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What music and political tribes have in common


10:30 am - July 24th 2010

by Neil Robertson    


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It’s the early noughties and we’re in the middle of a Great Rock Recession. After the Britpop days of plenty, indie fans are stuck on a stodgy gruel of Travis and Starsailor. ‘Quiet is the new Loud’ and that sound you don’t hear is the kids yawning themselves to death.

With such scant exciting, homemade music, the New Musical Express – that dogged tribune of indie culture – gazed across the Atlantic and started to embrace the explosion of R&B and hip hop. They wrote reverently about Timbaland & Missy Elliott, made The Neptunes the epitome of cool and even gave Destiny’s Child their front cover for a week.

Sadly, the NME’s experiment in open-minded eclecticism was short-lived; sales dwindled and the paper couldn’t afford to offend its musically conservative readership for any longer. It wasn’t long before the magazine reverted to type; excitedly announcing a ‘New Rock Revolution’ and chasing skinny trustafarians around the sidewalks of New York.

The mistake the NME made was in believing it could break the stubborn insularity of its audience.

(Image by missquitecontrary)

Does my right hon. Friend find it bizarre-as I do-that the yoghurt and muesli-eating, Guardian-reading fraternity are only too happy to protect the human rights of people engaged in terrorist acts, but never once do they talk about the human rights of those who are affected by them?

– Labour MP Kevin Hughes

If you start to break it then people aren’t going to go. I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance… I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.
Noel Gallagher

Pop tribes often seem sealed off from the rest of the cultural landscape; they talk only amongst themselves, in their own language, and define themselves as much by the inferiority of other genres as by the self-evident superiority of their own.

Political tribes operate in very similar ways. Each shares its own folk heroes and hate figures, writes in socially-accepted shorthand (NuLieBore! Tory Scum!) and generally accepts that any decision or utterance made by the other tribe is either misguided, deluded or malicious. The tribe is both a social circle and a comfort blanket of shared assumptions.

However, just as identifying with one pop tribe will give you a fairly shallow, one-dimensional music collection, political tribalism can be similarly self-defeating. Many of the defences of New Labour’s punitive populism were made as appeals to working class authenticity. On matters like crime, immigration, welfare, drugs and civil liberties, liberal criticisms were often dismissed as an indulgence of an out-of-touch middle class.

Whether it was Jack Straw slamming the ‘Hampstead liberals’ or Blunkett deriding ‘airy fairy libertarians’, the insinuation was clear; Labour’s liberal critics were unserious, self-serving, moneyed dilettantes with little connection to the ‘Real World’. It often felt like the party didn’t even want our votes; we just didn’t belong in the tribe.

None of this was an issue until Labour discovered that its tribe was no longer big enough to win elections.

Throughout its thirteen years in government we heard various appeals from within the party to ‘reconnect’ with the middle or working classes, the unions or big business, but precious little about reconnecting with those social liberals who fled over its excessive anti-terror legislation, its treatment of asylum seekers, its abject prison system, its criminalisation of the young or its lie detectors for the jobless.

The question for whoever wins this turgid, listless leadership election is how far they are prepared to go to win these people back. Can the party’s rhetoric be shunted in a more pluralistic, inclusive and liberal direction? Will they support Ken Clarke as he tries to weed ‘prison works’ out of our political lexicon?

Will they applaud Nick Clegg for securing a commitment on the detention of child asylum seekers? Will they revert back to a drugs policy based on evidence rather than fear? Or will the tribal instincts be so strong that they bark at and barrack the Liberal Democrats until any rapprochement is impossible?

But though the main responsibility for this rapprochement is necessarily Labour’s, there’s also a question to be raised of those who want the party to change but don’t want to get their hands dirty. Do we have any integrity to demand change of a party we didn’t exactly feel inspired to vote for, much less campaign for? Do we have any credibility in making those demands outside of – and often ignorant of – the local and national structures within the party?

Why should our voices have prominence over tens of thousands of long-suffering, dues-paying members? It’s a centuries-old question of whether structure or agency best describes our social behaviour, and it’s not a question which will be resolved in a blogpost.

One theory about why the NME’s short-lived eclecticism failed to lift its circulation is that not enough people believed its change was real. Sure, they saw a more diverse range of artists on the cover, but maybe they suspected it was all artifice; that deep down it would remain the same stubborn tribune of indie fandom that it has always been. Perhaps the tribe’s reputation preceded it.

That’s not something the Labour Party can allow to happen. There are now millions of us for whom the only experience of democratic socialist government was the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They both fell short of adequate.

The task of the next Labour leader is to imagine and articulate a political culture which is better than the one we have lived through, and which their predecessors bequeathed. They need to prove that their tribe (their tent, their church) can be larger, broader, more open, responsive and diverse than anything we’ve seen to date.

This isn’t about changing to win; it’s about changing what it means to win. That’s the difference between being the leader of a political movement and merely settling for manager of a political tribe.

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About the author
Neil Robertson is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He was born in Barnsley in 1984, and through a mixture of good luck and circumstance he ended up passing through Cambridge, Sheffield and Coventry before finally landing in London, where he works in education. His writing often focuses on social policy or international relations, because that's what all the Cool Kids write about. He mostly blogs at: The Bleeding Heart Show.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments


This is a great article, although it misses the point that in the late ’90s/early ’00s music was, frankly, shit. Honest, it was bloody awful (as the author of this piece should know being born the same year as myself). NME’s flirtation with eclecticism failed because no-one was listening to music or buying music papers (hence the decline of the much-lamented Melody Maker, as the less-lamented monthlies Select and Vox) and those who were listening were more inclined to hop on board Napster (remember that?) or Limewire and indulge in some copyleft borrowing. If you wanted Destiny’s Child you bought Smash Hits, if you wanted The Neptunes you probably didn’t buy music rags anyway. NME went wrong when it failed to see the rise of dubstep and electronica as part of the mass culture da yoof were listening to and stayed with its tried and tested indie scenester stuff (good, in it’s way – I have a very well-worn copy of the Strokes’ debut testament to that fact); which is why its readship is a fraction of what it was and there are far better, more valuable resources for discovering new music (better magazines like Clash and Artrocker and of course music blogs…).

Good analogy with the Labour Party though. There’s a mass disconnect between it and the people it was founded to represent in the House, and that needs to change pronto unless we want to be stuck with the devil’s pact of Clegg’n’Cameron forever.

Anyway, rambling now. Naturally (see my website) this is a topic close to my heart. Note to self – never comment when hungover 😉

‘But though the main responsibility for this rapprochement is necessarily Labour’s, there’s also a question to be raised of those who want the party to change but don’t want to get their hands dirty. Do we have any integrity to demand change of a party we didn’t exactly feel inspired to vote for, much less campaign for?’

Do you really want me to answer that? It’ll take me 2,500 words, but the answer is ‘yes, if you promise to behave this time and don’t bugger up the Labour Party like you did last time.

3. Chris Baldwin

People like Straw and Reid don’t represent “Labour tribalism” – they represent a hardcore authoritarian current that many people in the Labour party despise.

4. Shatterface

‘Do we have any integrity to demand change of a party we didn’t exactly feel inspired to vote for, much less campaign for?’

To be honest, left-leaning voters who did *not* vote for New Labour after ’97 or campaign on their behalf have more right to demand Labour change than those who held their noses and supported them no matter what. Much as I despised Blair, Brown, Straw and the rest of the horror show they didn’t do what they did without support and their enablers deserve some condemnation.

Not convinced about the pop analogy but I agree there’s too much tribalism. If a Tory-Liberal coalition ends the disgrace of imprisoning children of refugees or any other New Labour obscenity I’m happy to support them on that while campaigning *against* them on other issues.

Love this article, especially the last para: “This isn’t about changing to win; it’s about changing what it means to win.”

I think this is a very good article and a good analogy, just as many music genres are ignored by the many, so too are new socialist models. Labour, or New Labour weren’t remotely near to socialism never mind being left-wing.

In the early ’80s the NME employed some pretentious fellas like Paul Morley and Ian Penman who had read a book by some po-mo’ French fella and lamely tried to copy them. Penman once wrote two paras about the Boer War and then the sentence “this is the part about who their influences are should be”.

Rawk was declared dead. “Rockist” became a term of abuse. Keyboard only bands with the new synths were the future.

We ended up with Howard Jones and Nick Kershaw.

The NME has always been a mainly rock paper with more than a passing interest in other musical forms. If you don’t like this don’t buy it, there are plenty of alternatives avaialble. I haven’t bought it for over 20 years.

As for rock being conservative, it very largely is. But then claiming any form of music to be ‘radical’, or ‘alternative’ nowadays is laughable. Popular music lost its social-revolutionary cachet around 1980 and it ain’t coming back.

As for the New Labour leadership we’ve got four New Labour Stepford Husbands and the Empress of Hackney. What a choice.

Already there is tremendous pressure that New Labour shouldn’t turn ‘left’, which nowadays means a dangerous revolutionary like Jon Cruddas. I’ve already read numerous articles saying “Labour should not just rely on its core vote, you cannot win elections that way”.

Well you may not be able to win elections with just your core vote, but you can’t win elections without your core vote either, as New Labour found out in May. Maybe New Labour should try to attract them back, oh look there goes a squadron of flying pigs.

I haven’t voted Labour since John Smith died. I forsee no change in the future to make me change my mind.

PS

“There are now millions of us for whom the only experience of democratic socialist government was the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

If Blair and Brown were democratic socialist governments then I’m the King of Shittam.

We haven’t even had a social democratic government since 1976.

‘ Pop tribes often seem sealed off from the rest of the cultural landscape; they talk only amongst themselves, in their own language, and define themselves as much by the inferiority of other genres as by the self-evident superiority of their own. ‘

Samuel Brittain’s review of Matt Ridley’s, The Rational Optimist speaks of “generally speaking the more cooperative a species is within groups, the more hostility there is between groups”. Outsiders are all too often treated as scarcely human. (If you do not believe this try presenting the Arab case at a dinner party in Hendon.) Neither education nor prosperity much succeeds on weakening these attitudes.
http://www.samuelbrittan.co.uk/text368_p.html

It is no surprise that music is currently a wasteland because the Puritans and their miserabilist thinking is running havoc in every sphere of the Western world. The one thing you will consistently get from Puritan thinking is misery. Music will eventually react against it and they will assist in turning the tide. If New Labour adopt a stance of just critisising from the sidelines they will not achieve much. They need to develop a positive message of how they would govern differently and argue that it would be better than what is on offer. Just opposing for the sake of it will not be enough. When the cycle turns and turn it will miserabilist thinking will be as unfashionable as it is fashionable today.

Neil/Mr S. Pill

The early noughties gave us an embarrassment of riches! The Knife’s Deep Cuts, Circle Takes The Square’s As The Roots Undo, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, Aesop Rock’s Labor Days, The Silver Jews’ Bright Flight, Modest Mouse’s Moon and Antarctica…Those were the days (except for the wars, terrorism n’ stuff…).

@10

You have a point, as well as At the Drive-In, Elliott Smith (RIP), Sigor Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Air, The Beta Band, Pulp and Radiohead… maybe some ’00s revisionism is needed. I think the point is there was no proper “movement” like punk or new romanticism or Britpop or even shoegaze – it was a very disparate time for music which can be seen as a good or bad thing I suppose, I think maybe the point of the OP is that just as NME tried to create a “scene” out of the “new rock revolution” (featuring such lame acts as The Datsuns (who they?) and D4 (ditto) etc) New Labour tried to create a new identity for itself which was equally soulless.

12. political_animal

Oh dear! Listen to all the old fogies harping on about how modern music is rubbish. Much like economics (as we are told) music appears to come in cycles. Some trailblazer creates an exciting new sound, others get involved, a scene develops, before exploding onto the mainstream, at which point it is hijacked, twisted to fit in with the old stereotypes and loses it’s power and appeal, before slowly sinking back to where it came from and we await the next great revolution.

Punk and disco, new wave, post-punk, new pop, indie, hip hop, house, rave, grunge, drum and bass, britpop, trip hop, trance, nu-metal, New York rock, punk-funk, dub step…the cycles continue…

The author talks about the early noughties being the “great rock recession”. Really? Don’t remember that myself. Maybe half a decade later when guitar bands were having their albums rejected by the record companies, but not the early noughties which were full of exciting new bands and scenes. Just because you didn’t like the nu-metal of Slipknot, the New York rock of the Strokes, or the dance-punk of The Rapture, doesn’t mean it was a barren wasteland for music.

And as for the politics/NME comparisons, I take it you have never heard of the “hip hop wars” at the NME at the end of the 80’s, which had a far greater impact on the publication than anything to do with the Neptunes and R&B. Ultimately, the NME is a guitar-based music paper and whilst they may touch on other things, they aren’t going to focus on them in any great detail.

The trouble with music, is that once you have become absorbed by that first visceral thrill of discovering something – a song, a band, a scene – you will never experience those intense, virginal, feelings again. But that doesn’t make new music any less exciting than what went before, or the feelings of those falling in love with music for the first time, any less worthy than those who fell in love with music in more celebrated times.

To argue any differently just shows you are growing old and losing touch with da kidz, which is your problem, not theirs.

And to be fair to the OP, he does point out that “indie fans are stuck on a stodgy gruel of Travis and Starsailor” (emphasis added) which can’t be argued against.

Oh @12 is bang on the money IMO.

Hello!

Ta for the comments. Can’t do much in the way of responding today as I’m at tramways in Sheffield. It’s ace.

I would just clear up though that i wasn’t saying there was no good music – there was loads -but that there wasn’t the music around for the kind of conservative, cloth-cared Indie fan often embodied by the NME. y’know, the kind that ditched Radiohead for going ‘weird’

also, I’m definitely generalising about both musical and political tribes, but there’s still some truth to it, i think.

@ 12

I may be an old punk rocker, though I found the music in the ’90s to be better than that of the ’80s.

But once a million years ago some popular music offered an ‘alternative’ and had some social revolutionary cachet, and mainstream society didn’t like it or tolerate it and tried to sideline it.

Nowadays popular music is very much part of the mainstream culture, it’s fucking everywhere, and in a post-modern society you can’t have a counter-culture.

Look at Glastonbury, it started out as a festival heavily influenced by hippie ethics and the free festival movement in the early 1970s. The first festival was attended by 1500 people and the locals complained about it. Nowadays is just another expensive consumer choice where 150,000 people pony up considerable sums of money to play at being in a ’70s hippie theme park for a few days.

Never trust a hippie by the way.

Looks at record collection. Notices CDs by Nirvana, Salif Keita, Vaughan-Williams and Aphex Twin. Wonders about which tribe applies. Looks puzzled as to what genre of music New Labour must have been to have alienated so many people.

In other words, was New Labour the equivalent of Spinal Tap’s ‘free jazz’ moment?

(FWIW, I always had Blair down as Cliff Richard fronting a band that wanted to be a bit more Rolling Stones)

18. Matt Munro

What a load of bollocks – NME readers disliked Timbaland and Missy Elliot because they are chav shite (all urban is chav shite) not because they are conservative.

19. Matt Munro

“The question for whoever wins this turgid, listless leadership election is how far they are prepared to go to win these people back. Can the party’s rhetoric be shunted in a more pluralistic, inclusive and liberal direction?”

You’ve got it the wrond way round – it was over indulging “social liberals” (whatever that actually means) that eroded their core vote – the last thing the new leadership should be doing in courting their support again.

@8 captain swing

Bang on the money… and even then, the social democracy was a pale imitation of what it should have been!

@3 Chris Baldwin

“People like Straw and Reid don’t represent “Labour tribalism” – they represent a hardcore authoritarian current that many people in the Labour party despise.

What a pity that more of them didn’t stand up and be counted for 13 years eh? We know “they” are in large measure responsible for the mess we are in now, particularly by allowing their party to be hi-jacked by a bunch of spin obsessed principle voids, and flawed control freaks like Blair, Brown, Campbell and Mandelson. Sadly their progeny are alive and kicking in the “new” New Labour leadership contest.

Where is the real Buffy the Vampire slayer when you need her!

There was an interesting article by Chris Mullin in a recent New Statesman. It was a review of a book about someone who had been involved in focus groups for the Labour Party. The book said that the main finding of focus groups was that C1 and C2 socio-economic groups were angry and alienated. They thought that political parties did not look after them; they felt that parties looked after those above them or those below them. These are the groups who have been hit hardest by the decline of manufacturing industry and of trade union rights, whose income and employment are now less secure. They are also Labour’s traditional core vote.

The Labour Party’s response has been to try to mainain that core vote without being willing to address some of the core issues that have affected this group (such as manufacturing industry and trade union rights). The response has been to address some of the peripheral issues (eg crime, immigration) or address this group through rhetoric (eg “hard working families”). A conscious decision has been made to ignore “airy fairy liberals” (and to so extent make them into the class enemy who want life to be difficult for C1 and C2 socio-economic groups): portraying bankers and hedge-find managers as the class enemy might have too many consequences.

Jay-Z was pretty crap at Glasto though to be fair…

Shock as similarities discovered between musical and political tribes!

Next you’ll be suggesting that the spectacle of rival football tribes flinging poo at each other over (what used to be) the terraces and, say, the spitting verbal diarrhoea exchanged by the dogmatists of Marxism-Leninism and neoliberalism, are pretty much the same thing…

Well, of course they are.

(But United fans are still scum.)

24. Rhys Williams

Don’t go all mushy about the NME.
It was the magazine that produced Thatcherite low lifes like Burchill and Baker.
Most of that punk rock generation of journos are now the rights’s leading lights

Also the labour party head honchos are missing the point. The reason they lost was the insane need to please the Mail readers by trying to be more authoritarian than the Tories.
The fear to look weak on immigration and crime.
The irony is that the press made them out to be weak on the issues.

Neil, this is a really, really excellent article. It perfectly expresses

What really gets me is that in terms of economics, the coalition is either the same or slightly worse than what Labour would’ve done had it remained in power (according to its manifesto and Alastair “cuts worse than Thatcher” Darling); but in terms of ending child immigration, ending ID cards, promoting prison reform, and a limited degree of electoral reform, liberal lefties are getting far more from the coalition than we ever got under 13 years of Labour.

So what exactly is the point of Labour? If I get the same economics but better civil liberties/politics stuff from the coalition, and all Labour can do is attack the coalition from the right (FFS!) then why should anyone on the left vote for, join or support Labour?

I want there to be a left-of-centre alternative coalition to the current right-of-centre coalition, and it makes sense that the alternative will be Labour teaming up with the Lib Dems. But then Labour is hamstrung by the likes of Jack Straw, and David Blunkett, both right-wing, authoritarian gimps who made life hell for a lot of people.

Worse than the likes of Straw, Blunkett and Reid IMO are the Milibands, and Balls etc. Many of them are saying they disagreed with the Iraq war and the other horrible stuff they said nothing about when in a position to do something about it, or at least make their disagreement known in a way that held the government back somewhat or forced it to reconsider (and before I get “Cabinet Collective Responsibility” thrown at me, 1) Balls and E Miliband weren’t in the Cabinet, they could’ve spoken out, and 2) why is CCR more important than the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis?).

I don’t want any of the current crop of senior Labour MPs and leadership candidates to lead Labour. I dislike Abbott the least, as she has sensible politics, but she was instrumental in sinking the prospects of a LibLab pact, and she opposes electoral reform.

Labour needs to start from scratch, and should hold its fire on the coalition till they get their act together. At the very least, they should NOT attack the government from the right, nor should they attack it for doing things they would’ve done themselves (e.g. academies).

Also, this thing about racist/disgruntled lower middle class/working class voters being Labour’s “core vote”. Surely a principled party should seek to appeal to voters not on the basis of demographics but on policy? If a party is truly democratic and truly socialist, then its policies should appeal to all classes barring those at the very top. To say that Labour should pay attention only to the right-leaning lower middle class and working classes, and ignore either the progressive elements of lower middle class/working class Britain as well as the muesli-munching middle classes, is saying that Labour should only ever say what pleases a small number of people.

I agree with you, Blanco, but I think that we have to understand how New Labour has backed itself into the corner that it is in now. The disdain for “airy-fairy” liberals isn’t just a bug of the New Labour model; it is a feature. Having a priori decided not to try to change the post-Thatcher economy of the UK then New Labour doesn’t have much to offer its core voters except soundbites about “hard-working families” and endless obsessing about crime.

The orignal article asked:- “The question for whoever wins this turgid, listless leadership election is how far they are prepared to go to win these people back. Can the party’s rhetoric be shunted in a more pluralistic, inclusive and liberal direction? Will they support Ken Clarke as he tries to weed ‘prison works’ out of our political lexicon?”

My impression is that New Labour has gone so far down the road of tossing out unpleasant soundbites about crime, in a desperate attempt to hold onto the core vote, that it is now quite difficult to do a reverse ferret. Calling people like myself “Luddites” or “airy-afiry liberals” has become deeply ingrained in New Labour thinking: we have become the enemy and I don’t see much effort being expended on winning us back. Another enemy would have to be found, such as bankers: but that would be much more difficult to deal with!


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