Sunday, November 20, 2011

Could life ever be sane again?

My recent claim that the places where British people live don't matter (which is not to say that Britain as a whole doesn't matter) has prompted me to resurrect an old, unfinished post from August. In it I sort of argue from song lyrics, which is a dubious form of argument. The idea, though, is that these are expressions of popular sentiments, and that if enough of them say more or less the same thing then this thing must be a widespread feeling. So my claim is not really that British towns and cities are insignificant so much as that they are felt to be insignificant by the people who live there. Maybe the point is just obvious (Britain is (often thought to be) a satellite of the USA, and satellites are always dead: as the song written about the town where I grew up says, "in satellite towns there's no colour and no sound"), but I feel like trying to make it anyway.

If you Google "Panic on the streets of London" you get lots of discussion of last summer's riots in London and elsewhere, as well as links to do with the song "Panic," from which this line comes. The song connects desperation with attacks on music that "says nothing to me about my life," i.e. that lies or indulges in escapist fantasy. You might insist that it is about panic rather than despair, but the emotion in question is contrasted with the hopes that "may rise on the Grasmeres," so I think desperation or despair is a fair characterization of it. Wordsworth lived in Grasmere and (rightly) called it lovely, so there is a contrast here between the loveliness of the Lake District and the banality of town and city life (as well as the contrast between honest, or realistic, and dishonest music).  

There's a similar theme in one of the songs that presumably influenced "Panic," The Fall's "Eat Y'self Fitter." (The Fall and The Smiths both come from Manchester, "Eat Y'self Fitter" was recorded just a few years before "Panic," and it contains the lyrics: "Panic in Sudan, Panic in Wardour, Panic in Granadaland [the independent television company in Manchester is/was called Granada], Panic all over," so the influence seems likely.) And The Fall have been no friends of certain aspects of modern, industrial life or dishonest music ("stars on 45 keep my pockets lined," etc). Ozzy Osbourne said that Black Sabbath were inspired by the bleakness of Birmingham (roughly: England's Detroit) in contrast with the happy, sunny music coming out of California at the time they started. It would have been dishonest for them to have been more fun. And this is reminiscent of Larkin's statement that deprivation was for him what daffodils were for Wordsworth. It's all more or less summed up in Blur's deliberately banal complaint, "modern life is rubbish." So, what's the problem and what's the solution?

The problem is more or less explained by the anthem "Jerusalem," whose words were written by William Blake. The popular ideal of England is that of a green and pleasant land. The reality is often ugly and dirty factories, warehouses, shopping malls, and the like: Blake's "dark, Satanic mills." Another version of this diagnosis is "Dirty Old Town," written about Salford, which, along with Trafford, has now merged with Manchester into one big metropolis. Ewan MacColl presents city life as contrasting with love, so that the two are almost incompatible. A place full of factories and gasworks is no place for romance. And you get similar sentiments in The Sex Pistols' singing that there's "no future in England's dreaming" and in several songs by Suede.

Blake's solution is to build a new Jerusalem in England, which is perhaps not entirely realistic. MacColl's is to cut the city down with an axe, as the Sex Pistols' is to get drunk and "destroy." Morrissey, equally pessimistically, declares that "London is dead." Suede manage to create a sort of romantic cynicism, along the lines of Oscar Wilde's idea of looking at the stars while lying in the gutter. But how anyone could live that kind of self-consciously trashy life in middle age, especially if they had children to raise, is hard to see. The Kinks, of course, offered straightforward conservatism--"what more can we do?", which sounds like an admission of defeat right away. Decades later the Libertines complained that "there's fewer more distressing sights than that/ Of an Englishman in a baseball cap" in their song "Time for Heroes." But, of course, there are no more heroes any more.


  1. But how anyone could live that kind of self-consciously trashy life in middle age, especially if they had children to raise, is hard to see.

    Practically all revolutionary avant-garde utopias have traditionally been tailored tacitly for a young adult who knows exactly what he (it's usually a he) wants, is physically fit, has all the time in the world, is not married, etc. I once participated in a round table at a film festival on the Situationists, made this point, and went on to ask what a Situationist day care centre would look like, much less a Situationist old people's home. If looks could kill, I'd have been killed right there and then.

    The thing is that most people's ordinary life is... well, ordinary. Most of the time there aren't riots, for instance, and even when there are, most people don't riot or even be affected personally by the riots. And it's much harder to use art to depict something ordinary without either celebrating it escapistically or giving the impression that one is satirising it between the lines. (Some have thought that it's simply impossible. Recall Wittgenstein's 1930 remark in Culture and Value that if completely banal everyday life could really be depicted in art objectively, "this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage.")

    So maybe it isn't that these British places are insignificant, but that claims about their significance simply don't make for good art, unlike claims about their insignificance. But some have tried, it seems to me. To pick examples from your own generation of pop, songs like Saturday's Kids or Friday Night, Saturday Morning never sounded to me much like descriptions of living death. Even though the latter was released on the B side of "Ghost Town". But it's hard to pen a tribute to Salford (or Woking, or Coventry) when we all have been culturally conditioned to force any prospective tribute to Salford into one of these two categories: deluded escapism or backhanded smirking.

    My personal favourite British place-name record, however is Battersea Rain Dance by Chris Barber. It's not "fun", but it is dignified, vigorous, effective, droll, etc. And connects these positive attributes with Battersea, it of the dystopian power station and shabby railway junction, and the rain. It makes a kind of approving gesture at Battersea. But if one wanted to call it dishonest, one would have a hard time putting a finger on where exactly the dishonesty lies. It's also an instrumental, so there are no lyrics for the teeth of ideology criticism to sink into. (There is also an instrumental equivalent of the songs I mentioned above, by Dexys Midnight Runners.)

  2. I've also been thinking recently about the remark by Terry Wogan to which you referred in your initial post: that there are no songs about British cities comparable to songs about Chicago or New York, because the latter are somehow "important". But many songs about British cities are about specific places or areas within the city, and there are almost no such songs about the big cities of the United States. The songs about specific bits of cities are about the importance of those bits to specific people who live their life there, and not about their importance to international popular culture. "Battersea Rain Dance" is about Battersea, not London; similarly, the Smiths' "Rusholme Ruffians" is about Rusholme, not about Greater Manchester, and the Beatles' "Penny Lane" is about Penny Lane, not Liverpool or Merseyside.

    And it might count against (say) New York that I can't think of too many comparable songs about its constituent parts. More often, the songs about it are about the clichés surrounding the city, with the level of abstraction quite high. The cities may be important, but in one sense it is a shallow importance by comparison.

    You wrote that CSI: Birmingham would instantly sound like a joke. But so would Coronation Street, Jersey City.

  3. Thanks, Tommi. I'm not sure about all of your examples, but I think you make a good point. "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" does sound pretty much like a description of a living death to me. Terry Hall, who wrote it, suffers from depression (or at least has done so in the past), and I think it shows in this song. "Saturday's Kids" reminds me of "That's Entertainment," which is hardly a celebration. But you're right: celebration of specific places is possible ("Waterloo Sunset" and "Hersham Boys" come to mind, as well as "Hit the North"), the level of cliché and abstraction in songs praising large American cities is high, and it might just be much harder (and less rock'n'roll) to celebrate realistically than to fantasize or moan. In some ways the British just seem more realistic. But that involves some sense that they aren't all that important. This is probably a good thing, but it's also a little sad. Or strikes me that way, anyway.

    The contrary idea, that where you live is the centre of the universe, is neither attractive nor likely to be true, but it does suggest a high level of self-esteem. And there's surely something to be said for that, despite all the dangers of arrogance and illusion that go with it. I've never really watched Coronation Street, and I know it isn't exactly lifelike, but an American version of a show like that would seem almost as miraculous as Wittgenstein's imagined art of the everyday.

    There are American celebrations of specific places, but the ones I can (vaguely) think of are not ones I know at all well and (I think) tend to belong to genres that often indulge in fantasy. (I'm thinking of the sentimentality of much country music and the bragging that characterizes some kinds of hip hop.) So these probably won't work as counterexamples to your claim.

  4. Oh, and two more things. I like your point about a Situationist day care centre. It's a bit like the main idea in "Me and Bobby D" about the beatnik lifestyle being suited to unattached men (the implication that Bob Dylan beat his wife is, I believe, completely unfounded though).

    The second thing is that music from the 1960s, like your example from Chris Barber and mine from the Kinks, doesn't really make the case, because that was a time of optimism. Herman's Hermits and Gerry & the Pacemakers provide other examples of feeling good about places in England from that period. The bubble burst in the 1970s.

  5. "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" does sound pretty much like a description of a living death to me.

    Well, all I can say to that is: 1) I remember listening to it in my youth and feeling that it described my own life fairly well, while 2) that life did not nevertheless feel at all like living death to myself.

    I spent my youth in a city which was pretty much the local equivalent of a Coventry - with deindustrialisation, deep recession, general feeling of psychic confinement, racial troubles, the lot. But I stayed fairly cheerful, ironically partly with the help of songs like this. Whatever cheerfulness there is in it can of course be taken ironically, and probably has been more often than not. But were such an aspect shift occur in the way I personally hear it, I would no longer be able to like it at all this much. (Similarly, I've never been able to appreciate fully a poem like Betjeman's "Slough" - because I cannot read it except as calling indirectly for my own death, and lacking even the tact to do so behind my back.)

    I've never been into Collingwood much, but there is one train of thought in his aesthetics that I've found very congenial: the idea that artists express, not their own feelings (for which idea there are well-known and seemingly fatal objections [*]) but the feelings of their audience - and that the measure of artistic success is correspondingly the extent to which the audience feels that its feelings are being expressed accurately. (The underappreciated Wittgensteinian aesthetician Peter Lewis has an underappreciated paper on this that's very good.) In the cases we have at hand here, I personally feel that my feelings are being expressed quite correctly, and simultaneously that the feelings are not (uniformly) negative and certainly not despairing.

    [*] Cf. Wittgenstein: "And it does start to be really absurd, to say, the artist wishes that, what he feels when writing, the other should feel when reading. Presumably I can think I understand a poem (e.g.), understand it in the way its author would wish, - but what he may have felt in writing it, that doesn't concern me at all."

    It's also true that the 1960s were a period of optimism, and it's probably quite relevant that even a middle-aged Tory like Chris Barber couldn't help but be swept along by the tide. But every period in human history has seemingly had some contemporaries view it as one endless winter of discontent. Kes was a 1960s movie, after all - and Jeremy Seabrook's City Close-Up, which I recommended to you as its exact journalistic equivalent, was a 1960s book. (Perhaps the north-south divide could be invoked here, but I think a similar movie could have been made about many areas of Greater London.) Even Herman's Hermits of all people indulged in a bit of anguish at the nothingness of city life. It's hard to judge in retrospect exactly what the balance was between optimism and pessimism in a given period, even when there have been undeniably large amounts of optimism about.

  6. Thanks, Tommi. There's a lot there to think about there. For now, let me just make a few quick responses.

    "Friday Night, Saturday Morning" does describe lots of people's lives, I agree. It's about a normal kind of life, and I can see how recognizing your life in a song is (at least sometimes) something that would make you cheerful. I was exaggerating when I said it described a living death, but I think there's meant to be a sense of monotony about it. And the ending, though done with humour, is a little rueful: "But two o'clock has come again/ It's time to leave this paradise/ Hope the chip shop isn't closed/ 'Cos their pies are really nice/ I'll eat in the taxi queue/ Standing in someone else's spew/ Wish I had lipstick on my shirt/ Instead of piss stains on my shoes." This isn't despairing, but it combines smiling at the banality of the desire for "really nice" pies with regret at the very end. Not to mention the connection with songs like "Ghost Town" and "Nite Klub" (not to mention "Do Nothing"). But I could be reading more in to it than is really there.

    I think you're right to see a similarity with "Slough," and it's not a coincidence that The Office is set there. The song, the poem, and the TV show all laugh at the awfulness of contemporary life in ways that some people are likely to find simply funny even though others find them painful. I see them as a bit of both, although some are more one than the other. The US version of The Office certainly isn't very painful to my mind, although I know people who can hardly watch it.

    I'm tempted to say that artists (try to) express their feelings and those whose work is popular find that it also expresses other people's feelings too, but that's probably simplistic.

    And as for the 1960s, no doubt much that was bad about the 30s, 40s, and 50s, at least, remained bad then, despite the good fortune that some people experienced and the 'official' mood of optimism surrounding the Beatles, the 1966 World Cup, etc. I imagine most people's moods were much the same as in every other decade, despite the popular ideal of the swinging sixties.

  7. I didn't have anything to add to the above at the time - well put -, but I recently had a little afterthought. The bit about the "'really nice' pies" (as you put it) was namely reminiscent of something in Wittgenstein, but I couldn't put my finger on what. Now I finally could:

    "Freud does something which seems to me immensely wrong. [...] In his book [...] he describes one dream which he calls a 'beautiful dream'. [...] Freud shows what he calls the 'meaning' of the dream. The coarsest sexual stuff, bawdy of the worst kind - if you wish to call it that - bawdy from A to Z. [...] Freud says the dream is bawdy. Is it bawdy? [...] Freud called this dream 'beautiful' putting 'beautiful' in inverted commas. But wasn't the dream beautiful? I would say to the patient: 'Do these associations make the dream not beautiful? It was beautiful. Why shouldn't it be?' I would say Freud had cheated the patient." (Lectures on Aesthetics, III, §20)

    Analogously: "Do these associations make the pies not nice? They were nice."

  8. Yes, I imagine the pies really are nice. Really nice. And there's nothing wrong with that. Perhaps that kind of thing is enough, or ought to be enough. But there are certainly people (John Stuart Mill comes to mind) who would think that there is more to the good life than eating nice pies, and my sense in this song is that the singer himself sees the niceness of the pies as a small thing, a meager consolation for his loneliness and the other ways in which his life is empty. (When he leaves the night club, for instance, it isn't really a paradise that he is leaving.) But maybe I'm misreading the song, or connecting thoughts within it that ought to be kept separate.