Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Hurrah For The Mercury Prize!
Ah, how I love controversy! Especially British music industry controversy, and particularily when race, aesthetics, politics and class get mixed up in the (white) powder keg. Explosions are sure to follow. Light blue touch paper and stand well clear!
The Mercury Music Prize was awarded last night to Talvin Singh for his album OK. The chairman of the judging panel, Simon Frith, looked unusually stressed at the ceremony, and declared that the decision this year had been 'acrimonious'. The losing candidates included Beth Orton, Stereophonics, Blur, and The Manic Street Preachers.
The New Musical Express had run an editorial a couple of weeks before trashing the prize for being conservative while seeming to champion the 'unfettered inventiveness' of British musicians, and it almost seemed as if Frith (author of the excellent Art Into Pop, a history of the influence of art schools on British pop music) had cast his deciding vote as a face-saving, one-finger gesture in the direction of the NME.
Talvin Singh was the only finalist I'd actually met, at an Idler party a couple of years ago. (Actually, I did meet Damon Albarn once; Justine Frischman used to drag him along to Momus shows where he would vent his spleen by throwing ashtrays at me.)
The NME report of Singh's 1999 victory (whose token adventurousness reprises the 1997 award to drum and bass experimentalist Roni Size for his album 'New Forms') was headlined 'OK Yah: Singh Scoops Mercury Prize'. Their review of 'OK', while essentially applauding its arty 'airport lounge' eclecticism (Singh has worked with Bjork, and his album features a guest spot from Sakamoto), said something about how the record was doomed to sit on the coffee tables of the Brick Lane 'coterie' next to their Unkle albums.
Some background here for those outside the UK: 'Brick Lane coterie' and the phrase 'OK yah' are meant to conjure an image of privileged Trustafarians, people like TV Go Home's stereotype Nathan Barley, the 'cunt' who vaguely dreams of directing, but instead gabbles all day on his mobile phone to girlfriend 'Jemma', reads Sleaze Nation magazine from cover to cover (in a hotel room in Tokyo), and waits for the next cheque from his parents. Actually, Nathan was probably at that Idler party where I met Talvin Singh.
If you need an American parallel, think of people who go to Sarah Lawrence College: rich 'wiggas' whose families live in the Hamptons, but whose slang is straight outta Compton.
Straight Outta Hoxton
The area of London around Brick Lane and Hoxton, just ten years ago the preserve of poor artists and Bangladeshis, is now the stamping ground of a whole tribe of Nathan Barleys. Until recently Talvin Singh ran a night of intelligent drum 'n' bass at Hoxton Square's Blue Note club.
That's the 'coterie' the NME is talking about. You should have seen their review of Unkle's 'Pscience Fiction' album. They basically trashed it, saying that mastermind James Lavelle's main musical instrument had been his mobile phone. There was little analysis of whether it might be an interesting development that pop records could now be curated by well-networked 'culturepreneurs' (Lavelle runs the Mo'Wax label and is a tireless ambassador in Britain for Cornelius). For the NME, it simply meant that trendy and privileged people could buy themselves credibility.
Personally, I'm delighted that Talvin won the Mercury. Beth Orton and the Manics make me cringe with their sterling songwriting values and their fake sincerity (which in Beth's case consists in calling your records 'Trailer Park' and 'Central Reservation' and singing in a half-baked American accent).
I'm a bit Brick Lane myself. Not only have I been married to a Bangladeshi girl who was brought up there, but I tend to go there a lot and notice people milling about who look intelligent, arty and bohemian. (They also wear the same trousers that I do.)
I can see why people, especially some English people, hate the Brick Lane coterie. They hate the fact that these people don't seem to work for a living, they hate the fact that they seem always to be gabbling to equally privileged friends on their mobile phones, and they find their idealisation of other races suspect (in Hoxton it's progressive British Asian youth who are on the pedestal, with the kakoi Japanese coming a close second).
I have my reservations about the coterie too. I don't know how much real talent there is in Hoxton these days. As a Japanese friend pointed out on Sunday as we browsed through the trendy clothes shops at Truman's Yard, Harajuku (Tokyo) and America-Mura (Osaka) do this sort of thing with a lot more originality. British bourgeois bohemian subcultures, alas, sooner or later crumble into hippyism; new age religion, canals and joss sticks. Put it down to the timeless British love affair with the Pastoral. This weekend, for the first time, I noticed a pall of joss smoke hanging over Hoxton and my heart sank.
Lifestyle R & D
Nevertheless, it IS the closest thing we have in Britain just now to a progressive bourgeois bohemia. And as such, it's research and development for the general consumer trends of the future. When I first got a mobile phone (1993) I was literally attacked on the street (in Covent Garden!) for being a ponce. Now everyone has them. When I first got on the internet (1993 also) people made masturbation gestures, assuming that pornography could be my only possible motive. Now they're all online too. Remember when you attack progressives and early adopters that sooner or later you will probably look, sound and act just like them.
It's easy to mock Hoxton, just as it's easy to mock Sarah Lawrence College (source of about three Momus girlfriends, not to mention Yoko Ono). But if the alternative to such attempts at 'cosmopolitan sophistication' is some sort of glum provincial bitterness, maybe we should think twice before laughing them off the face of the earth.
The NME deplores the Mercury prize's 'political correctness', its espousal of the 'New Asian Cool'. (By the way, isn't it time we threw away this early 90s catchall phrase 'political correctness'? The oxymoron made a valid point when there was an ascendent, unified and self-righteous liberal left, but what does it mean now that everything's so fragmented and contextual? Let's just talk about political position instead.) So the NME deplores the political position of championing artists of colour. (Although the NME had a Wigga phase in the mid-80s, they certainly don't champion non-whites these days: Aki from Fundamental recently attacked the paper for its unspoken policy of keeping blacks and Asians off the cover.)
Brash White Trash
Unfortunately, many white bourgeois (hello! Steve Sutherland, NME editor! Hello! Jo Whiley, whose face at the end of the Mercury ceremony looked like a squeezed lemon!) spent most of the 90s trying to de-evolve, modelling their behaviour on the white trash antics of Irvine Welsh and Liam Gallagher, pretending to have been brought up on football terraces or in trailer parks. Mark E. Smith and Shaun Ryder, last of the Noble Savages, became their templates. (Hello! white trash-loving Cambridge University history graduate Tony Wilson of 'Factory' Records!) This inevitably dragged those who should have known better into a celebration of everything retrograde and moronic. It wasn't even an accurate portrayal of working class culture, which is not all heroin and football. (And Mark E. Smith is far from being a moron.) It was more patronising than giving prizes to Asian musicians, and a lot less progressive.
The Mercury Prize champions Britons of colour because their values are often aspirational and upwardly oriented. Second generation Asians often want to be doctors and lawyers, and speak in nice middle class accents, whereas the sons and daughters of white doctors and lawyers tend to adopt glottal stops and white trash street slang. I've dated a young British Indian novelist who went to Oxford, and I was married to a young British Bangladeshi currently at the Sorbonne, so take it from me, mate, orroight? They both espoused sophisticated aesthetic and political values less apologetically than any white British people I've ever met. They were smarter, more ambitious, and more hungry for success. Like ambitious French professionals, they took the Pierre Bourdieu route to the top, accumulating cultural and subcultural capital. (If you're in London just now, check out the young Asian art exhibition at the Whitechapel, Zerozerozero.)
Second generation immigrants are, in a sense, the solution to the problem of terminal irony. They're relativist, sincere, highly global, and not ashamed to be arty. They go right to culture's progressive cutting edge and rally the flagging spirits of the white bohemian bourgeoisie (that's you and me, bub).
Hurrah for the 1999 Mercury Prize, hurrah for Talvin Singh, and hurrah for Brick Lane! Viva the bourgeois lifestyle revolution!