Thursday, 19 June 2008

Bad New 'Indie'- A Semiotic Approach

I was going to write some thesis now, but I just went for a coffee. Whilst consuming my machino-mocha - which has, irrelevantly, coated my teeth in some foul cocoa fur - they were playing the new video by Helmsley Minibertines One Night Only. Here it is - as an officially sanctioned Youtube release, they've banned embedding - and isn't it just the biggest load of shit?

The Minibertines phenomenon seemed to have, to some extent, gone away last year with the rise of prog-fantasy-disco bands like Klaxons and, more recently, Late of the Pier. I might have been critical of the NME-fabricated 'new rave' business - and will continue to be so as it applies to one-dimensional outfits like Hadouken!, Does it Offend You, Yeah? and The Whip - but at least Klaxons re-introduce something resembling vision and ambition back into the mainstream of guitar pop. With them, at least there is some kind of umbilical link to genuinely innovative music (a touch of the Silver Apples, Eno, even Broadcast). At least they want to present the world as a crucible of possibilities, rather than turning to the drab social-realist cliches that the music press continue to refer to as poetry. Even the widely-touted Artic Monkeys are lauded for their 'observational wisdom', a wisdom I would contend as not extending beyond the ability to name four different things you might see on a night out (a kebab shop, a taxi queue, the ubiquitous white-shirted lumpenprole, a pretty girl whose eyes are 'too big for this town' and other such fantasies of referentiality.) For me, the comparisons between Alex Turner and Morrissey have never held up: The Smiths took the image-vocabulary of kitchen sink and embedded it within a frame of reference incorporating Genet, Cocteau and Gide. What's to differ, for example, the eponymous 'Sweet and Tender Hooligan' from Querelle of Brest? You wouldn't get this nuanced play of erotic potentials in an Arctic Monkeys song (though Pete Doherty might make a hamfisted go of it) and you certainly won't find it in One Night Only's writerly imaginations.

The music industry- the London-based music industry- has seized on the commercial potential of what they imagine to be gritty authenticity. As a result, bands like this have become unwitting slaves in a factory of tropes. The fey, slightly pretty boys who get excluded at their cruel school. The maturation of those same boys into sharp-suited raconteurs who can quote Larkin and mix it with the hard lads on the pool table. The pub that has looked the same for years. The misunderstood pale girl who will, after months of mistreatment at the hands of a local rough, realise that the guitar-strumming scamp in the corner is her knight in Hedi Slimane armour. Relationships start, to the sound of strummed Rickenbackers and walking-basslines.

Semantically, lyrics and videos in this vein are not hard to pull apart. England is going to the dogs, it's full of unlyrical, badly-dressed thugs, and one is automatically poeticised by daring to demonstrate their 'difference' to the cultural wasteland that surrounds them. Read Baudelaire, scrawl Rimbaud on your satchel, Free Pete Doherty: 'this stuff writes itself', as Karl might say. It's Britpop all over again, in that the 'alternative' that is being offered draws on an acceptance of the world as boring, inevitable, and liable to induce a sense of ennui alleviated only by petty disorderings of the everyday order, which will inevitably reassert itself in the end. This vision of the (musical) poetic promotes an acceptance of a tragic vision that can only lead to apathy and the failure to ask the important questions about precisely what it is that brings about the banalisation of the everyday. To be 'independent', in this account, is to swim with the current of Larkinesque determinism: here, joy is momentary, disappointment preordained, and happiness apolitical.

Furthermore, to invoke a more pedestrian quibble, these kids are from Helmsley. If you haven't been to this delightful little market town in the Vale of Pickering, let me tell you one thing about it: it's the only place in Yorkshire more determinedly middle-class than Harrogate. It's a lovely place to get a cream tea on the drive back from Scarborough or Whitby. There are nice antiques shops there. In this video, One Night Only seem to have been persuaded to present themselves as desperate gunslingers straight out of South Elmsall or Fitzwilliam. Rebel imagery clearly sells, but could they not have done something more honest with this, like a promo in which they flirt with the vicar's wife at a church fete or swap the price tags on artisan chutneys? I would have respected them a lot more if they had.

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