Sunday, January 06, 2008

Pop(ping) Bubbles, #1

Friday saw the first episode of the BBC's Pop Britannia, which the trailer had me almost drooling over - Roxy Music, Donna Summer, Joy Division, Pulp, Bowie - and which focused on the rise of popular music in post-war Britain. They of course neglected to mention anything about the prehistory of British pop - the music hall, folk song (both urban and rural) - but this is the BBC, after all, and we can't expect too much from them (*rolls eyes*). Whilst it's more than easy to contest the documentary's assertion that British pop music - the first music around here to actually possess glamour - suddenly sprung up overnight with the arrival first of American jazz, and then R&B and rock, it did shine some interesting light on certain areas. It was interesting to see how controlled, artificial and a priori commodified rock 'n' roll was in Britain - artists were only allowed to record and play approved repertoire, usually based entirely on the older pop templates of Tin Pan Alley; they were booked to play concert halls, mum-and-dad TV shows and other harmless entertainments; recording studios were tightly controlled by an old guard of engineers and producers who kept recordings as sonically innocuous as possible. The 'wildness', 'glamour' and 'rebellion' associated with rock 'n' roll was, from the very beginning, a hoax, a con trick, giving the lie to any notion of rock 'n' roll as an 'authentic' music. Rock's power, its violence, was only ever symbolic: police, parents and religious busybodies declaring r'n'r a threat to civil society were entirely wrong - physical violence a la biker flick The Wild One, or switchblade and chain-laden Rebel Without A Cause was never an option; its real impact was on teenagers' identity, its restructuring of their symbolic system, how they saw themselves, and how they operated socially.

The documentary made passing mention of rock 'n' roll's social impact, positing it as a menacing force upsetting a nation governed by prim propriety and Protestant restraint; but it was rather more interesting. Rock 'n' roll formed part of a larger cultural influence from America, the only place Britain could look to, as its empire disappeared: the first Elvis Presley LP and the Suez crisis arrived in the same year; Britain's identity had been, until then, formed almost entirely by the nationalist, imperialist assumptions of the ruling class; the mutation that British identity underwent partially by cultural importing drastically upset the notion of 'inherent' Britishness. At the same time, the relative prosperity and equality of America (increasing affluence, a swiftly expanding middle class), which pop music soon became a function of (surplus income being spent on records), spread ever so slightly to Britain, and began reshaping our attitudes: pop music, the music of glamour, could only exist "in a society that has moved towards democracy and then stopped halfway" (John Berger.) The glamour of pop music was one function of a process whereby all identities, previously presumed unshakeable, ontological ("You are what you are") were made malleable: class boundaries, sex (and orientation - nudge-nudge, wink-wink) boundaries, and supposedly national boundaries (the Beatles famously prospered in Hamburg, in a country no supposedly 'right-thinking' Englishman could have spoken of without venom, let alone visited, ten years earlier) began to dissolve in the art schools, cafes and night clubs that became hothouses for British pop. The explosion of this into the public-domain-at-large was the real violence of rock 'n' roll, and the catalyst for the best sonic innovations to be laid down - think of the shape-shifting identities, class confusions and stylistic collages of glam rock 15 years later...


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