Monday, 26 September 2011

Malcolm In The Middle

Despite its bad press these days, through a perspective that binds it so closely to the ravages of neoliberalism, at the time I could feel the appeal of postmodernism. With youth and receptive innocence being so important to how we respond to pop music, the records below may represent the best examples of its overtly self-conscious, postmodern 80s variety. High-concept po-mo pop (including short-lived sensations like Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but mainly miserable failures like Sigue Sigue Sputnik) reached saturation point around mid-decade, with a plethora of acts borrowing their template for marketing gimmickry from Malcolm McLaren. The British music press between 1983-87 was full of talentless chancers armed with nothing more than a slogan, a haircut and gaudy graphic design. McLaren's role in the great punk swindle has been over-documented to death elsewhere (not least by himself), so perhaps it's time to view his entire career for what it actually was: a risky celebration of play for its own sake; the basic lesson any clever art school kid learns. It was all a game to McLaren and it was obvious that, unlike more famous contemporaries, he thoroughly enjoyed playing the overgrown child. The staged battles over his little pranks, the cod-situationist aphorisms, his many daft interviews, and his somewhat unsavory fixations (namely, a recurring focus on pubescent girls' sexuality) didn't take away from his cunning pop smarts. He acted as role model to all kinds of of zeitgeist-chasing wannabes, the vast majority of whom fell flat on their faces trying to emulate him. Maybe it was because they lacked enough conviction in their silliness.

Although already familiar with rap, watching the video for 'Buffalo Gals' on kid's TV or Top of the Pops brought home the (then) disconcertingly alien aspects of hiphop as a subculture. For everyone who saw it as a particularly annoying novelty hit, there just as many who saw it as heralding an important cultural shift. It paid more attention to hiphop's more avant-garde aspects than earlier attempts at appropriation by trad-bands like Blondie or The Clash, who couldn't escape obedience to the 'rock band' superego. With so many different voices moving in and out of his solo records, McLaren didn't feel as much need to constantly claim centre stage. He presented himself as just another character, leading the dance. True to the historical mix-n-match of late capitalism, the rhythmic juxtapositions and lyrics of 'Buffalo Gals' placed it in a continuum of earlier American folk-forms - pop culture as rest and recreation from matters of manifest destiny (the inherent violence of which played as much a role in hiphop's later development as it did in country and western decades earlier). To UK audiences at least, it briefly 'made strange' American popular culture; something that's rarely happened in the charts since the 80s. To many a young ear, it piqued our curiosity. It's still as oddly compelling as it was three decades ago.

Of course, a true postmodernist like McLaren didn't just use history for his box of Lego. He did similar with geography too. 'Double Dutch' brought together strands of the Black Atlantic diaspora, from the urban playgrounds of New York to the brutally oppressed townships of Soweto (the colonial allusions to both places are in the title). It used South African styles with less morose vanity than Paul Simon's more celebrated Gracelands, and with arguably more sensitivity to the political struggles at stake. Unlike more pompous 80s performers (some of whom are sadly still with us), it didn't wave these struggles around as flags of convenience. That would have been too redolent of grown-ups too self-important or pretentious to be 'in' on his big punk prank (I liked to imagine him using a hand-buzzer to shake hands with Richard Branson). He simply acknowledged that those struggles took place in a world we all shared. Despite the horrors of this world, there was still fun to be had in the most unlikely of locations. After all, kids can be skipping in South Africa as much they can in North America. In contrast to the 80s, we're now less likely to accept what po-mo sometimes justified its own existence with: The (perhaps vain) attempt to s(t)imulate empathy via the use of play between divergent cultures and time periods, that may otherwise have seemed distant from - or opposed to - each other. However limited this approach may have ultimately been, it was certainly less offensive than stadium pop turning clear and present political emergencies into promotional pieties, and much less pseudo-aristocratic as a creative space. Not so much we are the world as you are the world. It was a respite from cultural and historical context into something less antagonistic, stratified or burdensome. 

This was the stated purpose of McLaren's concept album Fans. It attempted that most po-mo of tricks; dated in the obviousness of its concept, yet an approach now commonplace beyond all novelty: Harmonizing the highbrow and lowbrow, by applying pop R'n'B production to opera classics. A gimmicky move, sure, and perhaps distasteful to more devoted fans of either. However, it managed to serve up one of the most sublimely ridiculous, memorable and weirdly touching confections to grace the 80s pop charts; while doing it on the safe side of embarrassment or pretension. It granted opera more dignity than FIFA ever did, anyway. When I hear 'Nessun Dorma' nowadays, images of a drunken Paul Gasgoine wearing plastic tits to entertain the lads are sadly unavoidable. McLaren's 'Madame Butterfly' conjured up something altogether more beguiling and evocative; fusing high'n'low with more panache than so many other 80s attempts. The knowing world-weariness of the lyrics worked well, emerging as they do from the cheeky innocence of its conceit. For all of McLaren's unashamedly gauche childishness, moving on from the confrontational aspects of his earlier projects was his way of growing up in public. He learned the basic lesson that so many of us do past a certain age: Pop music should be fun, it should be inclusive, and all the rest is propaganda. It's not there to feed the world, but it shouldn't heave-ho its partners either. What the listener takes from it is what matters. McLaren just wanted to play, and anyone was invited to join in if they so wished. You'd have to be a pretty sour old punk to object to that, really.


JM said...

I still take issue with the dismissal of Graceland: I read Ladysmith Black Mombazo liked working with him and appreciated the exposure. I think there's a difference between working with victims of apartheid(Paul Simon) and working with constructors of apartheid(Sun City and playing Tel Aviv), but that's just me.
And McLaren was rather sleazy character himself:

Phil Knight said...

Yes, I remember when hip-hop was strange, with all the odd cultural phenomena - the break dancing, the medallions, the weird clothes. At the time these seemed to be the trappings of a short-lived fad, not a world-conquering cultural movement.

In hindsight, I think a lot of the snobbery towards hip-hop was based on this assumption - it was another seasonal American craze, like frisbees, yo-yos, deely-boppers etc.

Also it makes me think how strange our current world would seem to people back then. As though we spent a summer playing at being infants, and decided we liked it so much we'd stay that way.

Mr. W. Kasper said...

I still take issue with the dismissal of Graceland. You'll have to tear my CD copy from my cold, dead hands! Absently-mindedly dissing Paul Simon is unconstitutional. Saying you prefer that mumbling afro'd necrophiliac Art Garfunkel is downright Anti-American. This House votes to list all animated rabbits escaping oppression as enemy combatants who must be tried in a secret military court. It's the only way we can protect the American people. Information pertaining to Paul Simon's toupee are strictly classified. Any concerts he performs in Central Park will be tax-exempt in the interests of national security.

These are the days of miracle and wonder, so don't cry baby. Don't cry...

Mr. W. Kasper said...

As for poor widdle property mogul John Lydon etc. - the old whore really needs to stop whinging about the remaining pennies he missed out on. He's been trading on a 'legend' that was cleverly contrived by McLaren for the past 35 years, while claiming that thuggish, talentless, junkie murderer Sid was some tragic pawn of their manager's machinations. A loser is a loser I'm afraid. No one cares about the later career of Glen Matlock or Steve Jones. See also Adam Ant. If all of them are still stupid enough to believe the slogans of album covers or 80s NME articles, then that's their mental deficiency.

Pop managers are sleazy by nature. It may have something to with capitalism (look it up). And I'd feel a lot more at ease sitting in the same room as McLaren than I would Don Arden, Tom Parker or Peter Grant. To my knowledge, ol' Malkie didn't pimp twelve year old girls, force people to join the army, or arrange to have his rivals tortured.

Mr. W. Kasper said...

And in answer to Phil and JM -

Compare 'Buffalo Gals' to 'World Destruction' by Lydon & Afrika Babaata. The former does sound strangely contemporary, as it understood the genre and subculture it fed off (and yes, McLaren understood this would be the aeon of 'the crowned and conquering child' - all popular culture is a drawn-out teenybopper craze now). The latter dated badly about six months after it was released. It had the distinction of somehow making Bambaata sound old and tired, as if he was LL Cool J's grandad.

Phil Knight said...

Malkie did try to fit up his friends the Vermorels on a paedophile rap, though. For an art prank, like.

I'd have avoided him like the plague.

Mr. W. Kasper said...

Do you have a link to that Vermorels story?

He was distinct 'type' and I've met a fair few who operate in very similar manner - club promoters, managers of go-nowhere bands, curators of hole-in-the-wall galleries. Usually very entertaining on a night out, but the kind of charming sociopath who pretends to go the toilet to do a runner when the restaurant bill arrives (is that a Situationist habit? Sounds like an Aex Trocchi or Guy Debord would behave the same way regarding bills). I'm never sure if they're influenced by McLaren, products of a certain generation, or a more 'timeless' character type that you'd find in earlier centuries.

Phil Knight said...

Yeah the story is in "Rip It Up And Start Again" by His Reynoldsness.

McLaren's plan was to start a pop magazine with the Vermorels called "Chicken" (paedophile slang of the era), fill it with lots of dubious images of kids etc., and then call the rozzers and have the Vermorels arrested, while he fled to South America.

I've known plenty of club owners, promoters, curators etc., and yes they are of a definite type - dishonest, evasive, delusional, sociopathic etc. They're the sort of people who have to work in milieu like showbiz and fashion, because in a straight job they would be quickly "found out".

They are really what makes the entertainment industry work, because they're not affected much by commercial failure (a club or venture failing being much less scary than what they are ultimately running away from), and they're also frequently not much good at realising when they're onto a good thing.

Mr. W. Kasper said...

Oh dear - forgot about the 'Chicken' incident! Reynolds dealt with McLaren's dodginess in 'The Sex Revolts' too.

Yeah when it comes to sleazy impresarios, it's clear art or showbiz is the best route (not least because young and eager artists, musicians etc are easy pickings). If they worked in 'real' crime, it wouldn't be long before they found themselves nailed to the floor or sleeping with the fishes. In fact, I've known of one or two who had to leave town/the country once they realised they weren't ripping off the usual suckers, and wanted to keep their scrotums intact.

Simon said...

hip hop totally did feel like a fad, at least from the UK perspective, right up until probably Run DMC and Def Jam, that was when i cottoned onto the fact that it was a long-term going concern. i can remember in 1985 it felt like it was 'over', there had been 'The Message' (and that's a record that hardly any one seems to remember or reference) and then rap seemed to peter out... The Face etc was all into go go and jazz dance.

with Chicken McLaren wanted to embroil EMI (who were funding the mag) and the BBC (who were making a documentary about McL and the selling of his new band Bow Wow Wow) in a scandal about child-porn. Fred Vermorel wasn't the target but would have been collateral damage, as the friend McL'd enlisted as the mag's editor

at the time i was like McLaren's biggest fan, used to follow his every move avidly, the interviews were hilarious but also really got your imagination going... as a teenager the whole 'teenage sexuality' exploitation angle didn't bother me in the least, naturally... it's only when you get older that you realise 'hmmm, praps this is a wee bit dodgy, and he didn't treat people very well'. but i don't really think of him as malicious or malevolent but just, as you say, like this eternal child, incapable of seeing the consequences of actions or really of feeling empathy, just purely up for mischief. the ludic/vandalistic high-spirited side of Situationism - Vaneigem rather than Debord

never thought of 'Fans' as postmodernism before, but of course that's exactly what it is, prime example of high-low -- it was when i lost interest but that take makes it seem more intriguing in retrospect

Mr. W. Kasper said...

Dunno about 'The Message' being forgotten. It usually gets a high place in 'greatest singles ever made' lists (not NME since it became the philistine's bible though). But I recall 1985 as pretty shit year for hiphop - but 85 was something of a pop nadir anyway - crap novelty hits, breakdancing getting very naff etc. It seemed to really rejuvenate in '86, get much more confident, and embed itself in pop culture.

But yeah, I don't think Mclaren was evil per se, more a spoilt kid who never really grew up.

enterprise said...

"Despite its bad press these days, through a perspective that binds it so closely to the ravages of neoliberalism, at the time I could feel the appeal of postmodernism".
When I've worked out what that means I will comment on its retrospective 20/20 smuggery. Meantime, why no mention of 'White Lines, Don't Do It' version Duran Duran in the back-lecture on the mainstreaming of hiphop.

Mr. W. Kasper said...

Would you prefer me to break that sentence down into shorter words? Would that help? Or did you get confused over the use of present/past tenses? Or are you just offended that I don't think like an 11 year old anymore? A bit of water under the bridge can change our view of things, no? Is that allowed?

Why am I replying to someone named after a fictional spaceship anyway?

Apologies if this comment is too hard to read BTW.

Mr. W. Kasper said...

PS. I'd rather you didn't provide further comment. In fact, I suggest you get a Mr. Spock action figure, shove it up your arse, then try flying off into space. I hear the Forth Bridge is a good launching pad. Trust me.