From Bowie to Kanye: Death of an Icon

First published in WriteYou

Until June 23, when the UK decided to leave the EU, 2016 looked like it would be known as the year the celebrities died, one after the other, often unexpectedly.

A number of rock icons, David Bowie in January and then Prince in a lift at his Paisley Studios, among them. The very day Bowie died Julie Burchill wrote a piece criticising the ‘virtue sobbing’ over his shock passing by hangers on in the music industry.

There was certainly an embarrassment of middle-aged broadcasters claiming to be Bowie fans in the days and weeks that followed. But there seemed to be something more going on. There was a more widespread mourning or something approximating it. Was this our Diana moment revisited? Was it Generation X’ers very publicly contemplating their mortality? Sting, with a new album to promote including a song responding to the deaths of his peers, reflected in a recent interview: ‘All of us, when we lose our cultural icons, are affected in a profound way because there’s a child in us who thinks they’re immortal’.

Paul Morley, in his new biography The Age of Bowie, explains how in the seventies pop music had a ‘seductive, influential force’. Today it ‘is essentially part of the establishment’. The times are certainly a-changin’ when Bob Dylan receives the Nobel Prize for Literature; and Bowie gets his own commemorative Prom. Though I suspect this is more a case of the guardians of high culture having lost any sense of what it is they are guarding and why; than having any real regard for the work of the icons of the counterculture. After all, Strictly got itself a Prom too!

By comparison the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame looks conservative. That its 2017 nominees should only now include the 80s electronica of Depeche Mode (in addition to the seminal Kraftwerk), suggests the world of rock music is as dinosaur-like as ever. But as Paul Schrodt observes for Business Insider after seeing a father with his toddler at a Depeche Mode gig, even ‘the band that helped redefine rock in the 80s and 90s has literally become dad music’.

According to Morley, ‘The music that began as an articulation of youth and a making up of the future is entering a definite twilight zone’. That’s not to say there aren’t exciting artists out there doing interesting, and sometimes daring and innovative things. It’s just that the same names keep coming up. If it’s not Jay Z or Beyonce, it’s Kanye West. In the latter’s case at least rightly so. Lou Reed, just a few months before he died, praised West’s then latest album, Yeezus. There’s Lady Gaga too. Andrew Unterberger, writing for Billboard, admits she is ‘no longer the ringleader that all look to for what comes next’ but still ‘the sense of possibility in pop’ that she inspired anew ‘is as vast as it’s ever been’.

I hope he’s right. Closer to home the signs aren’t encouraging. There’s nothing original or daring about Robbie Williams singing “‘Aint no refutin’ or disputin’ – I’m a modern Rasputin’” but not, you understand, referring to the man the West loves to hate Vladimir Putin. And there’s Lily Allen of course, videoing herself crying in the Calais Jungle, and being rewarded with a fittingly gushing piece in The Guardian describing her as a ‘pop rebel’. Now that really is virtue sobbing.

From Bowie to Brexit in the Bastille Spirit

First published in Huffington Post

How quickly things can change. That sense of possibility we had just a few days ago is already in danger of dissipating. The political class is closing ranks. The Tories’ anointing of Theresa May as their (and our) unelected leader, and an attempted slow motion coup in the Labour Party, have the same object in mind. Saving themselves and putting a lid on the popular sentiment that was, to their mutual horror, released by the Brexit vote.

Having said that, when the man who once sang about ‘ch-ch-ch-ch-changes’ unexpectedly died at the beginning of the year, that sense of possibility resided very much in the past. We were nostalgic for celebrity representatives of a generation that young Remainers have more recently been hurling abuse at as selfish EU-wreckers. As Mick Hume, journalist and editor-at-large of spiked-online, describedthis icon in his early 70s heyday: ‘Bowie emerged as the spirit of that rebellious age in a dayglow jumpsuit’. Jennie Bristow, author of the excellent Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict, thinks our response to the ‘Boomer deaths’ that seemed to dominate the first half of 2016 was not just a response to the tragic passing of individuals held in popular affection but also to an overwhelming sense that ‘the spirit of the Sixties seems to be retiring as well.’

So is today’s generation, more likely to blame the Boomers for their problems than be inspired by them, really up to the task of taking on the political class? The fact that the Pretty Things rather than ‘driving their mammas and papas insane’ joined the March for Europe demanding that the EU Referendum result be overturned doesn’t bode well. The setting up of a ‘Brexit Department’, albeit headed up by the estimable David Davies, may be designed to put like-minds at rest, but is turning a popular decision into a drawn-out technocratic process requiring its own department and minister really what we want? As campaigner Tom Slater put it there is a real danger that without sustained pressure from without the unwanted result will be happily ‘kicked into the long grass’. An outcome that would be in keeping with our newly crowned prime minister’s promise to insulate the political class from the electorate until 2020. Will all be Hunky Dory in the end as May puts into action her words that ‘Brexit is Brexit’? Or are the signs ominous and the triggering of Article 50 that will put the nation’s decision in irreversible motion a distant or even endangered prospect? Either way they won’t pursue the matter in the same democratic spirit that forced it so reluctantly upon them.

One thing is for sure though, British politics has changed for good and will never be quite the same again. The political elite have been exposed as just that – with no real connection to the people on whose behalf they have disingenuously claimed to speak. The result of the Referendum vs their desire to remain in the EU Club has made that clearer than ever. We’re not so apathetic. When finally presented with a genuine political choice of real consequence, we made our view known. But faced with the biggest popular mandate in the UK’s political history, we were dismissed as too old, bigoted, or emotional to know what we were doing. We just don’t understand the repercussions said Labour peer Oona King in a debate she had triggered on holding a second referendum. Speaking in the House of Lords it would be ‘only fair and democratic’ she said. The irony.

What looked like being a year in which we rather morbidly obsessed over what and who has passed could be the start of a new era – a taster of what’s to come. Instead of looking back at a roll call of dead celebrities, as grim onlookers; we have found ourselves playing a part in the throwing out of the old and moribund party politics, and with the prospect of ushering in something new to take its place. Who’d have thought that even a few weeks ago? And the barbaric attack in Nice on people celebrating Bastille Day is a reminder that there is nothing intrinsically inward-looking about fighting for freedom and democracy. It is a universal aspiration that needs to be shouted ever more loudly across the continent.

The collapse of the political class in the face of their popular rejection is a historic moment. It’s not quite 1789. Not yet at least. But what started as a year filled with a sort of grief for what has gone now promises excitement over what is to come. There is reason to be optimistic about what the future might hold. The fear and pessimism that has characterised recent times, and that continues to grip and paralyse our political culture, can and should be relegated to the past.