amodelofcontrol.com turned 14 yesterday, so today is the 5,115th day since the site started. Thanks to everyone who has supported the site in the meantime, and hopefully will do in the future, too, as I continue with writing here. Today, though, is Tuesday Ten: 321, and rather less carefree than last week.
I’m white (well, mostly – I have a complicated, international origin), I’m male, and a middle-class professional who lives with his wife in a (now) trendy part of Inner North London. So yes, I benefit from various forms of privilege in one way or another. But I also do my best to ensure that I use that privilege to make a difference in the small ways that I can. Be that supporting charities that I choose, or giving other people a voice, or even just voting for politicians where I feel there might be a possibility of life being improved for others (not just myself). I may not be perfect, by any means, but we’re all on this planet together and that means doing things for others as well as yourself.
Not everyone thinks this way, of course, and surprisingly there are quite a number of self-aware songs, both old and new, that question privilege in one way or another.
A great many artists have shown their own privilege in various ways (funnily enough tax is often one, as Adele showed recently, or going back a bit further, Phil Collins’ actually leaving the country after Labour got elected in 97. There are a great many other examples that don’t take long to look for, either.
But, I’m not interested in those here – nor about songs covering Royalty and related privilege (as I covered that in 128: Royalty and Privilege). I wanted songs about societal and financial privilege, in whatever form, and fucking hell, I got them…
This week there were 155 suggestions and 142 individual songs, of which eight had been used before in various previous posts – and some of those eight were songs I might well have otherwise considered here. No matter, I wasn’t short of great suggestions, as this set of songs show. Thanks, as always, to my many regular contributors.
Count It Up
The original inspiration for this week’s post came about the first time I heard the lead single from the new album from Sunderland band Field Music. An irrepressibly groovy, hugely 80s-influenced track it may be, but despite the neon-bright synths, it is a seethingly angry track. Apparently inspired by the Brexit vote and the attitudes they saw in their hometown and elsewhere, lyrically is it entirely about checking your privilege, and each line is like a checklist that frankly I tick off almost all of. Needless to say, the emerging reports on possible impacts of Brexit look to hit hardest in those areas that…voted for Brexit.
I rather missed the boat by not catching onto this furious punk band sooner, but there is something about this track in particular that resonates so clearly with the current times. The frankly hopelessness of politics right now – a resurgent right-wing driving a narrative that they have no business doing (since they were the ones that broadly set the ground for the fucking mess we’re in right now), and seemingly pulling up the ladder and removing safety nets that they of benefited from hugely – has, unsurprisingly, begun at last to see a flaring of anger and fury at the future that is being laid. Enter, therefore, bands like IDLES. This Bristol five-piece are evidently really fucked off with what they see, and the blunt, searing social commentary of White Privilege rather sums up the state of things nicely.
The striking opening couplet “How many optimists does it take to change a lightbulb? / None! Their butler changes the lightbulb” is followed by the most refrain: “Always Poor / Never Bored“. Never bored, as you don’t have the time to stop worrying.
The class divide and the privilege that comes from being in certain classes is something that has riven British society in particular for a long time. It’s far from unique, of course, but it is entrenched in the UK in a way that distorts the views of many. Jarvis Cocker, in his time with Pulp, was a fascinating recorder and commentator of class, and indeed in his solo career he’s also released the searing, sweary Cunts Are Still Running The World (that was very nearly used here, and was also very nearly the title of this post).
Instead, I’m going to drop back two decades, to the heart of the Britpop boom, a land of “Cool Britannia” where Britain was fashionable again for the first time in years, and there was a spirit of optimism that I’d never seen growing up. Pulp had struggled as a small-scale indie band as long as I’d been alive, and then during the nineties, they began a swift rise to the top that peaked with Different Class – where Jarvis Cocker continued his writing about middle-class frustrations and suburbia, and the fear of failure, but he and the band released this at the right time. And particularly, Common People, a story of a rich girl “slumming it”, but always able to escape “poverty” by “calling dad”, unlike those she’s slumming it with, who are stuck there to deal with it. Easily one of the greatest songs of the age, it’s also a vitally important social commentary in reminding of the chasm between the “haves” and “have-nots” – and I saw it for myself at University in London in the years immediately after this, with many fellow students living in a wholly different world to those of us subsisting on Student Grants and Loans.
I have to confess that Lorde is one artist whose work I’ve not explored too much, despite a great many friends absolutely raving about how awesome she is, and as I gradually now begin to dig into her work, I’m starting to realise how wrong I was in not doing so earlier. Remarkably Royals is a song written and released by a sixteen year old, the sparse beat is a backing to an impassioned, honest vocal that muses on the normality of life. The things she’s never had the chance to do, and comparing her experiences with the ostentatious materialism of the songs she hears and the videos she watches. A reminder, too, that for most of us, we will never have the opportunities of others wealthier, better connected than us.
I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore
Dust Bowl Ballads
An older folk song that Guthrie adapted, this came from his time exploring the plight of those in the Dustbowl in the midwest, and the lyrics starkly show the result of the rural poor left in penury, homeless and without hope in the aftermath of the depression. There were some, of course, who still managed to get even wealthier during this desperate time, and in Guthrie, there is even a link to the issues of privilege now, as this article and discussion about Guthrie’s dealings with Fred Trump, a certain President’s father. The more things change…
List of Demands (Reparations)
The slam poet, actor and rapper Saul Williams was, it has to be said, an unexpected support act to Nine Inch Nails on their With Teeth tour, but he went down well and was an extraordinarily energetic presence onstage. This song – one of the most striking from the album of around the same time, which is where I first heard his work – is a frenetic, pulsing bubble that is threatening to burst all the long, as Williams spits out his frustrations as a black man in a White-run America that threatens to lessen his privilege even further than it already is. Sadly, nearly fifteen years on from this song – and in that time, of course, a black President has come and gone from the White House – the prospects for Black America are likely even bleaker than they were before.
Back to Britain again, and this gently raging take on British Empire-building is delivered by two people who ultimately come from countries that suffered under the Empire. Renowned poet Benjamin Zephaniah has Barbadian/Jamaican parents, while Sinéad O’Connor is of course Irish, and this song questions quite what is great about Empire, both in present and past tenses. The Empire used its own elevated position to extract every privilege possible, of course, up to and including enslaving populations in other countries it conquered, with the profits going back to the mother country. Remarkably, in these Brexit-supporting days where it seems like large swathes of the population have taken leave of their senses, a nostalgic wish to return to the days of Empire seems to be part of it. Do we really want to celebrate this?
Late Twentieth Century Boy
Third Mall From The Sun
Back before strange tactics like apparently faking a gender change to promote an album, being anti-capitalist but constantly re-issuing and repackaging…David Thrussell and particularly his main musical vehicle Snog were a fascinating left-wing thorn in the side of industrial music. Songs would often dig into political realms, question society, and freely sample and rework other people’s music. Not all of it hit home, but the more I think about it, the more this song seems to be ahead of its time. Cash-rich and interest-poor, I guess – sleepwalking through life with little enthusiasm and little fight, and watching a vapid world from own little bubble, ignorant of the struggles of others, thus abusing their privilege by doing absolutely nothing for anyone else. Indeed, I recall one person I knew when dating someone at Leeds Uni, who would leave the room or change the channel if the news came on, as they were wilfully ignorant at what was going on in the world – “it depressed them”.
Guilty of Being White
Back before Ian MacKaye became a voice of moderation, tolerance and integrity – running Dischord Records and being the frontman of the progressive hardcore heroes Fugazi – he unleashed all of his pent-up rage in the short history of Minor Threat (short, as in the band didn’t last too long, and short as in their Complete Discography clocks in at forty-seven minutes. For twenty-six songs.). While some of their material started entire movements (Straight Edge) and perhaps asked some pertinent, important questions (Bottled Violence), there were some extraordinarily misguided moments – of which this song is by far the most glaring.
Perhaps MacKaye was trying to get a relevant point across – essentially a snarling biteback against having to continually answer for the sins of his ancestors when dealing with the majority black community where he lived in suburban DC – but he’s struggled to justify it since and frankly, with the benefit of hindsight, it is an extraordinary display of petulance and privilege, and with constant verbal attacks on minorities (particularly muslims) on both sides of the Atlantic in the last few decades any time there is a terrorist attack, this attitude wasn’t needed then and isn’t needed now.
Still, at least he didn’t add the line “Guilty of being right” on the end, as Slayer did, something they’ve also struggled to explain since.
Be Thankful For What You’ve Got
An interesting counterpoint to all of this aspiration and fight comes from William De Vaughn, whose smooth soul was covered and paid homage to by Massive Attack (with Tony Bryan on vocals) on their legendary debut album. Originally a song from the late-seventies, it is a song about dealing with what you have, about keeping your pride when you don’t have too much of your own. And more importantly, about not constantly coveting something you don’t have, making the best of your own life. It doesn’t remove the issue of privilege, mind, and a levelling of the playing field right now is long overdue. Still a great song, though.