Noel Gallagher was interviewed by the BBC at the back end of 2014 and claimed that the working class in Britain no longer has a voice and that he finds popular music increasingly dominated by the middle class.
Paul Weller has also come out and said, ‘I’m missing a lot of working class bands; I think there are a lot of middle class bands around. Some of it’s good obviously, but I’m missing the fire and the anger of the bands who have come off a council estate and have something to say’.
Continuing the theme, Primal Scream singer Bobby Gillespie has stated – ‘When I heard the Sex Pistols and recognised immediately that their music was born of essentially working-class anger and frustration, that in itself was empowering. When was the last time you heard music like that, music that said something so strongly with so much genuine and justified rage?’
These sentiments resonate with me, not just because I come from a similar background but because I want to understand why mainstream pop music does not reflect the anger that clearly exists in large sections of today’s horribly unequal society. Where is the voice of the excluded that the Sex Pistols and the Specials once so beautifully articulated? Does that voice still have a place in today’s pop culture? Does pop music still have any meaning?
For sure, the world of popular music has changed dramatically since Gallagher, Gillespie and Weller burst onto the scene. Back then it was often left-leaning journo’s, outsiders and the downright feisty who by and large, created, shaped and wrote about music, thus setting the tone. It is my view that popular culture has become increasingly commodified resulting in mainstream pop music becoming much less culturally important and progressively vacuous in content. A quick look at the UK chart at the time of writing shows Ariana Grande at No 1 with ‘Positions’, complete with lyrics such as ‘Switchin’ the positions for you, Cookin’ in the kitchen and I’m in the bedroom’. The mind boggles and it’s hardly a call to [feminist] arms is it?
Pop music, we should not forget grew out of the post-war economic shift to re-distribution that gave the working class the means to express themselves through choice. The music they listened to, the clothes they wore and the styles and movements they created, whether Teddy Boy, Mod, Rocker, Hippy or Punk all came about because working class kids, for the first time had some disposable income. As pop historian, Jon Savage noted: ‘It is a cruel irony that just as commercialised youth culture seems to be everywhere – appealing to all ages, and making untold millions for corporations – the demographic on which this was once based is being excluded from society’.
Pop music was also helped by progressive changes to post-war state education. For instance, during the 60’s and 70’s it was a relatively uncomplicated (and free) pathway from school to college. For example, these easily accessible educational institutions led to John Lydon (who at age 15 was kicked out of school and subsequently went to Hackney College) meeting John Simon Ritchie, or Sid Vicious as he later became known. Some years earlier, Roxy Music formed out of a meeting of art-school minds. The access that smart creative kids from council estates once had to polytechnics and art colleges has been eroded by un-affordable fees and expenses. Fair to say then that The Sex Pistols nor Roxy Music would have existed had John, Sid and Bryan Ferry been school leavers in 2020.
You do not have to look far for evidence of the rise of elitism in pop culture. In 2010, the now redundant music magazine, The Word calculated that more than 60% of that year’s successful musicians were privately educated compared with just 1% in 1990. For example, Florence Welch, Laura Marling, James Blunt, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Marcus Mumford and Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons are all products of fee-paying schools. That said, It would be churlish not to acknowledge that there is a long line of musicians from well-to-do backgrounds who were, and in some cases continue to be innovative and relevant. From Nick Drake to Pink Floyd, Radiohead and the aforementioned Marling. However, the dramatic increase in upper-middle class performers over recent times suggests something has gone seriously askew.
Is it because success in any sphere is now more than ever a matter of who you know rather than what you have to say or how good you are? To get a leg up in the music business, or any other business for that matter it often appears that you need to know someone on the inside, often through a network of family or university connections, or at the very least, know how to go about finding someone; something the middle and upper classes are schooled at from a very early age.
People from working class backgrounds generally don’t have that kind of access or knowledge and it doesn’t matter how brilliant a singer or guitarist you are, if you can’t get to the people who are able to open doors then you are going to struggle to get your music heard by the masses; and if you did somehow manage to get to the movers and shakers there is every chance they will not be overly sympathetic to anything that might suggest subverting their lucrative set up.
It is telling that the last working-class bands to achieve anything approaching mass-appeal was in 2005/06 (Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys). However, in 2019, a young man from North Shields – Sam Fender, had a number one album. Hypersonic Missiles is chock full of songs about his experiences of growing up in one of the poorer regions of the country. Noting this radical departure in the pop music landscape, Kate Hutchinson writing in The Guardian had this to say ‘Fender is a spikier version of the pallid boy-next-door troubadours who have continually bothered this decade’s charts. You’ve heard them. They are the doughy, well-spoken everymen with guitars, singing emotionally incontinent songs. And they are everywhere, a post-Ed Sheeran contagion of careerist charisma vacuums, ready to croon a bluesy yarn about how they want you just the way you are, girl, before dashing off to play a royal family function.’
There is always hope then, and the working class needs that. What Sam Fender demonstrates for the guitar playing kid growing up in Anytown, UK is that if you’re writing songs about the world as you see it and are good enough you can make it. The harsh reality however, is that music education in state schools is being cut and if you’re a kid growing up in a working class community today, the chances of making it as a successful musician are a lot more limited than they were when Paul Weller was a lad.