Friday, 18 December 2009

'All values are obliterated'

Whilst Half Man Half Biscuit's christmas song would clearly be a subtler rebuff to this man and his stranglehood over the 'xmas market', that is obviously not going to happen.* However, the rage of so many is understandable; particularly in the context of the self-important BBC interview Cowell made - pushing his future political prospects - and this:

The prospect is raised of a Cameron-Cowell Britain; unsurprising, terrifying, ideologically wedded in their non-ideology. Would it really surprise anyone if a potential PM Cameron asked Cowell to be a sort of minister without portfolio (or indeed democratic mandate beyond his TV audience)? A ghastly scenario, but clearly in keeping with Cameron's Carlton Man status.

* RATM as choice for this campaign; a bandwagon misguided in its 'real music' rhetoric, its lack of interest in positively reclaiming pop from Cowell and the carefully overlooked fact that 'Killing in the Name' shares its record label with the X Factor release. A 17-year-old RATM song will not change anything, however radical some of the sentiments. If it makes #1 it will be a fingers-up at Cowell (not a bad thing in itself of course) and the X Factor audience but it will not fundamentally change things. It has even enabled Cowell to - with some gall - call it a cynical stunt. Better rallying points? If it has to be something old, let us embrace something like Kevin Ayers's 'Hymn'; or indeed something from 2009, Hawley's 'Open Up Your Door', for instance (or - blasphemously! - something of non-US/UK origin!).

Morley is just talking on Newsnight Review about people collectively waking up in the last two years. This has been reflected in an initially strong year for pop, with Dizzee Rascal, David Guetta, even Michael Gove-favourite Lily Allen, making music that undeniably connects with these times and with people's lives. I just wish this early blaze of great pop could have gone further (and hope the likes of Little Boots will develop in the Abba/PSB tradition in time). I quite agree with the frustration of Robin Carmody as to the contradictory impulses; pop artists have seen the problem all too clearly - 'Dirtee Cash', all-crushing consumerism - but will not, cannot make a clean break from this and propose a new way of being.

Things = the fact that 19 million watched, and presumably a percentage of them share Cowell's vision of 'music' / 'entertainment' / 'democracy'.


  1. Cowell? Politics? Are you serious?

    I need a great big glass of water.

    Lots to like about Dizzee Rascal.

    A new favourite song here is Comeback by Grinspoon and Burn your road by Powderfinger. There is also a band I haven't heard of quite yet called 30 seconds to Mars. And probably Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown isn't that bad, if a little self-referential in places (it scored well in Belgium). I also enjoyed Muse's Undisclosed Desires.

    Today is the anniversary of Kate Bush and birthday of Emily Bronte.

  2. Well, Cowell is serious about it, one assumes, and Cameron certainly knows what he is doing in praising him - an overture from one media man to another put across in the usual way.

    It is Gordon Brown's failure that he could not make something of his professed liking for "Wuthering Heights"; his inability to convey any opposition to the Cameron-Cowell model of business. Culture and tradition could have been part of it; but only if Brown had focused on the needs of ordinary voters rather than those of 'The City' (you saw hints of his this might have worked in his early period as PM - but the boldness in making ontological or political changes was never truly there). The man has made himself a fraud, whereas it comes naturally to Cameron.

    Interesting piece here, wherein some of my points are expanded upon: However, Mark does not think pop is reclaimable as such - the pop continuum has to be ruptured, but nevertheless inhabited. Good point regarding Stubbs' identification of 'little things', the willing marginality of a lot of current music we might find interesting. Surely KLF / Pet Shop Boys are models to follow - the first expressing punk, the other a synthesis of fine traditions (NY / Italo disco meeting the European & literary) creating something new and beautiful.

  3. I saw the Graun article a while ago and... I really wish I could say I couldn't believe it, but sadly it is all to believable in modern Britain that you can be considered 'an immense genius' (or whatever Cameron called him) by making a lot of money from karaoke.

    Cheers for the following BTW. I have ancestry from Northumbria and an interest in the North East.

  4. Hi Gregor - thanks likewise for adding me.

    What are your areas of interest in the NE?

  5. My interest in the NE is pretty vague. Ancestral places always have a weird fascination, but I would also say that Northern England has more in common culturally, politically and linguistically with East Scotland than it has with Southern England. I’ve long been curious politically about Northern England more generally because it seems that they have a similar (or possibly worse) relation to the South than Scotland has yet it also seems to be politically inactive.

    I am a supporter of Scottish independence because I think England is turning into a ‘soft’ dictatorship like America where overly-strong media misinforms ignorant people, our civil liberties are collapsing and our leaders are competing with each other to pander to the greedy.

    This isn’t to say I am like the media cartoon SNP voter, with kilt, hey-jimmy-hat and Director’s Extended Edition of Braveheart (with extra Sassenach slaying). I feel ‘British’ and think that Britain should devolve into states and use Proportional Representation rather than being a Greater London dictatorship. Yet it seems to me that whilst this would be in the interest of North England, there is very little political organisation there.

    I’ve heard that the ‘Cameron bounce’ in England is the result of Labour voters in the South and Midlands going Tory, though he is still unpopular in much of the North. Do you find that’s the case firsthand?

  6. I have found no liking for Cameron at all, though in Sunderland the 'Local Conservatives' (crucial emphasis on the first word there!), as they style themselves, have been making some inroads - and have an outside chance of winning the new Sunderland Central seat that I reside in (though a 10% Lab. win is most likely).

    Newcastle is now pretty clearly Lab/Lib battleground, with only slight improvements for the Tories in formerly strong areas (Jesmond / Gosforth). Whilst both cities have very deprived areas, Newcastle has more of a younger professional middle-class vote (fitting the 'metropolitan' mould - the sort of people deeply turned off by the Hague and Howard campaigns), whereas Sunderland has a few council wards which are monolithically Conservative (Barnes, St Michaels, Fulwell). The difference now is that all of these wards are brought into one seat, rather than the old North/South seats.

    In Sunderland, there is plenty of resentment about the powers that be down south, yet this can just as easily become local resentment at Newcastle (the centrality of football as religion). It can even translate to BNP votes, though they have done no better than 25% in any one ward, and have been nowhere near winning a council seat (they have got about 10% city-wide). Labour is not liked, but then little is - there is a tendency to bemoan Sunderland's lot rather than act to change things. Nostalgia for the past is obviously a big thing here; the much-bemoaned loss of the tram system in the 1950s, the continual denigration of the 60s/70s concrete.

    I'd recommend reading Sunderland South MP Chris Mullin's diaries, to get a good insight into Sunderland and its politics (as well as life as a junior minister within New Labour): Quite an insight into the compromises of that era... it is rather an elegiac read, Mullin identifying so many missed opportunities and his gradual hardening against the direction being taken. I will write about it more on here when I've finished reading it.

    Very good point on PR; I don't think it is an issue that registers here at all - probably a bit more in Newcastle, which has a Lib Dem council. PR would at least mean that every vote would count for something. Turnout would surely increase and you could start to get people engaged in politics again.

    Any increased support for the Tories has been due to fairly active local campaigning and the stronger roots that they have in some areas of Sunderland (I imagine this is similar across the North). More crucial has been the collapse in people turning out to vote Labour; as, quite frankly, Labour has given them little to vote for, fundamentally not changing things from the Thatcher/Major consensus. There are some local improvements that Mullin would point to, but he certainly gets the sense that deeper changes were needed to make any great difference.

  7. Another point to raise is that the North East assembly vote in 2004 (a form of regional devoultion) saw 78% of the region vote against the proposals. The proposals were indeed flawed, with powers proposed 'for Durham' far more limited than those of Cardiff or Edinburgh. However, I cast a vote for myself ont he grounds that any move was a good move; a 'no' vote was merely for the status quo of criticism-at-a-distance.

    Part of the resounding 'no' vote was a belief that they were flouting the powers that be (with a media 'yes' campaign involving the likes of Paul Gascoigne), as well as lack of identifying with the 'north east' as a whole; people thinking in terms of 'Geordie' or 'Mackem' identities instead. It is this sort of misguided parochialism that is at the crux of the region's problems, for me.

    The No campaign was also led by the sort of people I was glad to disassociate myself from: Tories, Eurosceptics, Metric Martyrs, Daily Mail readers. Unfortunately, these sort of people have grown in strength in the NE as a whole; UKIP actually topped the poll in Hartlepool in this year's European elections. A pathetic isolationism there, which logically expands upon that town's monkey-hanging history (which it all too predictably seems to regard as a great moment). The triumph of an unthinking localism.

    Durham was the area which recorded the highest 'Yes' vote, and Newcastle was fairly close (possibly also Darlington, with its moderate Quaker traditions, which make it closer in some respects to York). This made have had something to do with Durham having the benefit of gaining jobs through the assembly being based there, and the fact that so many Newcastle 'names' backed the Yes campaign. However, it is also the case that these areas are the most outward-looking of the region.

    Where is it you live in Scotland?


    Worth reading; gives a little flavour of that referendum campaign...

  9. Thanks for the info; goes to show how ignorant I am about my own country (‘Mackem’ is a new one to me). It’s curious how little media coverage there is of the North. Te Graun used to be the Manchester Guardian, though I don’t think it has much interest in the old left areas now. Interesting as well that there is nostalgia for the past. Is this just in older people or younger ones as well? Do you think the North East has been as secularised as most of Britain? According to wikipedia, many of the areas have higher Christian populations, though this can mean anything.

    I’d always thought that the North East was quite a friendly place which would have a strong sense of identity from post-industrialisation and similar dialects. Yet it seems I was wrong on that one. Still, who knows? Maybe if David Cameron is even more of a neo-liberal fanatic than Brown (which seems likely) things might change. I even read of a Conservative who recently said that Northern cities should be dismantled and new ones built in the South.

    Will look forward to your posts on Mullin. I live outside Inverness, but spend a lot of time in Edinburgh. Inverness has itself an interesting blend of post-war architecture and affected modernism. I actually prefer the concrete buildings and rusting machinery.

  10. Friendly, to some extent; as I have said previously on this blog (look for my entry on an EM Forster short story), I do find it friendlier up here than in the south, in my limited experience. I tend to find Newcastle and Sunderland fairly friendly, but depends where you venture (and who you encounter) in what are large cities; from speaking to a colleague who lives in Consett, I gather many of the former pit village areas are not the most hospitable... Close-knit and inward-looking, perhaps in line with what I was saying about Hartlepool. I recall that, on a drive across the A688/A66 (a cross-country Roman road heading to Penrith and northern lakeland), just past Barnard Castle I saw some rather unpleasant graffiti on what appeared to be farm buildings: the typical tabloid-incited xenophobia. Uncertain about Weardale, other than that it is very remote and has great sites of industrial derilection; some of the villages seem distinctly out-of-time, but not at all quaint (this is Auden's North Pennines; leadmines etc.). Wonderful names like Killhope, Leadgate, Sinderhope, Raise, Ireshopeburn. When passing through by car, villages like St John's Chapel had harvest-festival type animal mannequins scattered around like something out of "The Wicker Man". The Tyne Valley area seems rather middle-class (though not entirely Tory). I would say that Northumberland people seem friendly (and the Berwick / Alnwick area is a Liberal stronghold).

    Sunderland was one of the places highlighted in that 'Cities of the Future' report or whatever it was called; basically saying everybody there should be looking to move to the south-east.

    There was definitely a stronger sense of regional (and *class*) identity during industrialisation; like everywhere, post-industrialisation, this seems to have dissipated. The younger generation seems generally oblivious to the area's past; it tends to be those in their 40s and older who are nostalgic and want to commemorate the past, e.g. Sunderland's Maritime Heritage centre, which I really must visit, it being 15mins walk away in the old east end:

    Secularised? Well, the census data in 2001 recorded a higher proportion of Christians in the NE than most of England; particularly areas of County Durham, e.g. Chester-le-Street. I do not think this is true in the more urban areas I know; in Sunderland there are few 'active' Christians - loads of churches that have closed or been converted, e.g. Christchurch a minute away from me is now a Sikh temple. There was a synagogue on Ryhope Rd., again nearby, and this closed about five years ago, as the local Jewish population had reduced to single figures. In former times, there had been a large professional Jewish population in Sunderland; many have either moved South, or to Bensham, Gateshead. Congregations are certainly not what they were, and I would say that yes, you have the same sort of secularisation going on. To give a more personal example, I did a 'Darwin Project' survey with my General Studies students in March, and found that these 16-18 year-olds were more atheist / secular than the general population. I also put the census question on religion to them, and 66% said 'No Religion', around 50% more than the GB public in 2001. Only one in five answered Christian, and I have only encountered a handful of students in three years teaching who claim to regularly attend church.

    I know very little about Inverness; will look out for mentions in your blog... Did you see the Jonathan Meades 'Off Kilter' series on Scotland on BBC4? One of my favourite TV shows of the year... A whole hour on Aberdeen, the granite city.

  11. Your comment makes me more curious to know if I still have relatives in Northumberland (though its borders have changed so much, it might not be Northumberland anymore). If they’d care they had a Jock relative, I don’t know.

    What was the Darwin Project? I am myself a third generation atheist, turned Eastern Orthodox Christian. I don’t feel my views have changed much. I still dislike ‘religion’ if it means being anti-science, pro-ghettoisation, pro-war, morally superior, judgemental, puritanical etc, but I do think a community formed around belief in a higher order and calling can be very beautiful and there is a lot of wisdom in it. I think Greece has the right balance. I’m hoping to write a blogpost soon on one of my favourite books, The Possessed by Dostoyevsky, because I think his idea that people are religious and feel most comfortable with communal morals is a very important message. Especially as the political/media mainstream seems to have formed a neo-liberal ghetto.

    I don’t have a TV, though I was born in Aberdeen and know it quite well (my dad lives there). Whilst it is barely further south than Inverness, it is definitely a lowland culture. In my opinion the most beautiful part of Scotland is the stretch between Inverness and Aberdeen. It has hills as well as fields and coastline, and is also one of the driest areas of Britain.

    It is unfortunate to read that Northern England (like Scotland) is loosing touch with its heritage. Perhaps you cam across my blog via Robin Carmody? I largely agree with him that pop culture has gone from being an innovative medium to being a tool of neoliberalism.

  12. Yes, I did; saw some of your comments on his blog.

    I think there are many moments where things might have gone differently with culture itself and I am sure that I would be more engaged with pop. I just find that I cannot do it at the moment - whilst I can never adopt the Private Frazer view that we're all doomed, I cannot adopt the compulsory positivity model offered by Jude Rogers in the Guardian earlier in the year.

    Pop culture did, generally, in the 1962-84 era ("Telstar" to the Miner's Strike; tellingly, dreams of future progress for all through technology to the defeat of history and working-class organisation) provide immense innovation and undoubtedly connected with the public in a way that was not as tenuous as today. The centre was so strong that it could not be ignored; music on the fringes was informed by what was pop in various ways. There have been great moments within popular culture since then, but the whole has lent itself to being an ideological tool, selling an uncontested vision of neo-liberalism.

    The situation may have slightly improved since downloads have been allowed, and the crisis of capitalism has ensued; you can at least see that the charts reflect the public's view again. I am sure most would find more good pop singles in the latter part of the decade; unfortunately, none have been 'game changing' to use a cliche. 'Crazy', 'Bonkers' are superb pop. RATM over Cowell is all well and good, but what is it leading to...?

    Robin made a crucial observation about the Dizzee Rascal album which reflects more broadly on 2009; the schizophrenia of a culture which is disavowing greed and ultra-capitalism one minute (or song), then being drawn back to it the next...