Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Accent on the negative

All music of the zeitgeist, as we know, is cyclical in nature. Now, it seems the arguments are as well.

See, we've all known all along how weird and singular music message boards are, not least for their invariable enclaves of huge Dannii Minogue fans to this day, but the inevitable big issue at the moment is of 'authenticity' - Kate Nash's accent, Jack Penate's schooling, Lily Allen's upbringing. And, just like every time, the answer comes back - does it matter? This small grouping of people who kind of know each other (plus a few that journos throw in for good luck despite having bugger all in common, like Patrick Wolf and Mr Hudson and the Library) make for an easy collective target in what we must now apparently call the 'LDN' scene, but their detractors are pointing at the targets still not recovered from the slings and arrows of previous musical eras.

See, despite what LDN Is A Victim - a track actually understood by, what, a few journalists and about twenty self-professed insiders in NW1, yet subject of a million music editor thinkpieces - and Hadouken! (thank god they haven't just superglued themselves to any passing fad, eh?) think, people making music for the masses while being of middle class stock is not new. Ask the ultimate "would you let your daughter marry..." band, the Rolling Stones. Or David Bowie. Or Roger 'we don't need no education' Waters. Everyone knows Joe Strummer was the son of a diplomat, and he got chased from pillar to post about it thirty years ago. Damon Albarn found his voice characterising the hoi polloi's routines, and although he went to a comprehensive his father worked in BBC arts programming and lighting design. Resolutely Sheffield working stock Jarvis Cocker may be, but his most famous piece of observational lyricism was about a girl he met at St Martins' College of Art. Playing down your origins is as old as pop music itself, or to put it another way as old as glamorising your down at heel upbringing. The thought seems to be that you simply can't observe the same world as everybody else if your parents might have a trust fund, but we'd guess that Kate'n'Lily'n' co have done what most of their songs are actually about, that is gone out for the night, got drunk and either tried to chat up unresponsive boys or had trouble with the one they already have. Let the young disestablished working class speak for themselves and their circumstances and more often than not you get The Enemy.

And yes, that probably isn't Kate Nash's speaking accent, although we don't have anything to hand to prove it one way or the other, and you'll also notice not nearly as many people brought this up concerning Jamie T, who often sings like he was born inside a Bow bell. But then it's the Guy Ritchie effect - nobody still believes he grew up in a council house, so nobody goes the extra yard for him any more. Middling older readers may remember this coming up in conversation in 1996, when Damon Albarn's accent migrated to Bethnal Green for a couple of albums. You might also like to bring in the late Steve Marriott as a character witness. Or indeed the pre-Mockney accent debate of singers with transatlantic accents, which took up about forty years of vocal-based discourse up until Britpop. We could go on at some length about the spread of Estuary vowels over the last twenty years and the southern prevalence of the glottal stop, but you get the idea. (Conversely, Billy Bragg can sing properly - check out Mermaid Avenue or his Norman Cook collaboration Won't Talk About It - but evidently feels more at ease with his knowledgeable everyman approach singing as he speaks.)

And the real issue with this two-pronged semi-assault? It ignores the centre of the issue which has never really been approached in the negative by the popular press because it would blow the whole gaff more readily than a list of private schools, that of taking the old "write about what you know" maxim and applying it far too readily. You can write about the everyday in an inventive and thoughtful way - much as it pains in light of their work since, the Stereophonics' Traffic is a great example - but not just relating it as a shopping list of eating cheese on toast and texting your boyfriend. Mundanity is not the same as realism - Colin Meloy has never been a Soviet Cold War agent, a 19th century boy chimney sweep or a mariner swallowed whole by a whale as far as we know, but at their core Decemberists songs still reflect human truths and consequences more than Penate's epic tale of being on a train that was late. Instead of making it a game of class war, what actually needs wresting away from the new mainstream is the idea that straight up lyrics documenting real life and 'real life lyrics' are not the same thing.


Lord Bargain said...


This has been a hot topic in the Bargain-Hen household for a while now - the notion that this new "breed" of artists are singing about their life experiences which, to date, seem to involve perhaps one break-up and a lot of binge drinking.

Hardly the stuff of lyrical genius, is it?

(and rhyming "Tesco" with "al fresco" is just *wrong*)

Matt said...

As someone who's slagged off the Nash accent (and I make no apologies for doing so - it really grates with me) I do suspect that it wouldn't rile me nearly so much if her song was any good, or her voice wasn't so dull, or I didn't seem to hear her bloody song every time I turn the radio on (it's only this that hasn't led me to being equally annoyed at the equally wretched Jamie T).

(I note, incidentally, that Wikipedia claims that she comes from Harrow, which I seem to recall was also the childhood home of Ian Dury, another one of the middle class types. Which also reminds me of the other thing that annoyed me about Jamie T; you can carefully display the back of New Boots And Panties on the poster for your album (and presumably the cover as well, I wouldn't know) all you like, it doesn't stop your songs from being rotten.)

Had anyone in a position of power a few years back had the nerve to point out how him out of The Streets wasn't some radical brilliant free thinker whose every last utterance should be cherished and, actually, was shit, I reckon we'd have been spared all of this.

Simon said...

Let's face it, it's all just shit. Your point on The Decemberists is a well made one showing up this London toss for exactly what it is.

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