Friday, 30 December 2011

Part 2: 'Chavs', and the astonishing attack on the working class

In the first of two posts about the attack on the working class I looked at perceptions of so-called ‘chavs’, which Owen Jones writes about so well in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, and the misguided and tragic view held by so many that characters like Vicky Pollard and Catherine Tate’s Lauren accurately represented the working class. This time, I’ll examine music and football in this country, which once saw as much working-class input as The Labour Party used to.

My thesis is that the dearth of diversity in music of today can in part be put down to the lack of diversity of the backgrounds of those who make it. ‘They’re all the same’ (which I hear a lot on the doorstep) is starting to apply as much to music as to politics. There always has been significant input into music from the middle-classes, and so there should be. But it used to be alongside, not at the expense of, bands with working-class backgrounds.

‘It hasn’t always been like this’ is starting to become my implicit catchphrase, but in the 80s, there was far more variety. On one hand you had The New Romantics (not that I liked many of them) - Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Dead or Alive et al - many of whom embraced Thatcherism and eschewed any working class roots (they may as well have been middle-class). Billy Bragg was so incensed it led him to start performing: "One day I saw Spandau Ballet on Top of the Pops wearing kilts singing Chant No 1 and something in me snapped. I was waiting for a band to come along to play the kind of music I wanted to hear, and none was forthcoming, so it was that moment I finally realised it was gonna have to be me". Jeremy Vine writes: 'With their high-stacked hairstyles and flashguns bouncing off limousine bumpers, The New Romantics celebrated low taxation, enterprise and individual spirit. Duran Duran's most famous line: "Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand," seemed to translate as: "I've made a lot of cash under Thatcher and now I'm going to splash it out on a bird whose bikini is falling off."

On the other, you had the working-class bands who once dominated rock and indie music in particular. Jones referred to The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays as examples, to which you can add The Fall, Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain and others. Some of these were instrumental in developing the hugely influential Madchester music scene, which spawned genres like Britpop, while Duran Duran influenced bands like Franz Ferdinand, The Killers and Panic! At The Disco. My point is that the range of backgrounds of musicians of decades like the 80s is in large part why there was not only such an embarrassment of riches but also such a wide range of music; so many different genres.

In recent years, the only genres that have emerged – the likes of grime and dubstep – have derived from the underground scene and some of the few working class musicians left. Grime, originating in Bow, East London, was pioneered by Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Kano.
Rock and pop, though, is becoming increasingly dominated by middle-class bands like Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol.

Reality TV doesn’t help. Simon Cowell’s got it into young people’s heads that the only way for the working classes to get into the music industry is by entering The X Factor and dominates the British music industry so much that even when an internet campaign successfully kept The X Factor off xmas no. 1, it emerged that Rage Against The Machine's 'Killing In The Name Of' was released by Sony, which Cowell owns a subsidiary of. With music of today becoming increasingly bland, samey and the industry dominated by middle class people like Cowell, I worry the petering out of working-class influence will lead to an even greater lack of change and development over the next few decades.

On football, Jones writes: ‘A game that was at the centre of working-class identity for so long has been transformed into a middle-class consumer good controlled by billionaire carpetbaggers. Caricaturing all working-class fans as aggressive hooligans intent on mindless violence has provided the excuse to keep them out'. From 1990 to 2008, the price of the average football ticket rose by 600%, well over seven times the rate of everything else. It's even more depressing when major footballing figures disregard their roots and justify the obscene price rises by falling for media caricatures and the fallacy that all fan problems come from the same people it sees as ‘chavs’.

Terry Venables claims: ‘Without wishing to sound snobbish or be disloyal to my own working-class background, the increase in admission prices is likely to exclude the sort of people giving English football a bad name… the young men, mostly working-class, who terrorized football grounds, trains, cross-channel ferries and towns and cities throughout Europe.’

The Hillsborough Disaster exposed the prejudice – dating back to the 80s – in sections of the media toward working-class supporters. The Sun infamously claimed that Liverpool fans ‘picked pockets of victims’ and ‘beat up police constables giving kiss of life’, fabricated claims later shown to be untrue. It has been boycotted in Liverpool ever since.

MP Stephen Pound points out: ‘If you look at the working-class heroes – people like Frank Lampard and David Beckham – what’s the first thing they do? They move out of the working-class areas into Cheshire or Surrey. The role models don’t have the confidence to stick with it.’ A far cry from the days when footballers showed loyalty to their clubs throughout their career, even often proudly living in that town/city, be it Manchester or Macclesfield.

Former sports minister Andy Burnham last year said English football had to change: ‘Since the Premier League was created we have had commercial forces running riot, fans priced out of going to football, money not benefiting the grass roots or the lower divisions’.

Schemes like Burnham’s call for more clubs to be owned by supporters – like Barcelona and several others mutual democratic models in Spain and Germany – are well-intentioned and along the right lines. With Labour out of government and Burnham (its only vocal advocate) moved remit, however, it in this country seems a distant dream, just like, I fear, lots of my wishes for the increasingly middle-class run football and music industries to be opened up to all once more.


  1. I'm sorry to have mainly ignored you talking about the demise of working-class music with Lynch back in December, and about the hope of being 'raised up' found in Great Expectations. You're absolutely right, nothing seems to have changed. And I just feel guilty for loving the 'LOLchavz' sketches back in the day... I mean didn't the Victorian upper class used to laugh at poor people?
    About the music, I might point out that hiphop and grime are more underground movements than the working class rock of the 80s, or even that with a smaller working class you can expect fewer bands, but that's just nitpicking because I do agree with you.

  2. That's fine. It's incredible, isn't it? But the most interesting things I seem to discover in politics seem to be the most depressing. Yeah, I used to watch them too - didn't we all? Fair point. I didn't do as much research into their origins. Hip-hop I wasn't really referring to - I know it can come from all over - but grime I was just basing my point on the examples of Dizzee (raised in a single-parent family in Bow) and Wiley.

    The thing is: I wouldn't say there is a smaller working class. I know Blair said 'we're all middle class now' but frankly he's wrong.

    As Owen Jones wrote, while the jobs you'd think of as working class (e.g. mining) don't exist any more, they've been replaced. There are nearly a million call centre workers today (there were a million miners at its peak in the 40s), earning the minimum wage and working in conditions comparable to the mines (even to mills and factories in the 19th century, he says), where they receive abuse from people they're made to phone, can't talk to one another, have the time and duration of breaks dictated to them by computers and sometimes even have to put their hand up to go to the toilet.

    With many earning as little as £12000 a year, the only real difference between them and what I think we'd consider as the working class of the 80s is that they're not even unionised. They also lack job security - the growing 'flexible workforce' makes it far easier for them to be fired, and there are as many as 1.5 million temporary workers in Britain.

    1. Ah, good point on my smaller working class comment. I must admit I seriously considered researching that... but somehow didn't...