Image from the cover of The Gift (1982)

‘A Town Called Malice’: What’s Happened to Working-Class Music?

Is it possible that the very idea of the working class doesn't exist in popular music today -- as if it's been erased?

What does “working class music” mean anymore? Is it defined as music that’s about working class lifestyles and issues, or is it music listened to by the working class, or is it music made by working class musicians?

I’ve been thinking about this since seeing The Jam: About the Young Idea, a documentary running on Showtime that tells the history of the band’s remarkable five-year run from 1977’s In the City to their final studio album The Gift. Formed in Woking, about a 30-minute train ride from London, the Jam are portrayed as working class heroes from “the sticks” who tersely blended R&B and punk, melody and aggression, conservative fashion and increasingly political lyrics to lead a Mod revival.

Why they never caught on in the States is a mystery to me, despite all the so-called evidence: lead singer Paul Weller’s thick, intimidating accent and England-centric lyrics, and the band’s lack of interest in spending much time touring the US. At one point, Weller recalls how the band trudged through the American South on tour until discovering that The Gift had hit #1, at which point they canceled their remaining shows and hopped on a Concorde back home. The band never needed the States, though the States could have used more of them.

As Ian King wrote here a few months ago, The Jam was very much a band about being young, but “Weller was something of a wiser older brother; someone who seemed to have life figured out beyond what his age should allow.” What Weller figured out as a songwriter was how to articulate through rhythm and melody the frustration with low-paying jobs, limited opportunities, and the massive imbalance of power that only increased as Margaret Thatcher took office.

Unlike their contemporaries, however, especially the Sex Pistols, the Jam didn’t seem intent on burning London to the ground. Theirs was not an absolute ideology. The nihilist rallying cry was “No Future”, which was and remains seductive and exciting. But in a telling clip, Eddie Pillar, founder of Acid Jazz Records, describes how punk also meant cutting off the past, cutting off history. The Jam had an unmistakable Motown influence in their sound. Joe Strummer wore a t-shirt that read “Chuck Berry Is Dead” while the Jam covered “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave”.

If the Jam weren’t letting go of Martha and the Vandellas, they weren’t going to let go of Woking, either. It became the subject of their hit, “Town Called Malice”, an irresistible fusion of soul (via Bruce Foxton’s bouncing bassline) and Weller’s imagery.

Rows and rows of disused milk floats

Stand dying in the dairy yard

And a hundred lonely housewives

Clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts

Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry

That imagery, chopped up by the rhythm of his singing, seems less like poetry and more like journalism. His weary voice does sound older and more knowing than its 24 years, as if he’s channeled the whole of Woking’s despair and refusal to surrender. Though Weller wouldn’t help form Red Wedge against Thatcher’s government until 1985, you can hear his incisive call to action in lines like “Stop apologizing for things you’ve never been done”. It’s a deliriously energetic song, the resistance of which feels more meaningful even now because Weller sounds like he’s been fighting to stay hopeful his entire, long life.

That combination of young weariness and refusal to give up might be one of the connecting elements of working class music across the Atlantic. However aspirational it might be, it’s the voice of young people who are faced with what, in About the Young Idea , is called (with great understatement) “difficult circumstances”. Work a tough job (or jobs) 40, 50, even 60 hours a week with nothing much to show for it and you’ll start thinking you’re in your 40s, not your 20s, and that wear in your voice will be heard by others. Hear the sound coming out of Bruce Springsteen on Darkness on the Edge of Town: recorded when he was around 28, he could have been 18 at the time — or 45. It’s tough to pin down, but he sounds battered and suspicious, as if every hope costs him more than it might be worth.

Springsteen is, in America and over the horizon, the epitome of working class music, but he’s always been wary of that tag. He’s never said it, but he seems to understand that, like any descriptor, “working class” is up for grabs, and it can be turned against you the instant you leave New Jersey. I’ve lost track of the number of critics who’ve used an “ironic that this millionaire Springsteen is singing about the working class, isn’t it?” line in their reviews of his recent work, but what strikes me as deeply ironic is that such heightened awareness of class authenticity is a sign of the middle class more than the working class. It’s an anxious remnant of mobility, sometimes the ghost of one’s past, and an effort to justify where one finds oneself.

Maybe here it’s worth pointing out that I grew up in a working class family and community, and I can’t for the life of me remember anyone trying to prove their working class credentials. There wasn’t any need to.

In About the Young Idea, the working class is defined by the tension between the outer suburbs of London, like Woking, and the cosmopolitan quality of the city. American audiences might find it odd to hear suburbs described as primarily working-class, though they’re also given the more trans-Atlantic attributes of being conservative and suffocating. Throughout the documentary, though, there’s a sense that towns like Woking were sacrificed for the expansion of posher neighborhoods and the urban centers where fashion, technology and power thrive. It actually seems like time stopped in Woking.

The urban also means education. An avid fan of The Jam, the actor Martin Freeman describes the 1980 album Sound Affects as the band’s most “indie, i.e. ‘student'” work, and whether or not that’s true, it’s clear from the context that the working class is pitted against the freedom to create associated with college, a world in which the student has the institutionally supported time and leisure to make music as opposed to a young working stiff who has to balance his job with his dreams. This is a foundational binary in British rock ‘n’ roll, from Mick Jagger at Dartford Grammar to John Lennon at the Liverpool College of Art. But it’s not so simple as that, since the art colleges in the UK (and the US) used to be more affordable for the working class. And more accessible. As Jarvis Cocker described in a recent Pitchfork interview, schools like L.C.A. “used to be a place where people with not-so-good grades could go, and historically a lot of bands in the UK came from art colleges because you had a bit of freedom to create there.”

These are foundational issues in American rock, too, but we rarely talk about them, partly because the history of rock ‘n’ roll rarely seems connected to our current culture. In his book Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture, George Lipsitz makes two critical points about the working class: 1. that “industrial labor created the preconditions for rock and roll, and the first rock-and-roll artists, entrepreneurs and audiences came out of wartime working class communities” in the late ’40s and ’50s, and 2. that the burgeoning middle class of the time sought “prestige from below”; that is, meaning and value from the music made by the working class. It’s hard to disagree with either claim in terms of history. The fusion of working class rockabilly and R&B undoubtedly happened just as the new American leisure class appeared in a time of postwar abundance for the middle class, which was also occasioned the formation of a truly youth-oriented consumer culture. It was, from a certain despondent point of view, one more example of workers being exploited by those in power (record producers, corporate managers) as their work was enjoyed by a more affluent audience.

Writing in the ’80s, Lipsitz closes by saying, “The working class in the U.S. exists as an empirical fact in the lives of those trading their labor power for wages, but it also lives in the collective historical memory of the middle class.” That memory lives, from Elvis to Dylan to the British Invasion, from hippie culture, protest soul, psychedelic rock and early heavy metal to proto-punk, the gleam of the Beach Boys and the kickback of country music against the counterculture — and through all of it, this generative history of American popular music is a seething argument about work and class.

It’s almost never a part of our discussion about music today, though. On the one hand, America lives in a delusion about class, upward mobility and equal opportunity. Where it does not, the issue of class has been severed from the politics of gender, race, sexuality and disability, and this has trickled down into music. Overall, the idea of the working class has vanished from or been segregated within the discourse of American music. The working class has been de-urbanized and associated mainly with the rural and with the American South; it’s rarely discussed in regards to music from Brooklyn, Chicago or Portland, and even bands and artists from traditionally working class cities like Detroit are rarely described as “working class”. (I can’t remember talking about the White Stripes that way.)

What’s even more troubling is the way that black American musicians and communities and genres are separated from the idea of the working class, despite the crucial role working class black America played in the creation of the country’s popular music, as Lipsitz notes. Rap is presented as the extreme ends of a spectrum: abject poverty and glittering wealth. Even when the middle ground is thoroughly woven into a work, like J. Cole’s stunning 2014 Forest Hills Drive, it’s rarely part of the critical chatter. The fact that rap has told and revised the story of the American Dream is incredibly compelling, and it’s telling that this, one of our most popular musical forms, and one of the few that consistently speaks of the economic, reflects the growing divide between the one-percenters and everyone else, a kind of all-or-nothing condition.

Meanwhile, working class music has recently become a revitalized subject in England, though it’s being brought up by some of the old guard, like Paul Weller, who The Guardian, Sean O’Hagan recently surveyed the problem more generally, from acting to visual art. “Where have all the wrong people gone,” he wrote, “the working-class mavericks like Mark E. Smith and John Lydon and Alexander McQueen?”

Is it simply that in our omnivorous musical culture there are no mavericks because there is no mainstream? Or is it something more insidious, more exclusionary?

As O’Hagan notes, the conditions have changed in Great Britain, and they’ve changed in the United States, too. I look back at Lipsitz’s words and think, well, the empirical facts are that the working class has become the working poor while the middle class has become the working class in terms of economic power. The most radical of protests against economic conditions, such as the Occupy movement, are derided as almost any other protest is: the dalliance of those who don’t have to work. Meanwhile, unions are being destroyed, manufacturing — the industrial centerpiece and sustenance of the working class — has been outsourced to save the rich more money, housing and higher education cost more, and mid-level musicians, out of necessity, are touring until their vans fall apart because they can’t make money putting their music on Spotify.

If we define working class music as the music listened to by the working class, and if a large portion of America has become working class in terms of income, work habits, lack of job security and fundamental buying power if not politics, then maybe it’s truer to say that all music in America is working class music—that it has less to do with who is making the music than who is hearing it, and what they hear in it.

The kicker is that the sense of struggle and protest, even a sense of simply calling things what they are, is missing. It’s a broad swipe, the broadest, but as I’ve been listening to Fetty Wap, that Wavves x Cloud Nothings album from this summer, the new Beach House (oh Lord), Joanna Newsom, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Sufjan, the awful new Weezer song, Future Punx, and yes, Taylor Swift and Taylor Swift-by-Ryan Adams, it seems utterly true to me that the very idea of the working class doesn’t exist in the majority of American popular music. Like it’s been erased. At best, it’s a condition to leave behind. And so, if this is the music listened to by the working class, it’s a music in which the audience doesn’t see or hear itself.

There are no rules about what music should or shouldn’t be. And it’s true these things shift over time. But there’s never any guarantee they will, either.

These are ideas. In the end (the end of this column, at least) it’s clear to me that there are more questions than answers. I plan to keep chasing both. But a few ideas seem to be sticking, even if they need to be explored further. What “working class” means has always been debatable, an argument suited for the dialogic criticism Lipsitz employs in his book. The terms of the debate easily suffer from rigor mortis, and it can be a very romantic sort of rigidity, one that views the working class as essentially virtuous and heroic. As much as the conditions of the working class have changed, they continue to change in localized ways. What “working class” means in Woking, England is not necessarily what it means in my Ohio hometown, even if certain attributes are shared. If we can say “working class music” exists and have it mean anything valuable, we have to recognize it as a shifting idea, a debate still undecided.

What’s clear to me is that all of this gets down to the fundamental question of whether or not art, including music, is a reflection of society or the means of its transformation. The commonsense answer is both, but increasingly it seems that music is valued much less as a transformative force in our pervasively commodified culture.

What does that mean for working class music? It means a working class that doesn’t see or hear its own reflection. It means that the combination of youth, work, community and protest in the Jam’s music is less able to escape its past, and that such a combination today faces an enormous challenge if it tries to change the present. There are working class voices, but they struggle to be heard. The first step might be for them to articulate themselves as such, to reclaim by their own terms what it means for them to be working class.