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Nick Pickles: Politics, like music, shouldn’t be done by the manual

Nick Pickles is Director of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, and a music photographer whose work can be viewed here. Follow Nick on Twitter.

When I was asked to pen this column, the idea of bringing together politics and music seemed an entirely reasonable ask. I could try to find an analogy between Nigel Farage and Justin Bieber; plug my weekly Spotify playlist; and hopefully demonstrate, as Jessie Norman did at the ConHome Victory2015 conference, that the cultural industries are awash with conservative values, and anyone who dismisses the arts as leftie claptrap should be locked in a small room with Keith Richards and a bottle of tequila.

Foolishly, however, I agreed to write my first article the week after Paul Abbott’s stellar juxtaposition of comic books and Conservativism. Perhaps more in desperation than well-considered design, I took my inspiration from a bloke who, under the moniker Deadmau5, performs wearing a rather large mouse head on his head.

Last week, Mr Deadmau5 – or Joel Zimmerman, as his parents know him – spoke at the South by Southwest festival in Texas, an annual gathering of music industry folks, artists and journalists engaged in a spectacular crawl of parties, free gigs and borrowed floor space.

In his talk, Zimmerman argued:

“…many of today’s [electronic dance music] musicians have developed an instinct to copy rather than create,”

And went on to say:

“There’s a manual now.  The attraction was doing something different.  I had to do my own thing.  The double-edged sword is taking a little bit of the life out of it.   Maybe that’s why EDM is so big now.  It’s homogenised.”

Given that I’m currently reading The Unfinished Revolution, this struck a chord with me. Has Westminster fallen foul of the same pitfall? We have a manual, of a sorts, in the various first-hand accounts of New Labour, and we have enough polling data to build a fairly accurate picture of what the public want. Chuck in some micro-targeting and a few wedge issues and you have exactly the same problem. Why do something different, something new, when you can pursue homogeny and hope your machine is better than the other side’s?

This mantra – perhaps still best summed up by the refrain of civil servants for decades that ‘nobody ever gets fired for hiring IBM’ – is one of caution, one of incremental change and, ultimately, one of a politics coloured by tactics not values.

This leads me onto a point in last week’s column. Paul’s argument that “comics succeed where Conservatives often don’t – in terms of popularity and cut-through” reminded me of the baffled media reaction to Adele’s complaint that “when I got my tax bill in from 19, I was ready to go and buy a gun and randomly open fire.”

The Guardian was quick to react, complaining that her “gripes are as tired as the most moat-friendly Tory grandee,” in an article headlined “Adele's tax grievances won't resonate with fans.”

Well, her sales don’t seem to have suffered, so – shock, horror – perhaps the Guardian got it wrong. Perhaps the public do think that they pay too much tax for public services that fail too often to serve them as they expect. And perhaps the public might even reward such a bold, seemingly apolitical, statement of the obvious by someone they didn’t see as a politician. I wonder if Nigel Farage owns a copy of 19?

Back to Zimmerman:

“I’m surprised the record companies that sign these people aren’t just going home and making the music themselves.  Cut out the middleman”

The rise of the political class, of a career route that starts and ends in Westminster, clearly chimes with this concern. The broader question – do musicians make music for the enjoyment of record labels? – should set alarm bells ringing.  Is policy driven by values, principles and belief or do we come up with policy primarily motivated by a desire to please, or avoid irritating, our fellow occupants of the Westminster bubble?

Zimmerman’s concerns speak to an industry questioning how great records can be made when bands have a shorter and shorter window to produce the ‘hit’. Will anyone pay for a band to produce a few duff records in the belief that down the path is the next OK Computer or Dark Side of the Moon? In politics, the period of time to develop ideas, a narrative and a public presence is equally pressured, driven by a quasi-academic assessment of “the manual” and the supposed homogeny of the time.  

Sadly, this approach risks cutting off transformative political figures before they even flourish, just as it risks great bands being culled before they reach their creative prime.

One band that bid farewell last year was LCD Soundsystem. The New York Times summated their impact being that they ‘offered listeners a new language with which to explain themselves.’

To me this is the essence of art, of music, that we risk losing in Westminster. Rather than taking the everyday concerns and aspirations of people and trying to make sense of how those concerns can be addressed and plot a course to a better future, we trap ourselves in the mantra of the established orthodoxy of the time.

Put another way, the powers that be have reached the same conclusion as record label execs. Diverting from what is popular now is risky. Short-term retail pressures are the driving force and, to keep ahead of your competitors, give them more of the same, with some cosmetic changes. Just hope nobody looks at the substance.

And in that, I appear to have found my Nigel Farage and Justin Bieber analogy. Which strikes me as a good time to stop. 


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