism of America and its ordinary people'. But perhaps Miles is simply too much a man of the sixties to recognise how the transformation of counterculture into over-the-counter culture also means that the mainstream is now dominated by Kerouac-like figures who used only to exist on the margins. *
Jack Kerouac, King of the Beats: A Portrait is published by Virgin (£16.99)
Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998