We’re going a bit out of order here. After Clean Bandit’s Symphony, the next No. 1 was I’m the One by DJ Khalid, Justin Beiber and friends. After that was Despactio (Remix) by Louis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and (again) Justin Beiber. Then we got Bridge Over Troubled Water, then we got (again) Despactio, then Wild Thoughts by (again) DJ Khalid, then (again) Despactio (again). Thus was pretty much Summer 2017 according to the Pop Charts, with Calvin Harris and Taylor Swift appearing at the end to move us into the autumnal months.
Because I’m the One, Despactio and Wild Thoughts are so closely related to each other by time, personnel and style, I’m going to review them all in one big post which attempts to cover Pop Music in Summer ’17 in general. Which then leaves Bridge Over Troubled Water as the odd-one-out: it really doesn’t belong to the same psychogeographic space as the other tracks around it (whatever that might be) but is instead a product of the state of politics in 2017 post-Brexit Britain, particularly the 2017 general election and the Grenfell Tragedy. So instead let this be one of our regular “What is the state of British society today” posts (a semi-sequel to last year’s Brexit blog) where we try to find out what British society was at the time when DJ Khalid and Justin Beiber ruled the airwaves.
To understand the current moment though requires you to understand recent British history. Of course, any attempt to describe and understand recent British history is going to be futile – we’re much too close to the events, we don’t know how any of these moments are going to end, and as a card-carrying Corbynite, any history I’m going to give is going to be ridiculously biased. But let’s do it anyway, because we’re on the internet and don’t have to worry about actually being right! (In your face, academia!)
(And my apologies to any British readers for whom I’m about to recount the past few years of your life; weirdly for a blog about the UK charts, the vast majority of my audience is American, meaning I should probably go into detail.)
Seen as I’ve already mentioned him, let’s start with Corbyn. After a dismal defeat in the 2015 British elections, the then-leader of the Labour party – Ed Milliband – left and Labour had to find itself a new leader. The proposed candidates were the usual type of center-left politicians cut from the same type of cloth as Milliband was, causing an election where the choice was between a gaggle of almost indistinguishable people who were identical to the last leader. It was barely inspiring. That was until Jeremy Corbyn got added to the ballot, put there basically as a protest vote by Labour MPs who were tired of how homogeneous the party had become and were interested in livening things up. Corbyn was properly left-wing to the point of identifying as a socialist, something no-one had done in decades. He was never meant to win – not even Corbyn himself expected to – but he’d at least liven things up and remind the party that maybe there were more approaches to take than a center-left one. It was ridiculous gambit, but hopefully worthwhile.
Corbyn won the leadership vote by a landslide. It was staggering. For decades, Britain had been run as a neoliberal state running via centralist principles with the major political debate being whether you wanted your neoliberalism center-left flavoured or center-right flavoured. Everyone in power had agreed to this and wanted it kept in place: the politicians, the bankers, the newspapers, etc. So to have Jeremy Corbyn, an unrepentant socialist, become the leader of opposition was unthinkable. There was an actual opposition in opposition? The world had gone mad.
And the Corbyn craze wouldn’t stop growing. An entire organisation called Momentum sprung up to boister him. Labour membership numbers kept on increasing. There was a leadership challenge that Corbyn won with an increased majority. An entire opposition culture was building around him. It wasn’t the fact that Corbyn was there and voicing oppositional worldviews, it was that if you agreed with him, you could now go out and find groups of other people who did too. After Occupy Wall Street and this, the alternative to neoliberalism was beginning to get organised again.
These groups were then particularly emboldened by the 2017 General Election. Conservative leader David Cameron started the Brexit vote as a way of shutting up his more rebellious backbenchers who were clamoring for it, assuming that only a minority of the country would actually vote for it. He was proved wrong and stepped down from the job as a result. His replacement, Teresa May, was then left with having to actually deliver Brexit and, aware that she’d be pissing off a great proportion of the population whether her Brexit worked or not, decided to call for a snap election, expecting Corbyn’s large hatedom (he’s as hated as he is loved) to result in her winning by a large majority that she could then use to shut up any nay-sayers. This plan was as bad for her as Brexit was for Cameron. The Conservatives pulled off one of the worst election campaigns in modern history: May didn’t make any public appearances for the first few weeks and the party were slow to announce any policies; then the policies they did announce were reviled and almost instantly revoked; and the scant events that May did eventually appear at included such inspiring images as her talking to about 20 people in an empty aircraft hanger. Even though they ultimately stayed in power, they didn’t even win enough votes to gain a majority while Labour saw their vote-share sky rocket. The Tories were looking increasingly small and ineffective while Labour was only becoming more bold and capable. Labour had the infrastructure, the figurehead and the people required to kick the Tories while they were down; meanwhile the Tories hadn’t looked more kickable in decades. The opposition were fighting against the rulers and increasingly showing that they could win.
With the increase in Corbynism also came an increase in class consciousness. I don’t think that Corbyn can actually be attributed to the return of class consciousness. Neoliberal politics has historically been resistant to the idea that class still exists within it, mostly because it primarily sells itself through a narrative in which the market makes a level playing field where the only barrier to success is how hard you’re willing to work, something that doesn’t necessarily sit well with class narratives where certain subsections of people get head starts towards success due to their parents. The idea of classnessless particularly took hold during the days of New Labour, whose image of providing a classless society meshed well with their want to be seen as a genuinely progressive, forward thinking movement. But as the promises of New Labour got squandered and people got sick of Tory-imposed neoliberal austerity, the utopia of classnessless fell out of vogue and people have got back to complaining en-masse about the unfair nature of society. The first person to actually capitalise on this was probably Nigel Farage, the man whose retro appeals to the alienated poor make him essentially the right-wing Corbyn (or make Corybn the left-wing Farage). But Corbyn has took advantage of this return to class issues and in turn advanced them greatly by making them acceptably mainstream (at least to a certain subsection of people).
All of these facets came to a head with the Grenfell Tragedy. On 14th June 2017, a few weeks after the 2017 election, the Grenfell Towers (a 24-storey tower block of public housing flats located in West London) caught on fire, killing over 70 people. Residents had been trying to get their landlord company – KCTMO, a government outsourced ‘tenant management organisation‘ – to improve the fire safety conditions of the flats for years and received little more than legal demands that they stop. Instead KCTMO spent a lot of money covering the tower block is cladding, placating the demands of the richer people in the local area who wanted it to be turned into less of eye-sore while also making the property a more attractive proposition for new residents. This cladding was a non-fireproofed version bought and used because it was relatively cheap, despite the fact that it failed all safety tests and probably should’ve been illegal to buy in the UK. Then, when a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor caught fire, this cladding was what allowed it to spread so quickly up the entire block. Meanwhile, all the recent refurbishments to the tower block that KCTMO had done only worked to restrict fire exits and make it more difficult for a) people to get out of the block and b) the emergency services to get in.
Everything about the disaster shows exactly where KCTMO’s (and the entire housing industries’) priorities lay. Every improvement to the tower block done by KCTMO wasn’t done to improve the lives of the people living in it but was done either to placate the wealthier (and thus more influential) people who lived around the flats or to bring more people into them, increasing the worth of the company’s assets and thus the company’s incomes. Anyone who was actually living in the blocks weren’t cared about: they were already paying KCTMO their monthly amount of money so there wasn’t anything to be gained out of improving their experience. Their lives were only deemed worth helping if it would simultaneously open up new income streams. In the landlord’s eyes, their clients were nothing more than capital, only worth investing in if they were to receive a sizable return.
And, of course, the tower block residents were predominately poor: they were the people without the sustainable or reliable income to not require government assistance to acquire accommodation. Even then, the government fobbed them off into council housing where the landlord duties were outsourced to another company. They were the powerless being acted upon by institutions who didn’t care for them, priced out of having a say in their nearby surroundings and thrown into situations which ultimately led to their endangerment and death. Which is how the neoliberal housing market, combined with austerity, was always going to end up. If neoliberalism is the reduction of everything into the market, as David Harvey would argue, then it is also concerned with the reduction of the worker into capital, as Marx would argue. From the perspective of KCTMO, their tenants were indistinguishable things which produced a certain amount of money each month. If improving their lives would cost more money than their worth, then their lives wouldn’t be improved. If stopping them from dying was more expensive than not stopping them from dying, then they were allowed to die.
So far, so Marxist polemic. But surprisingly, this is exactly the way that the tragedy was framed by large sections of the media. Interviews with residents showed long-standing resentments between the rich and poor; the fact that the victims were poor and that there was a large amount of wealth inequality in the area were repeatably discussed in the media as potential causes of the tragedy; and members of the opposition’s shadow cabinet claimed that the residents were ‘murdered by political decisions’, by which they meant Conservative neoliberal policy. The tragedy got discussed primarily through the theme of class consciousness with the dominant message being that the Grenfell victims were poor people failed by an austerity government and left to die due to neoliberal market forces.
At a time when class consciousness was on the rise and the Tory’s election campaign had shown them to be nowhere near as infallible as they had previously presented themselves, the aftermath of the Grenfell Tragedy became a moment where people started seething with rage again at a right-wing establishment made of incompetent sociopaths running a failing system that killed people based on wealth. This wasn’t even the leftward outsider’s view, this became the argument through which the entire event was framed. There was no getting around it: neoliberalism was killing people and the Tory party – as the main representatives of modern neoliberal policies now that the opposition party was becoming increasingly socialist – had to be shouted into making penance for the pain they had wrought.
And tying into this in it’s own small way is A Bridge Over Troubled Water by Artists for Grenfell. At this point, 2000 words in, I should probably explain what our primary text is. A Bridge Over Troubled Water is a charity record produced by Simon Cowell to raise money with which to support the victims of the Grenfell Tregedy. It’s a cover of the Simon and Garfunkle song A Bridge Over Troubled Water done in the style of other charity singles such as We Are The World or Do They Know It’s Christmas?, wherein a bunch of celebrities have been brought into a room and a different person sings each line. Behind this has been laid a choir, A Bridge Over You style.
If neoliberalism is about individualism and opposed to collectivism, then this song is firmly on the side of collectivism. It brings a large group of people together to sing one unified anthem, this anthem being about support, care and working together. The choir then gives it a home-spun angle; a communal hymn sung by the people for the people in favor of the poor affected by the Grenfell disaster and against the rich who caused it.
These types of charity song are usually considered to be awful, condescending crap. Usually, this is because the songs are horribly colonial. According to Do They Know It’s Christmas, the main issue with poverty in Africa is that there’s less people in the world to celebrate Christmas – i.e. there’s less people to celebrate a western holiday primarily through the form of capitalist consumption. Or how about We Are The World, in which a bunch of Americans proclaim how much the world needs Americans’ help (something they rarely give without a little, shall we say, ideological realignment required of the helped party). The actual people being helped by these songs usually end up getting erased within them, mostly because everyone wants to be seen helping poverty but no-one wants to actually look at it for too long. At least Bridge Over Troubled Water fights against this: it’s not about one bunch of people helping another bunch while completely ignoring their beliefs and customs, it’s a bunch of people showing genuine support for the song’s nominal subjects.
No, the real issue is that Simon Cowell is not an example of “the people”. He’s a multi-millionaire whose style combines an aggressive populism with a complete dismissal of the idea that art actually means anything. In the most recent years, he’s main output has been focused on shows like The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, programmes which ruthlessly take advantage of the idea that a song doesn’t have to be meaningful as long as it’s packaged in a way that gives it a external narrative. The X-Factor is a show in which a series of completely interchangeable people sings a random medley of nothings, but because we’ve watched them be cut down from thousands to one, we feel like we’re actually watching something happening around a song with some internal importance to it. The result is a music competition where the music is the single least important thing about it; it’s a hollow programme, completely and utterly. And it’s cultural dominance made it the main cause of the very movements in pop music that this blog was started as a reaction against: the way that pop music is now almost entirely immaterial, disconnected from everything but it’s own image, performed by a bunch of interchangeable no-ones singing about nothing to an audience increasingly demanding more, etc, etc.
In short, having a parade of rich people sing about how much they’re going to help the victims of Grenfell when the whole event was caused by society constantly prioritizing the rich over the poor feels like a bunch of butchers singing about how much they’re going to help the lambs after their traumatizing trip to the slaughter house. The style of the song and its good chart performance shows the type of collectivist approach which is increasingly challenging the neoliberal status quo, but it’s being spearheaded by the one person who’s done the most to make pop music useless at doing things like “talking about working class existence” and is being supported by people who have no business being here. I mean, Simon Cowell lived in the Grenfell area: he’s one of the rich people the council were trying to attract and placate when they put the fatal cladding up. Get rid of the celebrities and release a cover of the song performed by the choir: we don’t need the rich to tell us where our sympathies should lie anymore.
The victims of Grenfell still need help; the Conservatives actual support for them as been less than stellar. Support the Justice4Grenfell group or any other charity dedicated to helping them. Join your local groups like the Grenfell Action Group to try to stop things like this happening again. Critique the political ideologies which led to the fire and demand more from your elected representatives. Hell, demand that they and their system be replaced if you think it’s too corrupt to be worth it. The opposition is getting organised and, like everywhere else, the fight’s getting heated. People are punching up again, which means others are going to try to punch down.
Thus was Britain in the summer of 2017.