I’ve never paid much attention to London rapper Plan B, aka Ben Drew. He was that rapper/soul singer in a sharp suit, who I vaguely remember performing on the Brit Awards last year. Then Dorian Lynskey wrote this blog post for the Guardian, describing Plan B’s latest Shostakovich-sampling single, “Ill Manors,” as the greatest British protest song to hit the mainstream in years. I would tend to agree with Lynskey. Whether you’re a fan of Plan B’s music or not, and whether you see the “Ill Manors” music video as glorifying last summer’s riots or not, this single is the first real attempt in the realm of popular music to articulate the self-fulfilling pathology of this particular manifestation of class unrest. Question his intentions or method all you like, but at least you’re bothering to question the underlying issue at the same time.
Literally a week after I returned from London last summer, large parts of it were burning, and shops were being looted. Not being a Londoner or having lived there for any considerable amount of time, I didn’t know how to react to the ongoing news footage of the riots. As they spread to other cities around the country and as David Cameron made more speeches about coming down as heavily as possible on the perpetrators, I couldn’t help choking on the hypocrisy. No matter how ambiguous I feel towards the rioters and their seemingly futile actions, I can see that they were used as scapegoats by the government: “Look at how disgustingly materialistic these young poor people are…they rioted for nothing of value, just trainers and electronics. Thank goodness they lived up to violent stereotypes. We can’t imprison bankers, so we’ll make sure we punish the poor to make ourselves feel better, and we’ll feel even more in control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation if we become the noble brandishers of brooms.”
Granted, these seemingly sudden metropolitan revolts are complex and the result of many converging causes, but Owen Hatherley and China Miéville give me, at the very least, a different lens through which I can perceive them. Hatherley, as a socialist and an architectural critic, contends that these riots were inevitable due to the structure of London itself. He highlights the failure of “urban regeneration” and the parallel worlds created by this type of urban planning in which the powerful and powerless live cheek by jowl, the latter rendered invisible to the former. In many ways, Miéville, a writer of urban fantasy, has pointed to a similar unspoken dynamic in his 2009 novel The City & the City, and in this latest essay, “London’s Overthrow,” he traces the faultline of dissent and tension snaking through the English capital, an economic Molotov cocktail that is only exacerbated by the preparation for and arrival of the Olympics. He brings in strikes, council housing, grime music, and diaspora along the way, a chain of meditations on London’s undercurrent of chaos. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I would argue that the recent British television series Misfits expresses the anxieties felt about the young and poor, and in turn, mocks their demonization. In a satirical representation of middle class fear, superpowers are conferred upon the otherwise powerless ASBO bugbears; they then go on to commit ever more graphic, blackly comic acts of violence and chase each other through perpetually grey cityscapes dominated by Brutalist council housing and grim alleys. To push this hypothesis even further, I can hear the sonic similarity between the dystopian drone and harangue of Public Image Ltd.’s “Careering” and The Rapture’s “Echoes,” the theme song for Misfits. The English riots of last August and the ceaseless tensions around economic disparity in the UK are, of course, not the only indication of the enduring recession. They are the surface damage on a diseased ideology.
In the process of trying to figure out what has gone so terribly wrong, we create documentaries like the two-part The Party’s Over: How the West Went Bust on the BBC and the Canadian-produced Capitalism is the Crisis; however, this kind of analysis hasn’t done anything to ameliorate the issue. We know the system is broken, and we can even trace the reasons why, but we are at a complete loss at how to repair it or imagine life without it. Though Canada has ostensibly fared pretty well in the face of the financial meltdown of the Western world, it is by no means immune (it would be preposterous to think any country was safe in a globalized financial catastrophe), and with a Conservative government still in power and various Canadian industries going down with their US counterparts, I don’t feel confident. The last time we had a Conservative regime, we ended up with a massive deficit. This time we could also end up with environmental disaster due to colossal oil pipelines and ongoing support for the oil sands, and continued slashes to public services, the arts, and old-age pensions. All the while, we try to ignore our own parallel world set-up in which we never resolve the past and current mistreatment of Aboriginal people. We have had more regulation than other countries when it came to our banks, but we all know whose interests our Conservative government is protecting. As in England, many of us did not vote for this party. Both of our countries were kicked in the ass by first-past-the-post.
In terms of music, Plan B’s latest single wasn’t the only song to strike me as symptomatic of the seesaw of impending economic apocalypse and hopeless malaise, what Miéville refers to as “outrage-fatigue.” Around the same time, Akira the Don released his rather chipper “We Won’t Be Broke Forever, Baby,” which featured guest vocals from Gruff Rhys; though it doesn’t explicitly reference the current crisis, I can’t help but read it as a comment on the ostensibly never-ending recession. Then, I stumbled across Bernholz, aka Jez Berns, whose latest single is entitled “Austerity Boy.” It ends in a garbled sample of Madonna’s “Material Girl,” simultaneously retooling the greed-is-good, yuppie days of the 80s and recalling the more recent bizarre show of Occupy solidarity from Rufus Wainwright and Sean Lennon. These three songs then inspired the mix below. I’m angry, but I also feel impotent. Changing or improving on capitalism is attempting to reverse a tsunami of over four hundred years of ideology without any conception of or control over where the water could go.