Talking about class and pop music immediately puts you in some uncomfortable company. Going by my recent experience on Twitter, as soon as you express any disquiet about the increasing number of up-and-coming musicians who arrive with ample wealth and connections, you get lumped in with the most troglodytic, books-are-for-ponces veteran of the Blur v Oasis wars and told that class is irrelevant. The gist of the response from several other writers was, to paraphrase Noel Coward, let’s not be beastly to the posh.
Twitter steamrollers nuanced debate so I want to unpack my thoughts here. The trigger for the debate was someone posting a link to a four-year-old Telegraph story which salivated over the £2.45m home of future Vaccines guitarist Freddie Cowan and his well-connected mother Fiona Cowan. You could reasonably raise an eyebrow at this kind of advantage without necessarily wanting to storm the Winter Palace. This revived discussion of a polemical piece in The Word magazine last December (not available online), in which Simon Price complained about the “Toff Takeover” of pop, pointing to the expensive educations of Eliza Dolittle, Florence Welch, Mumford & Sons, et al. He concludes:
The route to fame of entertainers like Eric Morecambe or Sandie Shaw now seems to belong to a different universe to that of Michael McIntyre and Laura Marling.… Does it matter? I would argue that it does, and for two reasons. The first is that it’s a regressive step for social democracy if the 93 per cent of is who didn’t go to a private school are no longer getting a fair shot at success. The second is that it’s bad for pop. If music – along with sport, the traditional ‘escape route’ for the poor – is shut off, where is the next Johnny Rotten or Jarvis Cocker going to come from? Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers – one of the last truly working-class bands to break through – said it best: ‘Music shouldn’t be a gap year.’ Right now, that’s precisely what it’s become.
It’s useful to define our terms. I’ve been told that middle-class music journalists have no business raising the issue, as if the middle class is monolithic, and a teacher on £25,000 a year is much the same as someone with a £2.45m maisonette. When you’re talking about fees at top private schools and relatives in high places, “middle class” isn’t a helpful description. We’re really talking about a very narrow stratum of society. In the 60s and 70s, rock was sufficiently alien to the wealthy elite that those who chose that path usually did so by rejecting their background rather than capitalising on it. Now, being in a band is just another thing that rich kids do. (I’m maddened by the weirdly essentialist argument, favoured by the Daily Mail but also many on the left, that the worst thing a privileged musician can do is be left-wing, as if that would be somehow inauthentic. Well hooray for the “inauthentic” activism of the relatively privileged Joe Strummer, Pete Seeger and Penny Rimbaud.)
To repeat Simon’s question: Does it matter? Well yes, because this development isn’t just a coincidence. It’s dishonest to pretend that every aspiring musician is on a level playing field. Areas like TV and journalism are increasingly dominated by those with the money to work as unpaid interns for months (not to mention those with the right connections), and music seems to be going the same way, in part because the relatively generous benefits system that allowed the likes of Jarvis Cocker to subsist during Pulp’s pre-Britpop wilderness years is a thing of the past. If pop music, always one of the most meritocratic and socially mobile occupations is changing like this, how bad must it be in other lines of work?
The Daily Mail, of all places, responded to The Word article by pointing out that some local authorities spend as little as £1.15 per child on music provision in state schools, and even that may soon be slashed to zero. Music lessons, equipment and rehearsal space all cost money. Michael Rose, conductor of the Bedfordshire Youth Orchestra, warned: “If funding is lost in this way music lessons will become the sole preserve of the middle classes.” (Perplexed by this outbreak of egalitarianism in the Mail, I was relieved to find normal service resumed with a snide dig at Joe Strummer in the last paragraph.)
So do wealthy people automatically produce inferior music? Of course not. I don’t want to have a record collection without, say, Nick Drake. I think tension and a sense of being an outsider create the best music and that can stem from any number of factors, not just socioeconomic ones. And there are clever (if often misunderstood) ways of interrogating privilege from up close. There is no better 2010 lyric about the troubling allure of wealth than this verse from Vampire Weekend’s Taxi Cab: “When the taxi door was open wide/I pretended I was horrified/By the uniformed clothes outside/Of the courtyard gate.” There’s a world of envy, guilt and fascination in that pretended. But entitlement and complacency – the sense of going through life without touching the sides – are the enemy of good art, and I hear them in a lot of young bands. Pop should be a dizzying Babel of voices – it will be much poorer if singer after singer has the same kind of accent, the same frame of reference.
Ultimately, talent will out. Freddie Cowan’s brother Tom is in the flamboyantly posh Horrors, and I like them just fine. Who knows? Maybe the Vaccines will prove to be more interesting than they appear. Just don’t tell me that class doesn’t matter.
UPDATE: A smart and speedy response from Christian Ward, who sharpens the useful distinction between class and privilege.
UPDATE: An interesting, more personal blog on a similar theme by James McMahon at the NME.
UPDATE: I originally named Brian Eno alongside Nick Drake as a musician from a wealthy background because he attended a fee-paying school but that was (embarrassingly for such a big Eno fan) inaccurate, or at least oversimplified.
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