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Why ponder life’s complexity?

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The Today programme, more politically tone deaf with every passing week, wonders why pop musicians are posher than they used to be. ‘Conclusions’: Are they really? Does it matter? Who knows why? Actually it does matter, and the reason for it is straightforward. One of the commenters on the BBC website gets closest to it when he says: ‘It’s not about being “posh”, it’s about there being cash in the family to support a potentially non-earning career.’ But nobody there points out that changes to the benefits system mean that it’s no longer possible to live on the dole while you’re making your first demos and playing your first gigs. If David Cameron’s ‘tough but fair’ welfare state had been in place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his Desert Island Discs couldn’t have included ‘This Charming Man’ by The Smiths.

Comments on “Why ponder life’s complexity?”

  1. Chris Larkin says:

    This talk of ‘posh’ musicians reminds me of the story a few years ago about Tom Chaplin from Keane. An entirely unremarkable band it must be said but Mr Chaplin did live up to the rock & roll stereotype by developing an addiction to drink. It just so happened that his addiction was to one particular type of drink – port. Not your typical rock tipple I imagine but perhaps in hindsight it was the precursor to a generation of bands that will soon be checking into the Priory for all manner of sophisticated dependencies.

    Putting David Cameron and ‘This Charming Man’ in the same sentence also made me smile.

  2. Phil says:

    He does sing ‘pamper’, but I’m sure I’ve seen it written as ‘ponder’, which would make more sense.

  3. Phil says:

    Now I look at it, you haven’t said anything about why it matters (and I agree that it does), just about why it’s happened.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      I thought I’d sort of covered why it matters with the last sentence. The person who could have been the next Morrissey is still working for the Inland Revenue (or wherever).

  4. Joe Morison says:

    I think there’s more to it than the changes in dole entitlement. Until recently, the ruling classes ruled and for most people that was as it should be. Then the sixties came along and from Harold Wilson to John Major there wasn’t a public school alumnus in Number 10 – and it wasn’t just politicians, suddenly posh was out and rough was in. Monty Python fans will remember the brilliant Upper Class Twit of the Year sketch, that was how we felt about posh; and if you were posh and young the chances were you’d do all you could to disguise the fact. But the circle has turned and once again we have an Old Etonian prime minister, cabinet full of public school boys and girls, and posh and out and proud people everywhere in the cultural firmament.
    Why? Well, partly it’s just fashion, the wheel turns and people are looking for something new – in our usual unimaginative, being unable to think something actually new, we’ve gone back to what we once had but have more or less forgotten about. But i’d say there is also a nostalgia for a past in which, in retrospect, everything seemed much safer and less threatening than the world today – we’re like adults clinging onto the nurse of our childhood for fear of something worse.

    Of course, allowing young people to mooch about for a few years without having to do anything provides a fertile ground in which talent can flourish; but i think people with real talent will do what it takes to have their voices heard. Morrissey and Marr would have worked stacking shelves by day and making music by night if they’d had to.

    • Phil says:

      i think people with real talent will do what it takes to have their voices heard

      That seems like a very banal and obvious statement, but when you think about it it’s actually rather a large claim. I mean, Thomas Gray wouldn’t agree with you. Have we achieved a society where nobody with real talent faces insurmountable obstacles to getting their voices heard? More to the point, have there been an irreversible shift in favour of people with real talent getting a hearing? Good news if so, but I think the case still needs to be made.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      ‘partly it’s just fashion’ — and partly the changes in ‘fashion’ that you describe map (unsurprisingly) neatly onto the rise and fall of the welfare state, an increase and then decline in economic equality (base determines superstructure etc).

      • Joe Morison says:

        I think it’s much more complex than the base determining the superstructure; i think everything interacts with everything else, and that trying to fully understand that web of interaction is endless task.

    • D G McCree says:

      Great ‘pop musicians’ arise when certain people mix their liking for recreational sex, casual drug use and playing the guitar or whatever with a misfit stance which leads them towards an idiosyncratic sound, voice or style. This is consistent with being on the dole, not with stacking shelves to finance your career. The sort of make-it zeal you need to succeed requires that you take the criteria of success for granted. Our heroes tend to start with knowing what they’re against and discovering what they are for as they go. They do have to be ‘talented’ but that isn’t the point; it’s the attitude that counts, whether you get it from the dirty old town you grew up in or the art school you drifted into: you have to be aloof.

      Compare Robbie Williams – whatever he did he couldn’t shed the aura of a trier, a shelf-stacker-for-the-cause. Never aloof enough to be a rock and roll star, he has now reconciled himself to a senior position in the entertainment industry. ‘Today’ wouldn’t discuss the social origins of entertainers – they didn’t mean to refer to ‘pop musicians’ as such, rather that group of outsiders – Morrissey prominent among them – whose impact has to do with more than its sales.

      Nowadays we make an effort to keep the black sheep in the fold for our own sake. Forty years ago ‘pop musicians’ were exotic ephemera in a social landscape of docks, mines and factories, now they form an important British brand. The professionalisation of the ‘pop musician’ comes from this, the success of the BRIT school the perfect measure of how much has changed.

      Now that the bottom rungs of a lot of media ‘careers’ are non-earning (two years unpaid ‘work experience’, anyone?) the music industry doesn’t look a bad bet to some, whatever their social class. It’s not really about ‘posh’.

  5. Joe Morison says:

    Fair enough, Phil, that wasn’t very well put. Lots of really talented people get crushed by the system and their voices are never heard, and that is a lot less likely to happen if mummy and daddy know all the right people. But i do think if someone has got to 18 and they have great talent, they are unlikely to be put off by having to get a shit job instead of living on the dole.

  6. outofdate says:

    And yet it’s my impression that music generally benefits in a recession, the only one of the arts to do so, and suffers in boomtime because when the big corporations are flush they throw everything at derivative crap and its promotion, ruining malleable tastes and giving everyone the impression that Robbie Williams or Kanye West or whoever represent the acme of artistic achievement. That everyone’s on the dole can’t be the only reason, nor do musical cultures that suddenly flourish in odd places like West Africa or somewhere grow out of the soil of solid welfare systems.

    I mean, BAD cuts! but we can’t blame them for everything, sometimes things really just happen, or are so overdetermined that it’s pointless trying to blame someone.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      ‘it’s my impression that music generally benefits in a recession’. Mine too: and it’s not just because the big corporations have more money to throw at derivative crap. It’s also because higher unemployment means fewer young people are ‘gainfully’ employed and so more of them are making music. The question this time round is what they’re supposed to live on, and where they’re supposed to live, while they’re doing it.

      As for the ‘musical cultures that suddenly flourish in odd places like West Africa or somewhere’ – why don’t we just pretend you never said that.

  7. Geoff Roberts says:

    Ther are probably a growing number of parents, just like Amy Chu, bullying their kids into learning the violin/piano and yes, the guitar so that they can listen proudly as the child performs in the Festival Hall. It’s not so much the recession, it’s the socio-cultural context that produces the new Morriseys. In the sixties, they came out of the art schools.

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