clacka-dun dun pock dun pok dun pok dun dun dun
The Lady’s theory of table tennis performance is that one plays better the less you think about the game. It’s an apt metaphor for life actually. I bend to pick up the ball and serve again when a memory bounces into my head.
Me: When did Princess Diana die?
The Lady: Um, 1997 I think.
Me: Yeah, I thought so.
The Lady: Why do you ask?
Me: I’m thinking about something that Gillen said the other day.
A now familiar look crosses The Lady’s face. This look says “batten down the hatches, there’s a rant coming” and while it doesn’t exactly invite me to continue it doesn’t dissuade me either. I serve again.
Me: Kieron remarked that Diana’s death is seen by some as the death of Britpop, and I’ve been thinking about why, and what that meant to me as a music fan who reached maturity after that.
The Lady: Okay… Why? What does Diana have to do with music?
Ahah, that’s as good an invite as any…
So, Diana dies on a positively autumnal August day. My memory of that day is of going to canoe on a river in Winchester so my Mum can write an article about it. The radio stations we had on to and from the place were mausoleum grey, something my internal textbook identifies as the aural equivalent to the sleeve of Closer by Joy Division, but punctuated by special bulletins. John Harris (in The Last Party) writes about Diana’s death as a moment when the “atomised and alienated” British public leave their homes to participate in history, but that’s not quite true. Most of us watched the funeral from home, even those who didn’t care. I recall my Dad’s then second wife crying a lot. I also remember having a lot of homework afterwards, I’d just transferred to Secondary School after all, and I have in the back of my mind a constant preference for the bit that came before: Sunny summers; “Parklife” on the radio; singing “Alright” by Supergrass on family holidays to the Isle of Wight; no bloody homework. Sad songs are on the radio a lot too (Kieron: “Diana dies and so does Britpop, then The Verve start selling records”. Add OK Computer to the list and that’s about right). Then comes Eminem and a resurgence in popular focus on Detroit rap, and if there’s anything a middle class white kid from Hampshire’s going to have trouble identifying with then it’s urban deprivation. Ten years ago I would have liked there to be someone on the radio who felt trapped in the suburbs.
Eventually the radio’s grey for so long that I start to wonder if Britpop even happened. What was it anyway? Britpop takes staples of parochial 60s songwriting and throws in a punky strum, which is a basic summary of all charting guitar music since London Calling, maybe even earlier. The bands are in isolation, with no unifying purpose or ideology, just buying and selling a lifestyle of five-a-side football, tracksuits, beer and new shoes.
The Lady: Maybe that was the ideology?
Me: What a shit ideology.
We bat about some more, pok dun pok dun pok dun pok dun pok dun pok dun pok dun pok dun dun. I’m missing fewer shots, even getting the ball past The Lady a couple of times. She serves and, without really thinking about it, I start to talk about the same complaint I always come back to…
I never got a legitimate movement. I was too young for Britpop, if it even existed, so it couldn’t be anything to me except songs, and I never got rap culture because it’s just so out of place in Hedge End. The closest I come is the garage rock revival of the early noughties, the bands springing up in the wake of The Strokes and The Libertines. England becomes Albion, briefly, and the lessons I learn from that are that it’s okay to look backwards, to raid the past past for ideas and to try to make a legend of oneself, and actually it’s pretty obvious to me that they’re big threads in what I’m trying to write and the culture I’m trying to create. But I don’t know that it can be classed as a scene, not really. I think if you look at what it did for the musical map of the country you start to see that it broke up the cultural centre that London had become, and put a banner waving band in every town in the UK: Leeds got The Kaiser Chiefs, Glasgow got Franz Ferdinand, Sunderland got The Futureheads and so on. Even Southampton got in on it, improbably shoving The Delays into the fray. And, yes, financially they still rely on London, but the audience is everywhere.
But there was no ambition to it, again, no manifesto. Or, rather, lots of little manifestos, each of them crying for attention and slating all the others. I still think that retrospection and nostalgia are the common threads, a soundscape in which Mick Jones can produce your records, you can steal XTC song titles and everybody dances like Ian Curtis. But, then and now, the whole “four sweaty boys with guitars” thing is really about being better than the other lot, about sniping at the other lot and making your microscene as self-sufficient as possible. If you’re about 20-25years old now then there is no mass because we’ve all been groomed to be snobs, and you can’t build a movement on the back of that.
Me: I wound up missing Emo by seconds.
Now, I may not envy Emo musically, I far prefer my angular guitar pop and skinny ties, but I really wish I’d had the belonging of the horde and the crush. Whatever tabloid idea of Emo exists in the minds of parents of today, the fact remains there are kids out there sharing this experience en mass. That mass aspect is important, because (as with all musical scenes since the sound of the Big Bang) the evolution of the movement’s sound happened earlier, and I didn’t miss out on that at all. Dashboard Confessional, Coheed and Cambria, Saddle Creek, even fucking Weezer point the way to what Emotional Hardcore grows up to become. Even the first two Brand New records and the first by My Chemical Romance are referred to as Pop-Punk rather than Emo initially because it’s not until about 2004 that the style and substance of Emo really starts to gel. The kids that form that first wave of Emo scenesters are the ones that caught Green Day killing Pop-Punk with American Idiot. I was so very, very nearly there, but when I moved to London I realised I was too damn pale to look good dressed all in black. I got the music, but missed out on the make-up and androgyny.
The Lady: I get that you didn’t have the big mass of people, but since when does Emo have an ideology?
Me: Oh but it does, “I’m Not Okay”
“I’m Not Okay”
A clarion call, a fucking klaxon, a battle cry, chief complaint and manifesto all rolled into one. For the first time in a long time someone young and in a position to be listened to is noting that the world around them isn’t satisfying them, that it leaves them completely and utterly empty. They need to tell people, they fucking well need to scream it. This isn’t the time for Supergrass anymore, things aren’t alright.
The Lady: What are they saying though?
Me: They’re saying they aren’t okay.
The Lady: But what are they actually saying to people?
Me: Um… I’m Not Okay.
If looks could kill I wouldn’t have returned the volley that came my way just then. Actually, I didn’t return it anyway: It sailed past my ear and I had to fetch it from the corridor.
The Lady: Why is saying that important to anyone?
So, broadly, this is suburban discontent raising it’s pimply little head. This generation, born between ’86 and ’94, come from the fag-end of the Regan and Thatcher reigns. They’re from reasonably affluent families and almost universally are finding out that taking part in the capitalist economy isn’t making them happy. If they can’t smile while buying and selling then all that’s left is to wonder why. They accept that each trend is absorbed into what exists of a ‘mainstream’ and repackaged to make money. They are educated enough to be able to follow the money though, and know that if something speaks to them then embracing it isn’t something to be ashamed about. And they really, really want to be spoken to, not at. Pop-Punk and, later, Emo icons get to be very good at letting you know what they feel. Lyrically there’s a massive emphasis on being true to yourself, and emotional acceptance is a massive part of that. Bands want to let fans know they feel the same things, that they aren’t alone in this. It therefore becomes Okay for everybody not to feel Okay, which is part of why the mess of subcultures that were Goth and Punk get thrust into daylight through Emo.
The ball hits the net and halts.
The Lady: I’m not convinced that’s a sincere expression though. All I see is videos of boys singing with their eyes closed or staring at their feet saying they’re distraught and miserable. In classical music you just can’t get away with that. When you sing you have to convince the audience that there’s a depth to your sentiment, you have to be a lot more subtle. Emo is just putting it on the surface.
Me: You’re right. But the most successful, not necessarily the best or most interesting, are much more confrontational than that: Gerard Way, preacher to the masses, reaching into the pit and yelling down the wire “I’m Not Okay” into the eyes of any fucker who can hold eye contact. They want you to sing it loudly and together, which isn’t part of the classical music environment. They want it displayed.
The Lady: But it isn’t: It’s on headphones in bedrooms.
Me: No, it’s on speakers in bedrooms, speakers on computers, computers with broadband connections and instant access to MySpace, Bebo, Last.fm and the rest. It’s the perpetual interaction of social networking, and those social networks go to gigs, in record attendance, as gangs of friends.
She serves, clacka-dun dun pock dun pok dun pok dun pok…
Memory swings to a few days previous. I’m in conversation with two old friends and I get asked by one of them if I think the music industry can survive the illegal download culture and the like. Now, to me, that’s not even an issue because the industry has proven itself to be very, very adaptable. I worked for Atlantic and Warner in the early days of their street team UKUndercurrent, and very quickly it was clear that acts like Billy Talent, The Used and My Chemical Romance were getting the most vocal support. Street Teaming came to the fore with the punk and urban indy labels of the mid-90s, in which fans spread word about gigs and releases with word-of-mouth, flyering and data collection. Xtaster and Traffic pretty much cornered the market as far as street promotions went, and some of the major labels started to model their own street promotions departments on their example. Street Teaming facilitates the display factor, rounding up a disparate mass into concentrated action. It’s exactly the tactic Anonymous are encouraging. For me, UKUndercurrent proved just how absolutely necessary Street Teaming, and with it the internet, has become to the popular music scene, Emo in particular. Teaming got sticker and badges on the backpacks of the nation, got e-mail addresses for the constant buzz of direct marketing and did a lot to solidify external identities into something approaching a demographic.
Me: I think you’re unconvinced because it’s an industry, and that’s why I can only stomach so much of it.
The Lady is, basically, a classically trained hippie. Her tolerance for hyperbole and bullshit is extraordinarily low, and she demands content. She mutes the ads on TV, while I passively ignore them or admire the construction. Advertising fascinates me and disgusts her. Even then, when I say I ‘missed Emo by seconds’ those were the crucial moments in which I got cynical about the intentions of performance and celebrity. Regardless of message and content I tend to deconstruct things, look at their constituent parts, and when I find things I do like I often lose the magic of them pretty quickly, sadly. I still think it’s true to say that if Emo had gelled together in the UK twelve months earlier than it did then it would have had me hook, line and pocket-money.
The Lady: But then is it really any different to Britpop?
Me: You mean is it just a sales pitch? Selling a lifestyle?
The Lady: Exactly.
Me: Well yes, but also, crucially, no.
The artistic merits of Emo – and any Screamo, Extremo etc derivation – are pretty much irrelevant to me. The majority of it leaves me cold, and being that tiny bit older than most of the people into it I absolutely embrace the prerogative to look down on it and all of its stylistic tics. But no matter how little I care about the black and day-glo parade trudging up and down Camden High Street I cannot bring myself to write off the emotional validity of the scene. It’s created a group unity and identity above and beyond the internecine sniping of the abortive movement I got, and I wonder what these fans are going to come up with.
I’m a little bit fixated on form. I want to motivate people, but for the most part I don’t care to move them emotionally. It’s almost an isolationist perspective, in content if not action. I wonder if the Emo generation might go in the opposite direction. They have social networking, physical and virtual, down to an art form and are deep in the web of cultural specificity. Most importantly though, their formative experience of pop has been through unity, discontent and emotional exhibitionism. I wonder if this is the generation of artists who might make boys cry again.
The game’s winding down. We have to prepare the room for a big old bbq, and I should probably start drinking in order to deal with the mounting fear I have of talking to strangers.
Me: I enjoyed that.
The Lady: Yeah, I did too actually. Table Tennis always helps me think.
A version of the above took place over the Bank Holiday weekend, and I typed it up while listening to Brand New’s ‘Deja Entendu’, My Chemical Romance’s ‘I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love’ and ‘Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge’, Alkaline Trio’s ‘Good Mourning’ and Weezer’s ‘Blue Album’. I will be cleansing my palate the rest of this week by listening to various Fence Records releases.
Thanks to Alice and her family for putting up with me and my beardy ways.
Matt, emo’d out in the front room, Muswell Hill 2008