Let’s talk about class

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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33 Comments

  1. Nicely put. I think that about 15 years ago, some NME writers were worrying about the cutting back of the dole and how that would destroy a safety net for people trying to build a pop career – that seems to be being borne out now. Clearly, it’s a nonsense to say that poor = better pop, but there’s so little friction in a lot of the acts that are breaking through from well-off backgrounds. Things are nice, the tunes are pretty, the production is smooth, and the lyrics are untroubled – and it’s all dulldulldull.

  2. Interesting piece and topic in general.

    Eliza Doolittle is perhaps a good example, her gran is Sylvia Young, and that will have, no matter how much she protests, opened doors for her.

    With Laura Marling, however, one of the most startling factors of her music IS that she’s that well-educated, citing various Greek and Roman myths and tragedies in her lyrics. Perhaps not having to get a Saturday job meant she could bury her head in the classics? She is a product of her background, and, as someone who didn’t experience such an upbringing, it makes her talent seem even more supernatural to me than it already is. (I don’t recall you liking her last album that much, so I don’t expect you to agree with that.)

    You mention Nick Drake as an example of ‘not all toffs being bad’ and I would put Laura and Mumfords (I definitely know you won’t agree with this) in that bracket.
    I don’t see what their background has to do with the position they’re in now – they are talented, and, if the meritocracy we all want is observed, nothing would change in their cases.

    Jarvis Cocker, as you rightly say, is a counter-point to this but is did he really only come through because he was on benefits and allowed to develop, or is he, like all the greats, just so good that he would be heard eventually? (On a similar note, where are all the great working-class bands that came through as a result of Labour’s New Deal incentives to unemployed musicians? I can’t think of many, if any at all.)

    Where are today’s dissenting voices? I honestly don’t believe there are scores of Angry Young Men and Women lining the offices of record labels, eager to get deals but being denied because of their background. Record labels desperately want to sign the next Oasis or Arctic Monkeys, the next working class, everyman band – I can think of no other reason for Brother’s existence, anyway, but as they’ve proved with their laughable promo videos and interviews, it’s all fake. Don’t you think a label would sign a genuine, and crucially BRILLIANT, working class band if they were out there?

    And I don’t think this absence is down to a lack of music lessons in schools. My school was badger’s-arse rough, with precious little money knocking around for maths and science, let alone musical instruments, but that didn’t stop 30 or 40 of the lads in my year saving to buy guitars after they heard Live Forever for the first time.

    I’m not saying I know the answer to all this, just chewing things over – and I certainly don’t want to see unfair advantages handed out to the prvileged few any more than you do – but I think there are much wider issues at hand than a few rich kids getting record deals.

    Thanks
    Andy

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment Andy. I think SV80 below makes the point I would about Marling and the Mumfords – it’s not the individual (though I have no time for either of them) but the volume of them. The Vaccines are just the latest (see also Noah & the Whale) from the same privileged clique.

  3. Well said. Class doesn’t determine ability but it does, increasingly, determine access. I think what most people find noxious about the relative success of the insular little scene that has developed around Mumford & Sons, aside from the music, is the idea that it’s based largely on connections forged in or around exclusive public schools. X being a classmate of Y and a friend of Z, who is the flatmate of A, the girlfriend of B and the cousin of C is how lots of scenes get started but when A, B and C are wealthy kids who have taken the intern route into music journalism, radio scheduling or major-venue band booking, routes not necessarily open to those who have to get paid for a living, everything gets distorted.

    As you point out, it’s symptomatic of something much larger and much darker – the cementing of privilege in education, employment and politics. In terms of social mobility, the spiralling use of unpaid interns – for so many years a mainstay of the music and publishing industries – into countless other spheres presents one of the greatest challenges those without independent wealth have faced in a generation. We’re so caught up in worrying about a lack of parental financial support preventing young people from getting on the property ladder, we’ve almost ignored the increasing difficulty they’re finding getting on the employment ladder.

  4. If it comes down to a choice between The Vaccines and Brother, you can count on me and anyone with half a brain cell (so not Brother) to plump for the former. Class does matter, and it informs music wondefully a lot of the time. But I think you’re right, ultimately talent will out, and there’s not need to worry about whatever the British press decide will be the next thing to destroy all music EVER.

    • You’ll notice I don’t say anything about the woeful Brother. The last thing I’m interested in is Blur v Oasis repeated but with worse music. The Vaccines are just one symptom, not the problem in themselves.

  5. The subject of music and class is historical, one that has always created interesting cultural argument ; most poignantly though in todays political and social context this debate is even more curious as the ideas about the Laura Marlings and Florences’ of the world suggest; if in todays climate we are talking about Democracy within music then surely : leave them to it. Florence gives good face surely. The apparent Left that includes the ‘Middle Classes’ being against ‘posh pop’ lost their confused arguments a while ago, and they are confused arguments: are we to be against/stop listening to said popstar a ‘former’ working class pop star now turned million-aire/ residing in wealthy maisonette purely due monetary situation. Or we support the middle class pop star that causes the right sort of mayhem ( note-Prodigy).

    I conclude by simply saying, the Left is need of a fresh education, in fact it needs to figure out exactly what being Leftist really means. 2001 made sure that the Left lost their way; it’s time to work out what we really mean and perhaps stop being ‘against’ apparent and slight pop misgivings ( though mumford are slightly bland)

  6. As ever, is the simple answer to take little note of music journalists, popular sources of media (e.g. newspapers) and national & commercial radio and just go to small gigs and see what everyone else is putting out there. If you do this then your music taste will only be as vacuous as you are (or indeed I am).

    On a side note: unfortunately, the festivals appear to be less and less daring as they becomed more and more filled with already well known artists.

  7. This is a really interesting debate, with an impact much wider than the music industry. As SV80 says this already infects many other walks of life. For example, how many young journalists have connections to the titles they end up writing for? Nepotism and privilege are rife throughout the media, a browse through the list of journalists employed on national newspapers will throw up the surnames of former cabinet ministers, authors and journalists – especially in the more financially rewarding features pages. As a freelance writer and journalist competing with these people does this annoy you as well?

    • At this stage in my career I don’t have anything to complain about and hopefully my work speaks for itself. My concern is more for younger writers trying to get a foot in the door.

  8. Yes I think the worrying aspect of all these well-healed, upper middle class types dominating popular music is the sense that it *might* be part of a greater trend which redefines who rock and roll or pop music is for.

    For most of the last fifty years, pop has been the most notable cultural space which is completely, genuinely, democratic (the pop charts are like the UK political system, plagued by corruption for sure, but you get the number ones and leaders you deserve). Pop fans have traditionally taken little or no notice of their favourite pop artist’s background. All that matters on that score is that their background makes for a good story. Sting having previously been an English teacher is as good a story as Phil Oakey having previously been a hospital porter. Did Brosettes care where Matt and Luke were educated?

    However, if pop comes to be perceived as simply a playground for the upper middle classes, as is arguably currently the case with theatre and – particularly so – opera, then it will start to slide into cultural irrelevance. The “masses” (I’m aware of the dodgy whiff off that term) might need to find some new way of participating in culture, and where else is there to turn? Television? Film? Literature? How easy is it for a working class person to make waves in those fields? How necessary is a third level education to a successful career in those areas?

    We are already starting to see the canonisation, or to coin an ugly neologism, the museumification (“mummification”?) of popular music. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is its physical embodiment. The visual arts has been the battleground of struggle between the dead, dusty canon and the energetic, vibrant artist for at least a hundred years. By the early 20th century the art world had become so introspective, fusty and rancid that dada, surrealism and futurism had to be invented. Are The Brit Awards, the singles and albums charts and the radio playlists to pop music what museums are to art? Perhaps my analogy is inappropriate.

    What does seem important to me though is, if people look at what’s on offer in contemporary pop and say “these people are not like me, they have no connection with my world at all” then this will not be very healthy for pop. Class consciousness can work on a very instinctive level, just as pop music does – it works at the level of “I get this, I understand where this is coming from, I can subsume it into my world.”

    I have always thought that pop music, like folk music, is ultimately the music of the people, and while there is still a proletariat around those people will find some sort of way to have a say via pop music. But it’s probably not something we should take for granted.

    Thank God for Tinie Tempah, that’s what I say.

    • Fantastic, thoughtful comment. Thanks. And thank God for Tinie Tempah indeed.

  9. You make some very excellent points very clearly here Dorian. But why talk so much in terms of bands? Isn’t one part of this issue that the less privileged have all but abandoned rock music – hence the (overplayed, but nonetheless statistically significant) figures about sales of rock singles that were all over the press this week?

    We have seen a genuine revolution in resolutely working-class musicians who came of age in the garage, dubstep and grime scenes making the charts on a regular basis over the past three or so years – and Katie B, Tinie Tempah and Ms Dynamite, as well as album artists like Burial, are significantly more interesting as cultural presences and as people than any artfully-tousled Ramones-aping twonk with a guitar could ever hope to be. And there are legions behind them who might never make the top 10, but who are steadily building a global market for British working-class music that will provide the option of sustainable careers for thousands of young musicians, producers, rappers and singers for years to come.

    • All true. I think Tinie and Plan B are terrific examples. Can I plead wanting to keep the blog relatively short?

  10. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by lkrory21, Jasmine Phull. Jasmine Phull said: Is class at the apex of music? Great article. http://33revolutionsperminute.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/lets-talk-about-class/ [...]

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  12. Good piece, Mr Lynskey!

    Got to pick you up on one point though: Brian Eno is from a working class background (famously, his dad and grandad were both postmen in and around his hometown). I don’t say this in the spirit of fact-checking snark; it matters here because such a remarkably exotic and intellectual pop presence was the direct product of post-war social democracy (free, pre-marketised education for all with aptitude).

    Same goes for the rest of Roxy Music, with the exception of Phil Manzanera (who at least did Being Posh properly: his dad was a spy who used to bust communist revolutions in Central America).

    • I thought Eno was privately educated at St Joseph’s in Ipswich? Not that automatically equates with poshness.

      • Looks like he went there, from the online biogs; perhaps those Catholics were handy with a scholarship for their own kind?

  13. Good piece Dorian. Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno was brought up on a council estate – where I’m sure he had fun with a name like that. His horizons were broadened by a combination of an arty uncle and (Winchester) art college.
    Pricey’s original Word article cited the Brit School as an example of privilege, to which others have pointed out that it is in fact a state school. Personally, I think the vast number of current pop acts hailing from the Brit School is also undesirable, as by nature it reduces the amount of diversity in pop. To slightly divert from the thread, I’ve always been slightly uneasy about too much musical education. Most if not all my favourite artists are mostly self-taught. Eno is famously a “non-musician”. Joy Division could barely play when they produced Unknown Pleasures. Musical education per se is not a bad thing, but for me, any situation where a bulk or glut of artists are schooled in every aspect of music and the industry must surely be bad for creativity and originality.

  14. [...] By Fiona Sturges, Independent; Can you be too posh to rock? By Neil McCormick, The Telegraph; Let’s talk about class by Dorian Lynskey, [...]

  15. For a moment, let’s discard theory and look at reality. In the classless society of the U.S. (that’s sarcasm), Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt, two of country’s most important songwriters, were both fairly wealthy. (And Parsons went to Harvard.)

    And the Rolling Stones recorded their masterpiece of alienation and sleaze, Exile on Main Street, in the south of France – *where they went as tax exiles*.

    In the end, it’s not only where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.

    • Well yes. I agree. There’s nothing in the piece to contradict that. Where I mention Nick Drake I could as easily say Gram Parsons.

  16. Pardon it I’m a month late but there’s a fiery debate about class and music over at the Guardian. You’ll never guessed who figured. It’s James Blunt. Yep, good ole world war 3 preventor and model magnet, James Blunt. The points thrown there were hilarious. It does not help that his fans came to his defense (you’ll know coz most of them are newly registered users and only commented on Blunt’s article).
    Anyway, I’m Asian and I don’t get the Brits’ obsession with class. Most of my youth were spent in Japan where a musician’s success is measured by the amount of alcoholic drink ads like Asahi and Suntory he endorses (yep, it’s not a cliche). And many of their famous pop musicians are well educated and classically trained. They wear that “highly educated” badge oh so proudly. The concept of selling out is something strange to them. I remember the time when punk extraordinaire Iggy Pop did the vocals for Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Risky” Bryan Ferry style because Peter Gabriel was unavailable, everyone in the States were calling Iggy a sell-out and pretentious. Ironically Risky was about corporate whorism. It was later used in an ad for a vehicle. But back in Japan, it was just a song.

  17. [...] slept together. Nothing surprising in that, of course, but what seems, in these recessionary times, to wind some people up is that many of them went to private [...]

  18. [...] slept together. Nothing surprising in that, of course, but what seems, in these recessionary times, to wind some people up is that many of them went to private [...]

  19. [...] Dorian Lynskey ponders on the poshification of pop music, and looks at the relationship between privilege and protest music. [...]

  20. [...] Lynskey zwrócił uwagę na coraz wyższy udział klas wyższych w muzyce, na co ripostą zareagował Neil McCormick. „LA Times” zastanawia się, czym [...]

  21. [...] of just such a point have been made from both ends of the political spectrum in recent weeks. But what has tended to be left out of the impassioned ensuing debate is any analysis of the media [...]

  22. [...] of just such a point have been made from both ends of the political spectrum in recent weeks. But what has tended to be left out of the impassioned ensuing debate is any analysis of the media [...]

  23. [...] slept together. Nothing surprising in that, of course, but what seems, in these recessionary times, to wind some people up is that many of them went to private school.The journalist Jon Savage recently called the [...]

  24. I love the vaccines, Noah and the whale and Laura Marling. Their music is honest, real and personal and I think the style of their music is effected by their upbringing/social class. And the conections they have don’t effect the quality of there music but how easily they can get known and get a broader audience through the media. It’s not always a simple path for them though, the members of the vaccines struggled with there music careers for a long time before they formed. The music of the upper class is just as good as the music of other classes of this genre, we just hear it more. People shouldn’t dislike this kind of music just because of their class and how easy it is for them to get known, these bands can’t be bad if so meany people like them. (people like me).                 Please feel free to disagree with me I’m open to other peoples opinions. I find this subject fascinating.  Xxx 


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