MANIFESTO for the FUTURE by Richard Benson.
A few months ago I was at a talk about the future of pop music, where a very successful, middle-aged, songwriter lamenting the decline of music’s sales and influence said, “And yes I know people talk about grime, but no one actually listens to it, do they?”
It was a strange thing to say because at the time Skepta’s Konnichawa was number two in the UK album charts which, unless thousands of people were buying it by mistake, meant that some people were listening to grime. Fortunately, a young woman DJ from South London was also on the panel, and she tactfully corrected him, saying she didn’t really get why everyone was so gloomy about music because in her world, young musicians had found new ways to build careers. It was just a matter, she said, of using the tools at your disposal, and talking about real life experiences that other people would relate to. Talk about what you know, use what you have, connect with other people.
To me this exchange wasn’t so much about old and new worlds as about which areas of culture you look to for ideas. The songwriter was looking at a mainstream that will always be dominated by established vested interests trying to protect themselves. In contrast, the DJ looked to the margins, where new ideas will always emerge because people there are willing to take risks. In particular she looked to youth culture, which in Britain has for many years been an extraordinarily rich and overlooked source of ideas that have renewed the mainstream. If we’re going to come up with some alternatives to the socio-political nightmare that has befallen us, we could do worse than follow her lead.
I began writing about youth/popular culture in the early 1990s, and in that decade witnessed a whole margins-to-mainstream cycle. It began with the egalitarianism of rave culture, progressed through a wave of culture that asserted real, modern British experience against the Right’s ludicrous Back-to-Basics nostalgia, and ended up inspiring the future-facing, multi-cultural patriotism that was one of the lasting positive legacies of New Labour. If this seems a far-fetched idea to you, look at how many people in the think tanks, or in the party itself, had come through that culture. Oona King was only the best known; the speechwriter for the MP Stephen Twigg, who famously beat Michael Portillo in 1997, did the IT at The Face. It can and does happen; making it happen is up to us.
Am I seriously trying to tell you that kids wearing tracksuits a certain way in Tottenham, or a haircut, or the lyrics to Can You Feel It as heard by someone on e in a warehouse in Manchester in 1990 can change history? Yes of course I am. What else do you think fucking changes anything? Party politics is the end, not the means.
Youth culture, your culture, matters not just because of the clothes, or the slang or the music, but because it’s about your genuine response to real life as you experience it. It lets you take whatever materials you have, and use it to express feelings through languages of dress, gesture and behavior. These feelings are often hard to articulate with words, maybe because you’re young, maybe because verbal skills aren’t your strong point, most often because you’re in a new situation for which the right words haven’t yet been invented.
When the original mods started wearing suits in the late 1950s, it was to express an allegiance the idea of modern jazz, which in turn implied allegiance to ideas about transcending racial and political boundaries, embracing spontaneity, and rejecting British insularity for example. When kids in Tottenham wear a black unbranded sportswear, it pretty clearly has something to do with reclaiming their culture from brands at a time when, say, Cara Delevigne can wear a hoodie up West and get papped, while the same garment will get a black kid from Tottenham pulled over by the police.
Yes, of course a lot of youth culture if really just about having a laugh, and OF COURSE it all sounds a bit heavy handed when you try to describe its significance explicitly as I just did - that’s because it has a lot to do with inchoate feelings, and because like all effective creative work, British youth culture knows when to show rather than tell. However, out of all this come ideas that will change things. To find those ideas, we need to start paying attention. Stop complaining about not being listened to, and start listening. Stop taking photographs of our fabulous lunch, and start share real experiences and observations. Stop judging others and ourselves by what we say, and start judging by what we do.
It might seem a strange thing to say, but rotten right-wing governments can be good things. They make you think clearly about the sort of country, and world, you want to live in, and those thoughts become the basis of the opposition. And the opposition always does win, in the end; history tells us that all the fake-messiah right-wing rotters end up being judged badly, and seen for what they were. The path to victory begins here, in the depths of defeat, it may start with sweatshirt or a trainer, or a lyric overheard one night in a sweaty, mucky club. Let’s get to work.