Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

Poet and Critic Cynthia Cruz on the Cost of Upward Mobility in the Arts

Cruz considers the melancholia of working-class artists like Jason Molina and Amy Winehouse who find a way into a middle-class world but lose their sense of self.

The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class
Cynthia Cruz
July 2021

Much has been written about the complex experiences of working-class musicians, filmmakers, and writers navigating the decidedly elite and middle-class milieus of entertainment and the arts. Americans collectively love stories about artists going from rags to riches as well as narratives about how such artists bring proletarian values and sensibilities to their crafts.

For a culture that often denies the very existence of class, we have a great deal of affinity for stories about class mobility—especially when it comes to celebrities and creatives whose trajectories confirm the myths we hold dear. The story of Bruce Springsteen and his humble New Jersey origins confirms our shared belief in the work ethic of blue-collar Americans; not for nothing, so do the stories Springsteen tells in his songs, even when the lyrics are about the limits of the American Dream.

But it’s not just Springsteen. Stories circulate widely about numerous country, punk, and hip-hop musicians who straddle worlds, about filmmakers like Michael Moore and Martin Scorsese, who center the lived experiences of real and imagined peoples of deindustrialized Flint or ethnic enclaves of New York, and about how writers like Dorothy Allison and Bobbie Ann Mason have created class-conscious aesthetics that challenge literary paradigms to commercial and critical acclaim.

So then, what more can we say about working-class artists, their bodies of work, and their navigation of vastly different worlds? Enter poet and cultural critic Cynthia Cruz, who has written an ambitious, compelling, and at times stark portrait of the artist moving through those worlds, making choices about whether or not to conform, and suffering the psychic pain of the ensuing identity crisis.

In The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class, Cruz argues that artists with working-class roots often must decide whether to transform themselves into middle-class subjects and lose their identities or resist the imperative to perform a new version of themselves. Either way, the choice can leave scars and even present existential threats.

One of the impressive elements of The Melancholia of Class is Cruz’s breadth. She tells stories of musicians like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Chan Marshall of Cat Power fame, Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, Jason Molina, and Amy Winehouse; filmmakers like Claire Denis, Joanna Hogg, and Barbara Loden; and writer and visual artist Laura Grace Ford—weaving discussions of their creative output and their biographies. Likewise, Cruz draws on a range of intellectual traditions including psychoanalytic theory, British Cultural Studies, and Frankfurt School Marxism. She also incorporates her own experiences as a working-class woman making her way in literary and academic worlds.

The stories Cruz tells are troubling. She finds that most of these artists feel erased by a culture that denies class. Cruz argues that “because neoliberalism insists there are no social classes, there is, according to its ideology no working class.” Further, she explores the double bind of remembering “the world of our origins” while dwelling in “the middle-class world we now live in.”

One of the artistic conflicts that this split generates, according to Cruz, is pressure to create bourgeoise art that is distant, cool, and abstract instead of art that more concretely and polemically represents the familiar world. The middle class often views bleak art as “dystopic”, while the working class and working poor are inclined to see the same vision as “realistic”.

Cruz’s reflections on the life and work of Paul Weller, lead singer of the legendary, post-punk bands the Jam and Style Council, offer a particularly illuminating illustration of these conflicts. Weller’s lyrics eschew metaphor in favor of overt polemics about Thatcher, striking miners, and council housing, Cruz writes. His music is full of real places, real people, and real artifacts.

Cruz reads Weller’s preference for the “mod”, clean-cut fashions of the 1960s (as opposed to the tattered punk uniforms of his peers in bands like the Clash) as his refusal to fetishize new trends. Capitalism, Cruz reminds her readers, demands constant innovation, constant anticipation of the future. Weller resisted these imperatives by harkening back to yesterday’s mods. A similar dynamic existed in Amy Winehouse’s retro-soul style and Jason Molina’s affinity for covering old country songs and collecting ephemera of old America, Cruz argues.

Some of the artists Cruz describes died deaths of despair—by suicide or as a result of addiction. Others conformed to middle-class expectations and experienced the attendant sense of loss. Still others (like Weller) found ways to push back against the homogenizing demands of the arts, entertainment, and/or academic worlds. Resisting is difficult, Cruz writes, but not impossible.

Drawing on Freud and Lacan, Cruz situates this difficulty in the “death drive”, the urge to self-destruct. Erasure, marginalization, and the identity struggles inherent in straddling two different worlds place working-class artists under profound, psychic stress and the titular sensation, melancholia. It’s hard to read Cruz’s manifesto at times, given the trajectory of legends like Curtis and Winehouse, but thanks in large part to the varied examples she cites, her argument is no less persuasive.

Readers interested in the specific musicians, filmmakers, and writers profiled will likely find The Melancholia of Class a compelling albeit sobering look at the lives, works, and struggles of those artists. Readers attentive to broader conversations about the revolutionary and liberatory potential of popular art will also find this work stimulating and provocative.

At several turns, Cruz’s argument loses nuance or slips into generalization, as when she suggests that aside from Style Council, “other popular bands of the era were not singing overtly [or critically] about the British government.” The English Beat, the Smiths, and Billy Bragg all come to mind. And in the discussion of the “libidinal energies” of Ian Curtis’ stage presence, it seems conspicuous not to mention that he was epileptic and sometimes had seizures during performances. I also would have liked to have seen some discussion of how the discourse of class differs in the UK and the US and a clearer distinction between “capitalism” and “neoliberalism”, terms that Cruz uses as synonyms despite the (arguably) narrower parameters of the latter.

Despite these few flaws, The Melancholia of Class has a great deal to contribute to important discussions of working-class art, literature, and popular culture. Cruz writes with empathy, passion, righteousness, and a poet’s pen.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists