Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Chromosome Damage

The nineties were a blast. Really, kids -- I mean it(!). But even the most golden of eras has has its tarnished edges. The nineties were a good example. I suppose there might be any number of "aciiiid" casualties who bear the lingering effects of serotonin depletion or psychosis and whatnot due to the lingering after-effects of excessive MDMA indulgence. But all of that is such microscopic potatolettes when compared to the legacy wrought by the decade's boom in "management theory" and "lit."

Because really, it was pretty easy to peg Timothy Leary as having been full of shit. And then we hit that stretch in the early-mid '90s when columnists for Wired magazine were channeling Timothy Leary with endless cyber-gaga theosophic Blavatkian yarns about how the internet and "virtual reality" were all gonna catapult humanity en masse to the next post-meat evolutionary level; which was also way too easy to call bullshit on, as well. But now, this many years after the fact, when each of (y)our long series of corporate bosses sound like they're channeling Leary at certain moments of a meeting or an annual employeee review, you might find yourself wondering if we're not all terminally fucked.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some "self-actualizing" to do, some cheese to find.

Monday, 26 March 2012

NSFW: Public Relations

With pwnography's ballooning mainstream presence since the 90s, discussion of it has become a little more nuanced. However, in terms of the 'public arena' the debate has largely boiled down to censorship, family morality or rape - deeply emotive issues that encourage fundamental calls for freedom, regulation or condemnation. By and large, viewer effects - and human sexuality - remain mysterious even to the most attentive researchers. Inequality between the sexes, less so; but to locate it in specific media product is to limit understanding of what representations emerge from. The reproduction, enforcement, and mutation of gender oppression began long before the invention of the internet, film, photography or the printing press. In a sea of imagery and discourse competing for attention, gender oppression is consolidated at every level of culture. There's frequent confusion between 'genre' and 'industry' when discussing pwn - as with de facto arguments that deem it an objectively worse form of exploitation than extracting value from au pairs, farmhands, cleaners, miners, or prison inmates. Sociological and economic research may suggest otherwise. We can't be certain if 'pwn causes rape' any more than we can know if gangsta rap encourages urban crime. We can't be certain if it 'prevents' rape either. However, as something interrelating with the cultural landscape, pwn plays a crucial ideological role; and not necessarily in ways that most assume. That's not to say that I'm 'defending' it - far from it - but I'd like to gratuitously shift focus in a different direction.

As this is (nominally) a blog about the 90s, I'll try and focus on what pwn has been 'about' since the turn of this century; which I'd contend is very different to what it was 'about' in the 70s or 80s. I should add that I'm discussing 'mainstream' pwn here - namely, heterosexual productions featuring 'name' performers, and - of ideological importance - legally marketed from the US by its most powerful brands and distribution networks. Since the 90s, pwn has embedded itself into mainstream culture; but certain kinds remain more mainstream than others - the kind where performers put their names to supplementary merchandise, has its producers interviewed by non-pwnographic outlets; and lurks much closer to 'respectability' (and mainstream sexual representations) than the daunting range of niches pwn caters for. The usual debates about pwn may never be resolved; because what it 'means' as a genre will never be as fixed as many of its critiques assume. The meaning of a genre changes as much as its production, format and marketing does.

If that's confusing, let me offer another example. Not only did 'Dracula' or 'the vampire' mean something very different in the 1990s to what it did to the 1890s; but also the overall meaning of 'horror' as label and metaphor changed, and will continue to do so. Meanings within a story always operate in directions moving outside the story; towards the identifying features of a genre itself, in its role as an intermediary between text, production, industry, audience and society. The varying status and influence (and market share) of genres over time demonstrates this. What horror means (and its value) depends on geographical and historical circumstances as much as anything else. Even non-fiction requires certain motifs, hierarchies, environments, narrative structures, character behaviour (and of course, clichés), to be identified as a genre. It simply puts different energies into disguising its ideological coding - its metaphors, or 'similes' - beneath the narrative. I'm taking it as given that metaphors largely function as ideological coding, however playful or contradictory they may be; and at different levels, they are always present in visual narrative. For example, a straightforward one-hour medical documentary of diagnosis, treatment and recovery is held together by a guiding metaphor negotiating issues of health, family, state, individuality, responsibility, security, work, growth and death. These issues periodically rearrange their perspective, emphasis, urgency, authority - recombine into a different generic meaning - according to ideological shifts over time. The genre of 'medical documentary' is as subject to change as medicine itself. In the context of the genre discussed below, this is relevant to the problem (or appeal) of something so dependent on the 'reality' of what's filmed.

Contra Goebbels, masking ideology beneath ostensibly 'real' imagery has proven to be very powerful in reinforcing cultural hegemony. Social, political, technological and economic conditions - themselves determining a given genre's production, distribution and consumption within society - adapt to 'answer' questions posed to a given audience; or to reproduce further questions, desires, to retain attention. In addition to constant dialogue with its audience and society, a genre engages in dialogue with other genres and in dialogue with itself to adapt, survive, and sustain a certain kind of power. With all these levels of negotiation, the overall genre may eventually synthesize, to represent an entirely different metaphor to that of an earlier stage. It can retain unavoidable traces and influences from previous syntheses (and usually does), but a genre can come to play a very different 'role' within the culture it forms part of. With this in mind (and in the hope I'm making sense!), we'll now consider what pwn has actually represented since the end of the 90s.

At this historical conjecture, within the imperial core of the west, pwn isn't really about sex. Rather, it uses sex as a metaphor. Here’s a standard scenario in mainstream American pwn, the ‘bare bones’ of the genre in its current state: A woman is interrogated by a man (about her background, age, status etc.). The man – and/or the camera – conducts a physical examination of the woman, often with running commentary on her ‘distinguishing’ features; before, during, or after she undresses. This commentary usually goes no further than physical description, without much suggestion of what could be done, will be done, or why it is done. Then, a penis is introduced – in the manner of a protagonist, or rather a hero. It/he is foregrounded by both the camera and the woman, to confirm its central role in the narrative (rarely off-camera, the pwnographic narrative devotes more attention to the penis than anything else). It/he may be commented on in admiration, but hardly interrogated. Then, fellatio – at which point the woman’s dialogue largely ceases; give or take improvised fragments of ‘dirty talk’. Fellatio is often filmed from several angles and/or in different ‘variations’. Then following this (usually protracted) sequence, there is vaginal sex; again from several angles and/or different ‘variations’. This is then followed by anal sex. Not always, but common enough to be normative; if not for the woman, then definitely for the genre. Intervals of fellatio will frequently punctuate penetrative sex. Then to conclude, the man ejaculates; almost always on the woman’s face, with the camera paying upmost attention to the penis until it does so. Before fade out, there will be a (very brief) denouement where the woman (still covered in semen) expresses satisfaction; either verbally, with a silent smile, or an endorsement of her employers. The end.

That’s the basic scaffolding of 21st century mainstream pwn. To the above can be added a higher ratio of male participants (or less commonly nowadays, female), intensified aggression (of sexual acts, apparatus, dialogue, or pacing; with an emphasis on punishment), varying levels of attention paid to age, race, experience, nationality, body type, or fetishes (close-ups of particular body parts, orifices, objects or clothing); or a slightly more detailed mise en scene and ‘dramatic’ context for activities depicted. This context goes no further than the title, packaging or rudimentary introductions between characters (“I’ve brought my wife”, “I need to check your immigration status”, “What are you doing in the girl’s dorm?” etc). These details may add some initial ‘tension’, but they largely adhere to the standard plot above. Even today’s more ‘elaborate’ pwnographic scenarios devote a bare minimum of attention to the social context of ‘employee’, ‘boss’, ‘guest’ ‘suspect’, ‘babysitter’, ‘teacher’, ‘neighbour’, ‘wife’, and ‘best friend’s’ (my?) ‘mother’ ‘daughter’ or ‘sister’. Compared to how these relationships were ‘explained’ in earlier decades, narratives (and social relations upon which they’re based) are largely ‘expressed’ through sexual acts alone. It’s a process of interview (or exchange), employment (dispossession), performance (ordeal) and 'payment' (ownership). That’s the affective part of the scenario, but it’s also producing something other than profits (or semen). Ideologically, this grotesque caricature of sexual relations represents – and reproduces – surplus desires venturing beyond misogyny.

It’s been widely noted how ‘drama’ in pwn has shrunk to a bare minimum since the 70s. Changes in technology, economics and distribution played a major role; but the drastic reduction in narrative context also suggests an ideological shift (itself affected by technology, economics and distribution). Three hits that put pwn ‘on the map’ in the early 70s – Behind The Green Door, Deep Throat, and The Devil in Miss Jones – were based on very different narrative ‘scaffolds’. This is not just due to running time (contemporary pwn films often run much longer than the above, albeit mostly as ‘compilations’ of unrelated scenes). Nor is it due to changes in sexual practices (although what sex is ‘for’ may change). All three films focused on women moving from restricted, lonely worlds to one of supposed ‘liberation’; a standard plot template that would continue into the 80s, less so by the 90s, and now pretty much non-existent. They would of course conclude with ‘liberation’ (supposedly) conducive to the sexual demands of men, arriving at similar conclusions to the soft-core pantomimes of Russ Meyer, Tinto Brass or Just Jaeckin. Like them, standard pwn stories were variations on a ‘journey’ from one experience of life to another. But that was during a time of great social upheaval and cultural fragmentation. It was also a country still licking wounds from its last war. Lockdown on the field of vision wasn’t as resolute as it is now.

This is not to say the above were ‘sexier’ more ‘realistic’ or ‘progressive’. They weren’t. Notions of a golden age with regards to anything are almost always reactionary nonsense. But however corny, distorted and misogynistic, earlier mainstream pwn films were nominally about sex. Plots up until the 90s were often built around frustration, restlessness, or even love, on the part of men or women. Set-ups leading to sex scenes were based around awkwardness, curiosity, anxiety or farce. ‘Major’ sex scenes accrued meaning in relation to ‘minor’ sex scenes. This could be expressed with music, montage or ‘meanwhiles’. They would include scenes of unsatisfactory sexual activity (for both parties). Jealousy, domestic limitations, separation, adultery, performance anxiety, competition, and social taboos – however clumsily, they were articulated in plot, setting and dialogue. However ugly, offensive or crude it was, mainstream pwn once entertained the basic foundation of drama: Conflict, something that has largely vanished from within pwn’s narrative. In contemporary pwn, there is little suspense as to who will do what and when or how they will do it. With Internet distribution, all acts – and outcomes – are explicitly announced in advance. Its use of sexual activity reproduces a way of seeing. It isn’t about ‘the battle of the sexes’, so much as asymmetrical warfare in microcosm. When one, two, many male performers enter the scene, it’s on condition their full spectrum dominance will be a foregone conclusion. The camera must accord pride of place to their camaraderie and superior equipment. The performance – or mere introduction – of the ‘unquestioned’ penis must be greeted with shock and awe.

Popular pwnographic websites monitor highly organized classifications of operations, resources and personnel: ‘Natural’, ‘nerdy’, ‘ebony’, ‘Asian’, ‘blowjob’, ‘interracial’, ‘anal’, ‘big cock’, ‘milf’, ‘teen’, etc. etc. Activities, appearances, races, uniforms, skills, capacities that can be assessed, filed, exchanged; in order to be efficiently mobilized at the click of a mouse. In addition to this military classification, next to performers’ names (including all aliases) are detailed lists of previous activities; regularly updated like personnel files. Some may even include places and dates of birth, height, measurement, sub-listings of previous employers, and activities they specialize in. Many include links to forums requiring log-ins, where further information and codes are exchanged like classified information: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Jerkoff. Look at security agency websites, newspaper editorials, or dossiers arguing for war – the protracted gobbling of pre-intervention propaganda and selective data, stimulating a solid case for action. Desire is generated, and generated further, to arouse ‘security threats’. It consolidates the efficient, reductive ideological economy. Phrases are repeated like mantras to the rubes: “Evil dictator”, “office gang bang”, “nuclear capabilities”, “first time anal”, “failed state”, “cumshot fiend”, “clear and present danger”, “double penetration”, “humanitarian intervention”. Identify the transgressor. Locate the target. Point your weapon. Splat.

With these eye-catching labels and formats, one link leads to another. And another. Accompanied by adverts demanding further and further attention. Do you 'want' this? We could provide something better, more you. Like the recruitment ads say: Be all you can be. Keep clicking until we get you there, that's a good boy. The viewer’s attention rationalized ever more efficiently; it trains him to desire in a certain way:
The parallel to the scientific management of production is straightforward: the task of watching is broken down according to the specific characteristics of the viewer. The rationalization strategy is based on “the specification and fractionation of the audience,” which leads to “a form of ‘concentrated viewing’ in which there is (from the point of view of advertisers) little wasted watching.
Mark Andrejevic Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched

To ensure “little wasted watching”, the message must be received with a minimum of interference. For mainstream debate, narrow it down to a minimum of ‘talking points’, all arriving at the same consensus. For mainstream pwn, narrow sex down to the unchallenged penetration of three orifices in the ‘right’ order, concluded with ejaculation upon the ‘right’ area. Work to convince young audiences this is ‘what men want’… or what the Free World needs. Micromanage the available paradigms, based on accumulated audience data – target that pwn viewer or patriot. Show them the way to wave their respective flagpoles. Ensure all complementary information - adverts, menus, supplementary entertainment - stay on message. Reproduce further desires accordingly, until the neural routes of ‘sex’ and ‘war’ get hotwired into the slickest of perception machines; generating stimulus with the structure and POV of a drone operation. To masturbate or bomb with maximum productivity, one must know how to look. Ever wondered why Neocons (far to the right of Nixon or Reagan’s moral majorities) raised little more than a whimper in their supposed war against pornography? When clamping down on so many other civil liberties like a ton of bricks? It takes more than Jack Bauer to keep the Homeland vigilant.

As with (competitive) reality TV, sports broadcasts and videogames, pwn has adapted its format and narrative structure to reproduce war by other means. Arnie or Bruce decapitating terrorists got somewhat passé years ago. Interactivity can bypass fragile suspensions of disbelief. Voting, cheering, betting, shooting, ejaculating - it draws one into the heat of battle more effectively than simple reading, watching or listening. Paul Virilio noted how narrative codes of the moving image emerged with the use of military ordinance and surveillance since the First World War: “The function of the weapon is the function of the eye.” Consider how wars have been fought by western powers since 1989. Compare CNN’s bomber’s-eye view of Gulf War I with the ubiquitous ‘POV facial’. Or compare the news anchor’s admiration for Pentagon hardware to the pwn star’s (and viewer’s) reverence for her partner’s invulnerable tool. Consider pwn’s accelerating efficiency in marketing, classification, consumption, editing, positioning, perspective, decontextualization, dumbed-down ‘rationale’ and the parenthetical asymmetry of its aggression. Keep the story simple: Either with us or against us. Suck it or fuck it. Axis of Evil. Bikini Sluts Gone Wild. No-fly zone. Gone are any pretenses to depicting the push-and-pull of the sexes, or the possibility of legitimate resistance in enemy territory. Character has been superseded by function (by the climactic cumshot, does the remote masturbator remember – or care - if the ‘target’ was born in Los Angeles, Buenos Ares or Prague?). The mechanistic misogynists of the Renaissance get a belated second wind on Porntube: I cum therefore I am.

And that’s just in ‘normal’ pwn scenarios. Over the past decade, mainstream providers have increasingly brushed against the edge of legality – overtly deploying rituals of humiliation, confinement, binding, gagging, deprivation, tools, and stated demands for absolute submission; with her approving smile concluding the narrative as much as it would after ‘vanilla’ activity. The same performer who played that curious mom, daughter or sister last week can be broken down and reconstructed in scenarios of Extraordinary Rendition within dungeon-like settings; a microcosm of the overwhelming force deployed against Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia. “Pure cock punishment”, that the ‘accused’ will eventually thank her punisher for (whether said ordeals are staged by pwn directors or NATO). Cheerful reminders that it’s ‘just a movie’ must be included, lest viewers by distracted by the possibility of real suffering (by all means have a “mission accomplished” parade, but sores? Enemas? Streets strewn with mutilated corpses? Bad for morale…). Accentuate the positives in sadism, with a happy disclaimer that abuse was actually invited with open arms. But do pwn performers represent 'soldier' or 'enemy territory'? Female performers could represent both, albeit at different degrees of degradation. It helps if military ideology covers all its bases. In its initiation rituals (break 'em down to build 'em up), militarized subjectivity demands alienation from the self as well as designated enemies. 

As with ‘the Iraqi people’, ventriloquism can be employed to request violation. Like the ‘freedom’ once demanded by the Eastern Bloc, which since the 90s has supplied ever more ‘cannon fodder’ for western pwn markets. Economic shock treatment got the Homeland more bang for its buck. White women paid at Third World rates were the spectacular trophies of globalization. But pwn isn’t racist per se – Black Bros on Blonde Hos teaches us that opportunity awaits Amerikkka’s most marginalized citizens. These wars need all the ‘swinging dicks’ they can mobilize. This is no time for cracker insecurities. Like I said, pwn’s overriding metaphor is no longer about sex, but is it about rape? Like famine or slavery, rape is one of the most ancient weapons of war. Pwn is about war, and war is about rape as much as any other atrocity it entails. Rape isn’t culturally unique to any military campaign. To claim otherwise is to provide Empire with another trusty weapon: Demonizing the sexual depravity of the natives. It’s deeply ironic how Catherine Mackinnon accused pwn of being a “genocidal” incitement to mass rape in Yugoslavia – contributing to a chorus of propaganda eventually used to bomb it to the End of History; paving the way for further US atrocities in the decade that followed (space restricts discussion of Andrea “pwn holocaust” Dworkin’s celebration of Zionist masculinity). We had a responsibility to really fuck Yugoslavia, to protect its peasants from their pwn. Rocco fucked Budapest. Wall St. fucked Warsaw. Slick Willie fucked Belgrade. Money shots all round.

Relentlessly pounding that pseudo-frontier of known unknowns: Women, foreign territory, the clash of civilizations, lucrative resources, male desire – the only known knowns are profit, imperialism and the reproduction of an ideology required to maintain them. Am I confusing the development of an industry with a genre here? The perspective of the former feeds into the latter, and vise versa. All corners of our increasingly militarized culture energize a self-perpetuating ideology machine. With their wings clipped by the Great Enclosure, future generations line up for enlistment. They may yet have their perspective and desires directed accordingly; reproduced via a landscape of ‘pure entertainment’ that’s left them riddled with frustration. Doubtless there's drill sergeants initiating their young privates with interrogative, relentless demands like a domineering pwn stud. Indeed, he’s likely barking kinky insults redolent of ‘extreme’ pwnographic ordeals. On the battlefield, our boys may finally make sense of that invincible, unquestioned prick that every shot trained them to focus on; like the winning weapon in an X-Box game. Disciplined through every receptive orifice, our ‘heroes’ can stand erect at the centre of the ongoing military spectacle. Penetrated by ideology as virgin territory, they can reify their manhood by penetrating further territory. And we can expect them to penetrate the right territory in the right order, aiming with admirable precision (and mentioning epidemic levels of rape among ‘our' boys would only empower the enemy, so don’t even go there…). Pwn's infernal desire machine bypasses the frontal lobes, heading straight for the groin; reaching the parts that even Goebbels couldn’t (loser). After we dump the last load upon their grateful heads, we can only hope ‘liberated’ nations will smile at the camera to endorse our superior culture. If they don’t, I’m sure news anchors will find a way to tell us they are. At this point, it’s a generic requirement.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Chavs (almost) on film

"What  fucking papers are  you reading, you dozy cunts?"

A couple of years ago I was trying to get hold of a copy of Nick Love's Goodbye, Charlie Bright and the guy in my local Music and Video Exchange suggested that if I waited a week or so one would turn up. How did he know? I asked. Because of all the DVDs that came in and out of the shop Britfilms of this type were the ones which were bought and sold, traded, the most. They circulated much more rapidly than other films and genres.

Why was that? Well, at a guess they were films bough and sold and resold and run through the second hand shops because most of the people who bought them generally needed cash quickly, they had to liquidate their assets frequently, were skint in other words, and given the demographic these films are aimed at, they were skint teens and twenty-somethings. This was interesting in its own right, but it also raised the question of just how many people watched the films, for every copy bought there seemed to potentially be a large number of temporary owners of films like Football Factory or Dead Man Running or Rise of the Footsoldier. These films were popular then in a way that any calculation of their profit would probably widely underestimate, and it was probably this broad semi-invisible popularity that ultimately allowed films like Cass, Shank or Attack the Block to open in Cinemas. They had a big if invisible audience, they got bigger budgets and distribution. No-one “in the know” paid much serious attention to them, or if they did it was only to disparage them.

Now, Nick Love’s Outlaw certainly doesn’t have many admirers, even among fans of his work. It was, in Love and star Danny Dyer’s memorable phrase, comprehensively “cunted” by everyone from Loaded to The Guardian when it came out. Love suggests, on the now infamous DVD audio track where he and Dyer hilariously and pointedly lay into their critics lazy assumptions about modern Britain, that one day it may be looked back on as favourably as Dirty Harry, another movie, cunted in its day, that has subsequently become a classic. Outlaw is never going to attain that degree of retrospective kudos, it is a much worse film on every level, but it is still oddly fascinating, largely for what didn’t make the final cut. And Love is certainly  right that when  people look back at his  career they'll say this was his most important film.  

And what didn’t make the final cut is basically; chavs. As the Outlaws go around the country righting wrongs they are sheltered by a group of chav kids in some rural backwater whose illegal rave is closed down by the Police and who subsequently riot. It must have been one of the more expensive and complex sequences in the film, so the question is why it was removed, it can”t have been out of considerations of narrative coherence, as Outlaw is all over the place as it is. Perhaps it is more due to the sympathetic, pro-chav anti-Police tenor of the sequences, the chavs form a part of Love’s rather wishful multi-ethnic, cross-class vigilante posse. They are on the side of justice against the corruption of the State. To some extent the film takes a “we are the 99%” position, the courts, the police and politicians and criminals are all in bed together and the decent members of society need to take a stand against it, interestingly of course the Chavs are part of the solution, there’s a continuum of protest, refusal, and action that runs from lawyers through to council estate kids and includes alienated white collar workers and ex-soldiers, all of whom need to unite to fight institutional corruption. As I've pointed out before, it’s certainly the only film in which Tony Blair gets called a cunt, and by housewife’s favourite Sean Bean at that. No other popular film maker would have been brave enough to do it in 2007.

Now, you might well revile Love and Dyer etc as Loaded era laddish knuckledraggers, and to some extent they are, and for me at least the widely praised (I'd say patronised) remake of The Firm was a step backward for Love from the scrappy, sloppy, angry politicisation of Outlaw. The irony here of course is that Love most closely approaches Alan Clarke in Outlaw rather than in his colourful, sentimental technically adept but toothless re-imagining of The Firm. I don't blame Love for this, to some extent with Outlaw he was a few years ahead of events. It is pretty much an unloved and unlovely film, and its unprecedented critical mauling probably means that Love will never pursue  similar themes again. But more broadly if there is an area of film-making in which anything interesting is going to be said about class, poverty and protest, then its within this sub-genre of “Urban”/post British Gangster movies, most of which, for all their technical and aesthetic shortcomings are significantly more interesting than , say Andrea Arnold's redemptive Arthouse vision of the feisty working class girl getting out of the estate. In Outlaw at least, the kids are united.

Naturally, therefore, I am holding out great hopes both  for a directors cut of Outlaw surfacing at some  point and Plan B's forthcoming Ill Manors, certainly the key line in the track (though the video actually works against most of the songs' ironies and subtleties) is “We are poor round here”. This is the important recognition. Not a Ghetto Superstar, not likely to rise above the throng, no fantasy, no illusion, nothing special, no magical poverty, quite the opposite. No giving it the Big  I Am; we are poor, we are fucked, they hate us.

Well, as Lucius Accius said “ Let them hate, so long as they fear”.

Time to bring in the second half of the equation.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Lost Girls

This is how the 90s sometimes look in retrospect: the narrowing of access and erasure of working-class lived experience across culture, media and politics; the parallel fetishization of working-class culture via an unholy alliance of Blair, late Britpop and London-centric art, fashion and football; and the degeneration of UK indie from something moderately interesting and markedly 'other' compared to the rest of the chart fare, into something increasingly homogenous, nostalgic and insular. A distinguishing mark of the decade was the gradual stifling of nuanced articulation of identities and their subsequent appearance in an ersatz, appropriated, or puppeteered form. This post attempts a further excavation of what was.


The fast-obsolescing Kaiser Chiefs' 'I Predict a Riot' tended to figure in responses to last August's unrest, most recently in a deservedly dismissive way in the lyrics of Plan B's 'Ill Manors'. Perhaps this referencing only proves the cultural poverty of the intervening years, but it does demonstrate the song’s longevity – far greater than that of its creators – and its impact as a checkpoint for class-inflected fear and loathing. The song sounds like a forerunner of James Delingpole's 2006 invocation of the 'great scourges of contemporary Britain'; his 'aggressive female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye...' are a stone’s throw away from the song’s censorious yet prurient reportage ('girls scrabble round with no clothes on / to borrow some change for a condom / if it wasn’t for chip-fat they’d be frozen'). Both visions are part of a cultural shift which has combined the vanishing of working class female identity in public discourse with its accelerated use as an all-purpose whipping-post onto whose alleged precocity, promiscuity, agency and independence, various social ills and moral panics are projected.

Sneering by grammar-school boys at slatternly scrabbling for small change was perhaps the logical culmination of late Britpop's fellow-travelling New Laddism, a tendency waxing unapologetically blatant and boorish in the post-Libertines London scene in particular. 'I Predict a Riot' almost deserves acclaim for its unabashed depiction of something a step beyond class tourism – attitudes which, in a less triumphalist decade, might have been unpalatable without the distancing minstrelsy of 'Vindaloo' or the nudge-and-wink of 'Stereotypes', could by 2004 be sincerely held and expressed. Scattering presumptions, from the inherent irrational violence of men in leisurewear to the lack of sense and sensibility of underdressed women, the song seems to lack any hint of irony. And by 2012 the song could be received in the same way, as though, after 'Stereotypes' and 'Vindaloo' and 'we are all middle-class now', after Waynetta Slob and Vicky Pollard, we hold these truths to be self-evident.


In 2011, 'I Predict a Riot' soundtracked a trip into the tortured psyche of Delingpole, Starkey and Dalrymple - the streets of darkest Britain delineated as a volatile, flammable under-kingdom haunted by spectres to whom junk-food is both fuel and insulation, tracksuited thugs and girl-golems clad in chip-fat. It's jarring to recall the female potential of early 90s indie, whose space for oddity allowed through voices which occasionally managed to be those of the chip-fat girls – voices capable of narrating the Night Out from the perspective of celebrant rather than alarmed observer, presenting it non-hysterically as an unremarkable ritual of growing up. Even Shampoo, major-label novelty act though they quickly became, seemed, like Kenickie, more fully their own created cartoon, more at home in their delinquent drag, than, say, Jessie J or Lily Allen. Both Shampoo and Kenickie were, significantly, grounded in appreciation of the Manic Street Preachers' proletarian glam aesthetic, both were able to articulate the experiences of suburban/provincial girls in fearless, loving awe of what the present and future had to offer, and both managed to embody one music writer's identification of 'that terrifying stage where teenage girls are half-human, half-rat':

Kenickie in particular, a pop-aspirational indie band with wit, swagger and style to spare, were on one level unabashed 'pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers' too. I find Kenickie worthwhile because, regardless of the slavering hype they received, part of what their music offered was a presentation of working-class female life crafted with sympathy and solidarity, and an insistence upon their social and sexual agency. Throughout the 90s this voice was heard alongside those by whom it appears to have been retrospectively eclipsed – girl-power usurpers like the swiftly all-conquering Spice Girls, or unhelpful dullards like Sleeper - a curiously dry and prudish band for all Louise Wener’s hiccupy attempts at lyrical titillation, try-hard where Kenickie were effortless.

That 'indie' gained the ascendant in 90s Britain much as 'Labour' did, while becoming a travesty of itself, grew increasingly clear as the next decade wore on. Something notable but seemingly unremarked upon in the sudden acknowledgement of this, the emotional spasm over indie's having been found out as meaningless, mainstream, and posh, was how uniformly male the railed-against 'landfill' guitar bands were. What happened to the women, in particular the 90s phalanx of pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers? While Shampoo are probably the last band in the world to be concerned about artistic integrity or cultural appropriation, the appearance of a posh-girl cover of 'Trouble' on the soundtrack to the 2007 St Trinians remake still exasperated. Lauren Laverne, the only member of Kenickie still occasionally in the spotlight, is now safely ensconced at 6 Music and 10 o’ Clock Live, still fighting the good fight, I guess, but in compromised conditions.

Mainstream pop and indie have been subject to ongoing cultural appropriation and narrowing of access outside the hothouses of stage-school or talent-shows, with a resultant disparity between that which is represented and who represents it. The working-class female experience is offered as a kind of stage-school burlesque - even Allen, for all her occasionally intriguing interior monologues, can articulate the Night Out only as chav-pop pantomime. Outside the pop bubble, the past few years' chav-hysteria, the pathologising of the Night Out, has enabled incessant media and political policing of the social, economic and sexual lives of young women via the avatars of chavettes and single mothers. This, along with the remoteness of mainstream feminist discourse, has shaped a scenario where young working-class women appear mostly as externally-designated objects of exaggerated panic, ridicule, pity or contempt, with little ability to speak for themselves. Any cultural counterweight to this stereotype, any genuine alternative expression of lived experience, must struggle to breathe.


All of which means that I'm never sure, you know, how to take Girls Aloud's turbocharged 2006 cover of 'I Predict a Riot'. Bubblegum and pantomime, for sure (as compared to 'Ill Manors'?), but, in making a stab at reclaiming Wilson's narrative for its objects of fear and loathing, awkwardly impressive for all that:

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Take what you can / Eat of the man

Seeing as my defense of Del Amitri was so universally well received, I've decided to press on with another new installment in a series unofficially titled: "Trying to Find Something Good About the Shit Music I Quite Liked as a Child".

This time around it's the turn of mainstream Britpop. Specifically, I'd like to suggest that one quite good thing about Britpop, to put beside the many, many flaws, was its (relatively) positive gender politics.

I mean, okay, you could argue that a lot of the female lead singers in the videos below were objectified in the familiar manner, and there was obviously something pernicious about the rise of the "Ladette" archetype.

But on the whole these figures represented a culture that comes off pretty well with the modern trend for female solo singers who are basically talent school session musicians, "fashion icons", "divas" and puppets of sinister Simon Cowell-esque managers / record producers.

Anyway, the bottom line is that these were all cracking choons, I reckon.