Robbie Williams and the heat death of the white working-class hero

(or: TFI, the sequel and aftermath and logical end point)

I keep thinking about Williams at the 2002 Brit Awards, just before the royal events which decisively set the tone for the effective merger of pop culture and the culture that is ritualistically showcased this time every year, 55 minutes from Waterloo (which is why that event feels worse than it once did; it isn’t quite as much a museum anymore, its connections to the wider mass culture are much greater).  His speech attempted to render class politics explicit in his attack on the man, also destined to feature repeatedly (not as often, but in the end more lastingly) on TPL, whose rise to fame had just confirmed the scale and the extent of the cultural revolution within those who would once have been genuine Tories but had become Whigs, specifically in terms of their view of commercial television; “you want to take my food from my table, stop my kids going through school …”

(Something that might be relevant here is that the Tory ministers who had turned up at the Brit Awards during the first phase of Toryism-as-Whiggery – Tebbit, Baker, eventually Thatcher herself – were exclusively those Who Had Worked Their Way Up, albeit via the grammar school route which pop had decried in favour of multiple other options even when most areas still had such schools; you can’t begin to imagine Heseltine or Hurd or Moynihan showing themselves.)

But of course it didn’t work, and couldn’t have worked; what makes it worse is that it didn’t deserve to work.  If pop culture as a (white) working-class phenomenon had reached the end point of Robbie Williams, I don’t blame those who were exposed to it on no other level and in no other way – and for whom all manifestations of purely working-class pop would simply have been too much, not on the John Harris/Stuart Maconie New Old Left level but on much simpler, consumerist, commercial radio terms – coming to the conclusion that it had reached the end of its natural life.  Far more explicitly than Liam Gallagher (precisely because Williams’ peak era was when the Blair government was a reality, not a dream, and is the natural conclusion which TFI hysteria leaves out), he represents the moment where sheer hubris, arrogance and contempt for the rest of the world finally brought the concept of “working-class boy made good/bad/good” which had sustained much of pop culture for the previous four decades crashing to the ground, and made it pretty much inevitable that what remained of the old “respectable working class” would end up preferring the likes of James Blunt, because even he was – by mistake and by default – closer to the social values that class had once cherished, before there was pop (which of course was where much of the UK, in many ways, ended up again).  If he was all that people knew about it in the present tense, in a sense that they could relate to and see as on their level and in their world (and I know there are many reasons, and unsettling ones at that, why they did not feel that way about certain artists who the industry was doing its best to ghettoise, but let us take the empirical approach here), it shouldn’t be a surprise that it fell in the way it did.

I don’t want to romanticise boomer rock culture; there were plenty of people within that who were happy to take the toffs’ wealth as long as absolutely nobody else from their background ever had it (“here’s to the salt of the earth” was never about redistribution of wealth; those who attended schools some of my own friends went to, in no way reformed even to the extent that they were in most of the United Kingdom – Kent now probably has more institutional social ghettoisation than any other part of the UK, not least because it has the pockets of genuine poverty that, say, Buckinghamshire doesn’t – were only glamorous to the extent that their glamour didn’t take the spotlight from Jagger’s own).  I sort of became famous, long ago, for taking such a stance when it was a considerably braver and rarer position to take than it is today, after all.  But at least there were isolated individuals within that culture who didn’t simply want their children to make such schools less institutionally formal without changing them in any other sense (which of course is what actually happened to them, and precisely why this government can exist) and who didn’t simply want to dine while others starved.  Not enough, by a very long way – indeed some of them were further from that mould than the ruling elite of the day – but enough to make it wholly believable that, with different politics subsequently, we might have no reason to have the doubts about the era’s pop-cultural impulses that we do.

By Williams’ time, all that had dissipated entirely; there was no attempt whatsoever on his part to deny that he only wanted food on his own table, and his kids in Wellington College for all I know; how could he possibly be expected to be taken seriously or given any respect at all when his only objection to people more privileged than himself in his own sphere of activity was that their power might prevent his own children from joining the very same class?  How did he expect to be taken seriously on socialist terms when socialism is all about the abolition of social class, not simply perpetuating it as long as your own children can do well out of it, and damn everyone else?  His objection to Will Young was merely that Young supposedly wanted to keep his class for himself and keep everyone else out of it; Williams’ desire actually to abolish those privileges was nil.  Indeed, he was casting himself as The Right Kind of Working Class – manna from heaven for the mean-minded little Tories in the industry, for whom some of the crossovers of the previous three years had been worrying and threatening, The Wrong Kind of Profits from The Wrong Kind of People – and glancing ahead with cynical accuracy to a time when Noel Gallagher would complain that if his children were not educated privately, they might pick up Multicultural London English, as if it were a contagious disease.

It would be casting him in far too positive a light to describe Robbie Williams today as a tragic figure; to call someone that is largely a term of praise, which implies respect and admiration for someone of huge personal gifts thwarted by the nature of the world in which they found themselves, and maybe by aspects of their own personality as they translated in purely social terms, the obvious and directly relevant example in this case being Gordon Brown.  He was far too obnoxious, far too riddled with greed and self-love, and most importantly, far too successful for far too long to befit that description.  What he eventually became was rather someone who simply could not face the implications of why he had fallen and why those who had replaced him had replaced him, hence his rant to (of course) The Sun about his kind of pop still being “a despised art form”, as if the entire transition from actual Toryism to Whiggery, and the entire marketisation of society, not to mention a profound shift of attitudes among what remained of liberal intellectualism, had never happened.  It must indeed be very tempting for someone in Williams’ position to pretend that these changes have not occurred.  If he did, he might have to face the reasons for his eclipse.  It isn’t the comfort you probably need in the loneliness that must have befallen him, before he eventually did arrive at fatherhood, and no doubt the enforcement via such a means of elite control.

The albums he kept at number two in the UK were by R.E.M. (hey, coincidence! – although in that case they were much further behind), Gabrielle, My Chemical Romance (they were held off by Rudebox, which actually, and tellingly, represented some kind of commercial peak for him in mainland Europe), André Rieu and the Johann Strauss Orchestra, and Gary Barlow.  I can’t see any of these, even the last, inspiring a TPL epic.  All I can see is a long goodbye.  Even the fact that you can’t see him being one of the lumpenproletariat whose presence at Royal Ascot is, contrary to popular myth, precisely what the ruling elite want doesn’t make him seem any less of a social and cultural embarrassment, someone who justified everything he said he was against simply through being what he was.  Could anyone’s life be less justified than that?

On his third TPL entry, though, he almost uniquely reached for some kind of ideal, and got it; “The Road to Mandalay”, considerably nearer on Popular (where it will appear, a year after the album came out, as the less prominent part of a double A-side with a rather depressing “this is me” new song) remains a wonderful song, and is really the only thing he did that I’ve ever liked or felt able to like: momentarily, he evoked what might lie behind his facade, and got close to some kind of notional lost Eden.  Even if (like all such concepts, and we’re dangerous fools if we pretend otherwise) it could only exist within the human mind, it stripped down all the greed, all the arrogance, all the basic contempt for others and for anything vaguely social.  Even if it could only be a dream, it was a beautiful one.

But behind the frosted glass there are no dreams.  And that’s where white pop – the only pop Harris and Maconie consider “legitimately” working class, the fools – left us, and died.  Pop as a whole is, in many ways, more alive than ever.  But what a shame it is that the closest thing to a meaningful escape route should have made so many dangerous friends and allies, even out of “convenience”.  Homelessness is a cloak we must all wear, even those of us who never became so famous that all we could do in the end was destroy ourselves.

England, Scotland and the inadequacy of charts alone

The argument that Scottish independence would greatly damage the acceptance of the music and culture often euphemistically called “urban” in England is exhibit A for the case that mere charts, mere lists of self-selecting, fairly narrow popularity, are not enough in themselves.  Music in this style is invariably less popular in Scotland in terms of pure sales (and now, presumably, streams), sometimes very markedly and conspicuously so (the general rule is that artists of the black Atlantic sell less well unless they do Eurodance-style songs, hence why Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” was a Scottish number one without topping the UK charts, and that acts from mainland Europe sell better unless their songs have an “urban” flavour, hence Oliver Heldens’ “Gecko (Overdrive)” bucking the trend by failing to replicate its UK number one status in Scotland).  There are many reasons why this might be: a less multiracial and multicultural demographic even in urban Scotland, less pressure to like it for post-colonial reasons among people outside its core audience because Leftism stuck to its pre-68 self there and so could remain a mass, socially conservative phenomenon (if ’68 had never happened, I don’t think I personally would ever have taken to it, half a lifetime ago), a general sense where whatever is small-town music in England (currently, the David Guetta continuum, seemingly on the racks but now with its umpteenth new wind) is big-city music in Scotland, whereas Scottish small towns and villages, to some extent, actually are what their English equivalents are fondly, delusionally imagined to be by the Dorset Echo and its ilk, in terms of not being wholly dependant on global mass culture.  But surely, those who take popularity polls in isolation would say, if it is less popular in Scotland, then Scotland being in a separate state would strengthen its cultural share in England, push it further up the charts by removing the sales of sceptics, give it a measurable demographic boost?  This, I fear, is a classic example of ignoring the wider social context which charts, unless it is absolutely unavoidable (and it rarely has been in recent times), by their nature leave out.

Charts can often shine a light on the world around them, of course; the Rolling Stones’ 2005 album A Bigger Bang (the one with “Sweet Neocon”, an unexpectedly accurate dissection of the dilemma an entire generation found itself in by this point, just in the slipstream of Katrina) narrowly missed the long, late years of TPL by literally a handful of copies, the difference made entirely by its low sales in Northern Ireland which may reflect the fact that, out of the generation that would still have been interested in what the Stones might have come up with by then, a disproportionate number in Northern Ireland (of both traditions) prefer folk and/or country over rock.  Marcello Carlin has already written about a similar situation in Scotland being a reason why there was never a “Clydebeat” to compare with Merseybeat and indeed what happened in London, when Glasgow was one of the very few other places to have comparable access to black American music through being an Atlantic port, but in that 2005 situation where Northern Ireland kept an album out of TPL (and also prevented the same act having number one albums consisting wholly of new recordings over a span of over forty years, something which has never in fact come to pass) there is another intriguing element; the album that stayed at number one in the UK because it stayed at number one in Northern Ireland, just on the brink of the “heir to Blair” speech, was James Blunt’s Back to Bedlam.  The fact that this was just after the IRA had finally announced an end to its armed campaign … the idea of people from strongly Catholic or nationalist backgrounds buying an album by an Old Harrovian with a background in the British Army at such a moment, in terms of pop’s reflecting the shifts around it, is almost too carmodic to be believed.

But that is a context that everyone gets and understands; it was impossible to live in Britain for most of modern history and not get some grasp of it, however it was filtered.  One thing which is, conversely, hardly being discussed at all in the wider talk about the possible effects of Scottish independence hinges on an important difference: that between London as seat of feudal-turned-neoliberal power, and London as centre of global pop-cultural hybridisation.  The two are entirely distinct, two Londons fundamentally at odds with each other, but some Scottish independence supporters don’t appear to know the difference, as has been shown by the regrettable blurring of the edges between criticism of London dominance couched in terms of the global plutocracy and financial elite (which, always assuming it doesn’t blur over into “hidden hand” anti-Semitism, I could support wholeheartedly other than for reasons which, I know, will come over as selfish to many I’d like to love) and criticism of London dominance couched in terms of cultural fear of diversity (the other, less admirable face of Scottish nationalism which some on the English Left still don’t want to admit exists).  They are two entirely different Scottish nationalisms, and if there is a Yes vote they will rapidly fall out and hate each other as viscerally as they are now linking arms enthusiastically; they have utterly oppositional visions of an independent Scotland, which even the absence of ’68 as a divisive factor splitting the Left could not hold together if Scotland had to fend for itself.

But if you add the two Londons which feed into the two anti-Londons, and think of the fact that only in London, north-west England and north-east England (pretty much the regions with the least stereotypically “English” identities) did Labour beat UKIP in the European elections within England, you can imagine a little-discussed counterpart to the well-discussed idea of secessionist movements in northern England aiming to join Scotland; a kind of London nationalism (actively encouraged, as nationalisms often are, by one of its great enemies, in this case Peter Hitchens) opposed to the rest of the south of England, which it has often resented for living off the city’s wealth yet dismissing its diversity, taking but not giving back, and to some extent opposed both to the residual elements of feudal power in that city and its recent takeover by the global super-rich.  Like the good bits of Scottish nationalism – in a sentence, those which attack “London” as a concept for its elite rather than its mass – it would have many positive and admirable elements for those who could be truly part of it.

But that very exclusivity and exclusion – all a knock-on effect from other secessionist movements – would make me seriously worried for how my own life might end up.  Even in an age of always-on global media, when it would obviously be wholly impossible to block “urban” streams and confine my life to what those of a feudal bent would consider “appropriate”, there would still be other practical restrictions (not in terms of what could be heard on a superficial level, of course, but in terms of identities and freedoms that could be taken on, absorbed on a meaningful level which affects your judgement and understanding of the world around you), deeper resentments and fears which a barely-reformed feudal state perversely holds in and controls, renders milder and less obstructive than they might be otherwise.  In present circumstances, it is comparatively easy for me to be culturally metropolitan while still riding horses and walking on the cliffs.  If surrounded by a regressive, reflective nationalism defined against multiple others/Others, it might not be so.  Where is all this leading?  To the point that the acceptance of “urban” pop and the wider culture in England, at least in such parts of it as I live in, is dependant on multiple outside factors which have no direct connection to pop and its casual consumption or to the wider social concept of youth ritual, and that if you remove the safety valve of a place where it appears to be less widely accepted among pop’s core audience, you can open the floodgates for resentment from an “outside” audience being stronger in a place where those most intimately close to pop are more orientated towards it.

To simplify, there have always been two main approaches to pop and its place in modern history; that shaped wholly by Gambo/Rice Bros, Alan Freeman (but not his rock shows), Simon Bates, Dale Winton, Tony Blackburn und so weiter (including, for a long time as it was taking shape, the child molester), and that defined principally by John Peel and the post-punk culture which has now been struggling for the best part of twenty years to cope with its offspring suddenly being mainstreamed (which was in fact, when it happened in my teenage years, the development that led me to hip-hop).  The former has, of course, been deeply shaken and traumatised by the revelations and trials of the last two years; the latter hasn’t been immune either – even if Roy Harper isn’t found guilty, the ’68 generation / PIE connections will leave their own stain – but still feels empowered and vindicated by the discrediting of those it always saw as a State safety valve for pop and youth ritual (it would be interesting to see if such self-aggrandisement among soixante-huitards could survive a guilty verdict in the Roy Harper trial; one possible effect of such a verdict might be to reverse the rapprochement with “pre-77 Peel” which has gained strength among his post-punk audience in recent times).

The former has ignored the wider context surrounding the lists and names and numbers it treats as gospel truth; the latter has, to some extent, ignored the wider context within which its cults existed, and universalised its own experiences (a post-68, and especially post-77, dichotomy which perhaps can be most accurately described as “turning the Mirror into the Mail“).  What I have tried to do, over something like fifteen years now (fumblingly and with half-knowledge, if that, at the beginning) is to bring the two together; describe both the context of the charts and the charts of the context.  To come at Guinness with the perspective of the cult-studs academic – to flesh out the mass consciousness with the legacy of Raymond Williams and all who followed him – and simultaneously to use data so often trivialised by anoraks, and sometimes dismissed as unnecessary and implicitly Tory by the CCCS graduates, to shine a light on the context in which cult-studs developed and formed itself.  The separation of these knowledges so institutionalised by the wider class-based feudalism and tribalism of, at least, England, and especially the division between those who absolutely need strict divisions between the two parts of their lives (people educated at the “old” universities are quite often worse for this than those with no advanced education at all), and those educated in the newer, broader traditions has created a deep, profound distrust of each area of knowledge in the “other” field; a belief among exponents of both that knowing the other is a betrayal, a compromise, a sell-out.  I was given that world; I didn’t make it.  All I’ve ever tried to do, not necessarily all that well until recently, is bring the knowledges and understandings together, to know what people governed by fear – whoever and whatever that fear is of – will have trained themselves not to know.  And if I’ve failed, I can at least say that the institutionalisation of those fears is such that it might not be entirely my fault.

The thing most ignored by those who take charts in total isolation – whether they’re presented by Alan Freeman or Jameela Jamil, Tom Browne or Marvin Humes – is that the most important people in the wider context of each wave of pop and its tolerance and acceptance aren’t the people who choose to listen to it, but the people who don’t, the people whose choices are, precisely, not reflected in the charts from week to week.  And they are the reason – especially in England – why separating a place where a music and its surrounding culture are less popular won’t necessarily improve its fortunes in every respect in the place that is left behind.  And should anyone doubt what I have written above – and the reasons why people who want to live as I want to live in such a place as I want to live like it have to oppose Scottish independence, however ruefully and regretfully and even if it is with the same sadness we feel when we reconcile our huge admiration for the principles on which the Open University was built and the social good it has done with the fact that Tom O’Carroll and Peter Righton worked for it – they might ask themselves a question that only has one answer: why, when they do not have a vote on the matter and would ostensibly (so we are repeatedly told) not be directly affected by it, do Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton – people who have dreamt for decades of eliminating all hybridised modern culture from England – support Scottish independence?