Postcards from a PhD
Feeling under the weather and living in a house which currently has no water or heating had a knock-on effect on study day last week and sitting in a chilly office ploughing through reading wasn’t at the top of my list of fun activities. What I really wanted to do was curl up on the sofa while it poured down outside, with an endless supply of tea and biscuits and a nice period drama on the television. To this end my reading was a compromise on the above, themed around contemplating Englishness in music.
I’d been turning the idea of representations of Englishness in hauntological music round in my mind for a few days, since re-reading an interview with Joseph Stannard in The Skinny from July 2013. Amongst other things Stannard is the man behind the Brighton based, hauntologically biased happening the Outer Church and the interview coincided with the release of an Outer Church curated compilation album. It’s an interesting interview because it’s incredibly spikey and betrays a disillusionment with the development of hauntology as a musical genre over the preceding couple of years. “Certain artists have reduced it to the sonic equivalent of a Keep Calm and Carry On poster and I find that objectionable. The term is now used to denote a kind of quaint and fusty Britishness” he notes damningly whist discussing how the genre has become synonymous with nostalgia. Sadly he doesn’t elaborate on who he feels these culprits may be.
What’s interesting to me about the above quote is the conflation of the idea of a cultivated “Britishness” with nostalgia. When at the start of this post I mentioned my desire for a cup of tea and nice period drama I was not in anyway consciously yearning for the past, nor was I harbouring grandiose fantasies; tea and telly are modest, readily available commodities. Yet for some reason their combination evokes a kind of timeless Britishess and imparts in them some of the idealism and indulgence we associate with nostalgia. The symbolism of tea within British society needs no explanation, but period drama? Strangely when we watch Downton Abbey, or Call the Midwife, or whatever your own sedate Sunday evening viewing of choice is, these programmes take us back not just the period in question, but evoke a more recent idealised past. Period drama itself has become associated with a golden age of television in the UK, with high standard public service broadcasting, quality subject matter and production values. When we watch these programmes it’s not just a question of feeling nostalgic for the first half of the 20th century depicted, but for the latter half, now sufficiently far from us to misremember it fondly.
So let’s go back to the late 20th century, the mid-nineties, when, if you remember, many of us were rather preoccupied with a musical phenomenon called Britpop. ‘State of the nation: “Englishness,” pop and politics in the mid-1990s’ by Martin Cloonan (Popular Music and Society, 1997) is as good a place as any to examine whether it is possible to celebrate aspects of our green and pleasant land without stepping into the maligned world of nostalgia. Cloonan states early on that the relationship between Englishness and pop has always been characterised by ambiguity and ambivalence. He also notes that there has been a tendency to conflate the notions of ‘British’ and ‘English’ so his use of ‘Englishness’ in reference to Britpop is very much deliberate in that, despite its moniker, the aspects of culture and society it championed were not those of a diverse 20th century Britain. In fact, one of the really interesting aspects of Cloonan’s article is that despite being written in 1997, just a couple of years after what we might see as the peak of Britpop, his reservations about the genre are just as pertinent as those commentators have raised looking back on the era with hindsight. These are not just concerned with the representation of ethnic diversity, which was a discussion that ran alongside the emergence of Britpop in the music press at the time, but also the representation and acknowledgement of women in the genre and how inclusive it was of the non-English constitute cultures of Britain and dubious representations of class.
The really outstanding aspect of Cloonan’s paper however is his taxonomy of Englishness in pop. He notes by the time Britpop emerged it was possible to group exhibitions of Englishness into at least 5 categories, each fluid to some extent but broadly illustrative of the ambiguity in which Englishness is expressed. Cloonan identifies these as (i) Ambivalent Englishness, a category identified by preoccupation rather than celebration, what Cloonan calls a “fascinated revulsion” towards Englishness. Then comes the self explanatory (ii) Overt Nationalism, followed by (iii)”Hip Little Englishness” which Cloonan suggests sits between the two previous categories, neither explicitly embracing nor rejecting nationalism. (iv) “Hip Big Englishness” is a deviation of the third group, which as I understand it is more concerned with Englishness and history in a global context and as such is more politicised, though I must admit I found it the most difficult class to fully grasp.
The final category in Martin Cloonan’s classification of Englishness in pop is (v)”Nonarticulated” Englishness. It’s into this class that Cloonan places almost all dance and non-narrative electronic music, suggesting that while Englishness may be expressed in the music it is in non-lyrical forms, particularly articulated through lifestyle. This for me is the weak point of his taxonomy, just looking at popular mid-nineties dance music for example, I would suggest that there’s little in common between the caricatured Englishness of alternative dance produced by artists like the Prodigy or the Shamen and the dystopian Englishness of Massive Attack or Tricky. In his defence, Cloonan may be referring to dance music with less lyrical content than this, but it’s still far too broad a category to my mind. This is borne out by attempting to interpret hauntological artists through this taxonomy, many of whom exhibit non-lyricised Englishness, but with distinctly different tones. Putting this aside however, it’s a useful starting point for considering the multiplicity of expressions of Englishness within music and whether these are always inherently a bad thing.
To be continued…