Friday, 16 March 2012

Lost Girls

This is how the 90s sometimes look in retrospect: the narrowing of access and erasure of working-class lived experience across culture, media and politics; the parallel fetishization of working-class culture via an unholy alliance of Blair, late Britpop and London-centric art, fashion and football; and the degeneration of UK indie from something moderately interesting and markedly 'other' compared to the rest of the chart fare, into something increasingly homogenous, nostalgic and insular. A distinguishing mark of the decade was the gradual stifling of nuanced articulation of identities and their subsequent appearance in an ersatz, appropriated, or puppeteered form. This post attempts a further excavation of what was.


The fast-obsolescing Kaiser Chiefs' 'I Predict a Riot' tended to figure in responses to last August's unrest, most recently in a deservedly dismissive way in the lyrics of Plan B's 'Ill Manors'. Perhaps this referencing only proves the cultural poverty of the intervening years, but it does demonstrate the song’s longevity – far greater than that of its creators – and its impact as a checkpoint for class-inflected fear and loathing. The song sounds like a forerunner of James Delingpole's 2006 invocation of the 'great scourges of contemporary Britain'; his 'aggressive female gangs of embittered, hormonal, drunken teenagers; gym-slip mums who choose to get pregnant as a career option; pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers who’ll drop their knickers in the blink of an eye...' are a stone’s throw away from the song’s censorious yet prurient reportage ('girls scrabble round with no clothes on / to borrow some change for a condom / if it wasn’t for chip-fat they’d be frozen'). Both visions are part of a cultural shift which has combined the vanishing of working class female identity in public discourse with its accelerated use as an all-purpose whipping-post onto whose alleged precocity, promiscuity, agency and independence, various social ills and moral panics are projected.

Sneering by grammar-school boys at slatternly scrabbling for small change was perhaps the logical culmination of late Britpop's fellow-travelling New Laddism, a tendency waxing unapologetically blatant and boorish in the post-Libertines London scene in particular. 'I Predict a Riot' almost deserves acclaim for its unabashed depiction of something a step beyond class tourism – attitudes which, in a less triumphalist decade, might have been unpalatable without the distancing minstrelsy of 'Vindaloo' or the nudge-and-wink of 'Stereotypes', could by 2004 be sincerely held and expressed. Scattering presumptions, from the inherent irrational violence of men in leisurewear to the lack of sense and sensibility of underdressed women, the song seems to lack any hint of irony. And by 2012 the song could be received in the same way, as though, after 'Stereotypes' and 'Vindaloo' and 'we are all middle-class now', after Waynetta Slob and Vicky Pollard, we hold these truths to be self-evident.


In 2011, 'I Predict a Riot' soundtracked a trip into the tortured psyche of Delingpole, Starkey and Dalrymple - the streets of darkest Britain delineated as a volatile, flammable under-kingdom haunted by spectres to whom junk-food is both fuel and insulation, tracksuited thugs and girl-golems clad in chip-fat. It's jarring to recall the female potential of early 90s indie, whose space for oddity allowed through voices which occasionally managed to be those of the chip-fat girls – voices capable of narrating the Night Out from the perspective of celebrant rather than alarmed observer, presenting it non-hysterically as an unremarkable ritual of growing up. Even Shampoo, major-label novelty act though they quickly became, seemed, like Kenickie, more fully their own created cartoon, more at home in their delinquent drag, than, say, Jessie J or Lily Allen. Both Shampoo and Kenickie were, significantly, grounded in appreciation of the Manic Street Preachers' proletarian glam aesthetic, both were able to articulate the experiences of suburban/provincial girls in fearless, loving awe of what the present and future had to offer, and both managed to embody one music writer's identification of 'that terrifying stage where teenage girls are half-human, half-rat':

Kenickie in particular, a pop-aspirational indie band with wit, swagger and style to spare, were on one level unabashed 'pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers' too. I find Kenickie worthwhile because, regardless of the slavering hype they received, part of what their music offered was a presentation of working-class female life crafted with sympathy and solidarity, and an insistence upon their social and sexual agency. Throughout the 90s this voice was heard alongside those by whom it appears to have been retrospectively eclipsed – girl-power usurpers like the swiftly all-conquering Spice Girls, or unhelpful dullards like Sleeper - a curiously dry and prudish band for all Louise Wener’s hiccupy attempts at lyrical titillation, try-hard where Kenickie were effortless.

That 'indie' gained the ascendant in 90s Britain much as 'Labour' did, while becoming a travesty of itself, grew increasingly clear as the next decade wore on. Something notable but seemingly unremarked upon in the sudden acknowledgement of this, the emotional spasm over indie's having been found out as meaningless, mainstream, and posh, was how uniformly male the railed-against 'landfill' guitar bands were. What happened to the women, in particular the 90s phalanx of pasty-faced, lard-gutted slappers? While Shampoo are probably the last band in the world to be concerned about artistic integrity or cultural appropriation, the appearance of a posh-girl cover of 'Trouble' on the soundtrack to the 2007 St Trinians remake still exasperated. Lauren Laverne, the only member of Kenickie still occasionally in the spotlight, is now safely ensconced at 6 Music and 10 o’ Clock Live, still fighting the good fight, I guess, but in compromised conditions.

Mainstream pop and indie have been subject to ongoing cultural appropriation and narrowing of access outside the hothouses of stage-school or talent-shows, with a resultant disparity between that which is represented and who represents it. The working-class female experience is offered as a kind of stage-school burlesque - even Allen, for all her occasionally intriguing interior monologues, can articulate the Night Out only as chav-pop pantomime. Outside the pop bubble, the past few years' chav-hysteria, the pathologising of the Night Out, has enabled incessant media and political policing of the social, economic and sexual lives of young women via the avatars of chavettes and single mothers. This, along with the remoteness of mainstream feminist discourse, has shaped a scenario where young working-class women appear mostly as externally-designated objects of exaggerated panic, ridicule, pity or contempt, with little ability to speak for themselves. Any cultural counterweight to this stereotype, any genuine alternative expression of lived experience, must struggle to breathe.


All of which means that I'm never sure, you know, how to take Girls Aloud's turbocharged 2006 cover of 'I Predict a Riot'. Bubblegum and pantomime, for sure (as compared to 'Ill Manors'?), but, in making a stab at reclaiming Wilson's narrative for its objects of fear and loathing, awkwardly impressive for all that:


Alex Niven said...

Absolutely smashing.

Thinking of the noughties postscript, there's a whole media meta-narrative here isn't there? Lauren Laverne obviously being the classic case of slow sell out over the last decade and a half (and as such how to take the line "wear high heels / and get a record deal" in Come Out 2nite?). I read a pretty blandly sycophantic Kitty Empire review of FATM the other day. And Julie Burchill was a vocal Girls Aloud fan about ten years ago wasn't she? I dunno what all this adds up to, but it suggests that a sort of privileged, neoliberal media caricature of "femininity" is one of the main ways in which the sort of marginal tendencies that were visible in the '90s are now kept in check.

There's much more to say about Girls Aloud I think, especially Cheryl Cole ...

digitalben said...

This is a great piece.

There was this absolute iron-fisted crushing of alternative (poor, female, etc) voices that (to me at least) only became obvious in retrospect. 'Manufacturing Consent' meets Alex James chumming around with Cameron & Clarkson.

Scattering presumptions, from the inherent irrational violence of men in leisurewear to the lack of sense and sensibility of underdressed women, the song seems to lack any hint of irony.

I think it has at least the shape of irony, without any of the content - the kind of inexplicably smug reflexive irreverence (which doubles as a safety clause should anyone take offence) that's another unpleasant feature of today's Default Man.

Rhian Jones said...

it suggests that a sort of privileged, neoliberal media caricature of "femininity" is one of the main ways in which the sort of marginal tendencies that were visible in the '90s are now kept in check.

It's interesting that a kind of neoliberal post-Madonna 'feminism' was certainly present throughout the 90s in people like Louise Wener or Geri Halliwell (Thatcher as the original Spice Girl, the sort of thing Louise Mensch has now picked up and run with - a tendency Kenickie identified at the time as the preserve of 'Tory scum'), but the degree to which that became amplified at the expense of other voices is extraordinary.

I still have a bit of time for Laverne - her position as The Girl when 10OCL started was problematic, and that show isn't fantastic in general, but I do recall her doing a rant about Serco, for example, that was better than anything I was expecting. (I can't find the Serco clip online, which makes me wonder if I just hallucinated it.)

There's much more to say about Girls Aloud I think, especially Cheryl Cole ...

GA were almost credible back in the day, weren't they, in the same way the Sugababes were? The Nicola Roberts solo album was... not interesting, but odd: Xenomania-by-numbers combined with the occasional weird and painfully earnest lyric. I remember Burchill lauding Cole alongside Posh Spice and Jordan as working-class-girls-made-good, who knows how sincerely. By the same token, there's a whole Lily Allen song where Cole is (I /think/ ironically) set up as the narrator's aspirational fantasy.

Rhian Jones said...

Thank you.

I think it has at least the shape of irony, without any of the content

Yes, that's fair enough - it does originate from a scene so suffused in a kind of default irreverence/insincerity that irony pretty much became redundant.

Alex Niven said...

Yeah I like Lauren Laverne too. I feel like she's on the brink though ... hosting that Orange T4 new bands thing for example. She'd be a good person to have a chat with about all this stuff I reckon.

The Burchill thing also epitomises the same problem, for me. There's something very dodgy about the way she uses this pro-working class schtick to subsidise her New Labour-ish, fashionably contrarian journalistic lifestyle role.

David K Wayne said...

The uses of Jade Goody or Cheryl Cole as 'representative' of working class women - along with the ongoing demonization of actual working class women - is of a piece with neoliberal agendas. Useful idiots like Burchill play an ideological game as old as capitalism - attempting to turn women into battlegrounds to remove their capacity as a (work)force.

Excellent post BTW.