“…we’re fighting slogans with slogans. We’re trying to unify and you can’t do that by being convoluted and murky. This isn’t an essay in the Quietus, this is CBeebies for humanists.” – Joe Talbot
An Indie Showdown
In her 14 October 2020 music essay published in The Guardian, Nathalie Olah reflects on the ‘indie showdown’ between the British bands IDLES and Fat White Family. Olah’s essay, as well as this ‘showdown’, revolve around the accusation, first voiced by Sleaford Mods‘ Jason Williamson and then by Fat White Family’s Lias Saoudi, that IDLES is guilty of ‘working class appropriation’. Famous for their leftist critique – formulated in interviews and lyrics – of phenomena like Brexit, anti-immigrant sentiments, toxic masculinity, the British monarchy and more, IDLES try to appear more authentic by pretending to be rooted in the working classes and voicing their critique from a working class perspective. However, Lias Saoudi claims on Facebook, IDLES are ‘self-neutering middle class boobs’ and the critique voiced by the band (therefore) comes down to nothing more than ‘sententious pedantry’.
In her essay, Olah observes that even though Fat White Family are not a working class band either, they ‘at least seem aware of their own anachronism’ by combining leftist critique with more ungraspable and ambivalent perspectives and personas that cannot be reduced to one specific voice. But the way in which Saoudi illustrates his critique on the supposed pedantry of IDLES’ message is not unproblematic either, Olah argues. In the same message on Facebook, after all, Saoudi suggests that lyrics written by ‘middle class boobs’ who ‘tell us to be nice to immigrants’ do not manage to grasp the reality of the contexts in which anti-immigrant sentiments are often born; contexts characterised by economic oppression and exclusion.
Olah rightfully criticises this idea, since this claim itself overlooks the complexities of racism and xenophobia, as well as the ways in which they intersect with class, identity, and culture. It is too simplistic, she observes, to argue that these phenomena are caused by economic circumstances. This might not only suggest that those who suffer from economic drawbacks are more prone to racism and disconnect the working classes from leftist perspectives, but also overlooks the xenophobia of other classes and the different ways in which these phenomena can manifest themselves in the different levels of a society.
Olah does agree with Saoudi, however, that the way in which IDLES voice their critique is pedantic and ‘cartoonish’. She refers to ‘Donny Nedelko’ (on the band’s second album, 2018’s Joy as an Act of Resistance) to make this point. The song’s title refers to the singer of the band Heavy Lungs, a friend of IDLES and a Ukrainian immigrant. Nedelko appears as well in the song’s video, which not only constitutes an intertextual link with Bob Dylan’s seminal video for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, but also shows Nedelko with different immigrants in the UK, appropriating a hand-signal often associated with the extreme right.
Nedelko is celebrated in the song’s lyrics as a ‘blood brother’, and ends with the lines: ‘He’s made of bones, he’s made of blood / He’s made of flesh, he’s made of love / He’s made of you, he’s made of me / Unity!’. Olah observes about these specific lines: ‘The spirit, I’m fully on board with. The nursery rhyme lyrics reducing a man to a sack of bones and blood? Not so much.’
Another example mentioned by Olah is the song ‘Model Village’ (on IDLES’ third album, 2019’s Ultra Mono), in which people living in ‘the village’ are described as ‘not racist, but…’, as having a ‘model wife’ and a ‘model car’, and as living a life constructed around ‘tabloid frenzy’. Olah claims that the song presents a stereotypical notion of people in villages, in turn shaping a simplistic and polarising dichotomy between an ‘us’ living in academic, intellectual and multicultural urban eras on the one hand, and a xenophobic and racist provincial ‘them’ reading tabloids on the other. As Nathan Whittle observes as well in an article on Louder Than War: ‘Are we to believe that nowadays our urban centres are an example of tollerance [sic] and acceptance? Again, treating the topic in such a shallow way glosses over the whole debate’.
A similar dichotomy seems to be shaped in the lyrics of ‘I’m Scum’ (again on Joy as an Act of Resistance). In this song, the lyrical ‘I’ states that he is ‘council housed and violent’, ‘minimum wage job’, a ‘mongrel dog’, ‘just another cunt’ and ‘scum’. These claims are contrasted with the ruling classes and explicitly embedded in a leftist ideology: the lyrical ‘I’ claims he is ‘lefty’ and ‘soft’ and ‘Dennis Skinner’s molotov’, and that he is ‘laughing at the tyrants’ and ‘singing at fascists’. Again, these lyrics seem to constitute a schism between a disempowered ‘us’ and a ruling ‘them’, aiming to turn derogatory perspectives on the ‘us’ into an empowering anthem to undermine the hegemony of the ‘them’.
Ultra Mono (September 2020 / Partisan Records)
It could be argued that the above-cited fragment from ‘Danny Nedelko’ refer to the famous line ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, another radical call for equality based on the idea that we all have, and are, living material bodies. Furthermore, it could be argued that the notion of a ‘model village’ should not be taken literally, because it paints a caricaturist image of a conservative and chauvinistic ideal (the song is called ‘Model village’ and not ‘Village’, after all) that could be provincial, national, or even international in nature.
Constituting intertextual links with Iggy Pop’s ‘The Villagers’ or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, such an approach would suggest that the lyrics reject a model society that aims to wall itself in and is afraid of everything different, suppressing the violence that is boiling under its seemingly peaceful surface. In an interview, this ideal is presented by IDLES as the same ideology that resulted in the vote for Brexit.
Lastly, Talbot himself claimed in the same interview that the lyrics for ‘I’m Scum’ were mainly based on his experiences, suggesting that they should not be understood as a general appropriation of a working class voice, but instead form an almost therapeutic perspective on his past: ‘I was called a chav, and the point of the song was me taking insults and throwing them back into the world so I can leave them behind.’
Still, however, it is difficult not to agree with Olah’s observations that the passages she cites from ‘Danny Nedelko’, and many other lines in IDLES’ lyrics, lack poetic subtlety or ambivalence, making them overlook the complexity of the social issues that the band aim to tackle. This distinguishes them, for example, from the above-mentioned Sleaford Mods, whose employment of Brechtian forms of Sprechgesang enables this duo to explore and represent different aspects of English working class life in a detailed and phenomenologically authentic manner, reminding of the social realism of films by Ken Loach.
As critic Mark Fisher observes, Sleaford Mods let experiences of frustration, exploitation, austerity, and anger boil to the surface; experiences that tend to be pushed away by ‘the deodorised digital commercial propaganda, the thin pretences that we’re all in this together and everything’s going to be alright’. In the lyrics of ‘Jobseeker’ (on 2020’s All That Glue), for example, Jason Williamson performs a dialogue at a job centre, alluding to feelings of depression and alienation, as well as a disconnect between his existence and the centre’s bureaucratic and Kafkaesque approach to individual human lives.
In contrast with the social realism that echoes through Sleaford Mods’ often fatalistic lyrics, which are permeated with, in the words of Fisher, ‘a class consciousness painfully aware that there is at present no agent which could transform disaffection into political action’, IDLES try to translate anger into hopeful slogans that communicate a specific political message. Whereas Sleaford Mods claim that ‘music does not solve political problems’ but mainly express complexity, frustration and despair, IDLES bombard the listener with ideas about unity and compassion, still accompanied, however, by angry and aggressive music – a paradox visualised on the cover of Ultra Mono, which shows a man hit in the face with a giant pink ball. Since, as mentioned above, these slogans often go hand in hand with the constitution of dichotomies between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, it is this aspect that made Saoudi and Olah criticise them for being ‘pedantic’.
The first four lines of ‘Heal / Heel’ (on their first album, 2017’s Brutalism) form an example. These lines tell the listener: ‘I want to move into a Bovis home / And make a list of everything I own / And ride into the amber setting sun / Marching to the beat of someone’s drum’. It could be argued that, in this way the band again present themselves as having access to a standpoint that enables them to ‘solve politics’ and rather gratuitously – and naïvely – make fun of people who choose economic security over a life of rebellion and ‘fun’. This choice, however, might only be an option for those who are not plagued by different kinds of insecurity. The chorus includes the lines: ‘I’m not saying I’m not like you / I’m just saying I don’t like you / What fun’, which do not contribute to the subtlety of the song’s message.
‘A Design for Life’
I want to substantiate this point further with help of a comparison between IDLES lyrics and the lyrics of two Manic Street Preachers songs. The latter band have a South Welsh working class background and the spirit of labourism, as well as the failure of the miners’ strikes and the victory of Thatcherism, permeate the critique and form of resistance that they have shaped in their lyrics since the late 1980s. Many of the band’s releases, furthermore, are characterised by a very specific and highly theoretical approach to the question of how to voice social, cultural, and political critique as a popular music band, and how to do this in a context that tends to reduce this critique to entertainment. Their first album, 1992’s Generation Terrorists, for example, was strongly informed by Guy Debord’s Situationism, presenting anti-capitalist and anti-monarchist slogans in the form of consumerist messages. Accompanying these messages with a slick but energising form of glamrock inspired by Guns N’ Roses, the idea behind this album was that this would make the band’s critique part of the mainstream.
On their third album, 1994’s The Holy Bible, Manic Street Preachers moved away from an explicit attack on economic, political, and cultural hegemonic structures that relied on slogans and entryism, and instead presented dense and highly complex lyrics that shape a claustrophobic and pitch-black worldview in which everyone is guilty of the evil of the world. There is, this album suggests, no pure or untainted standpoint from which to voice critique. Nor is there a neutral language in which a critical message can be formulated. Instead, the only thing one can do is work through the disturbing dimensions of past and present societies, and linking these dimensions to the abject aspects of the human psyche, including one’s own.
Take, for example, the misanthropic lyrics of ‘Of Walking Abortion’ (on
The Holy Bible), based on a line in Valerie Solanas’ S.C.U.M. Manifesto. The lyrics include references to totalitarian regimes and dictators, descriptions of a carefree everyday life in societies in which people have the luxury not to be confronted with human suffering, phrases that might refer to Travis Bickle’s anti-humanistic monologues in Taxi Driver, as well as a line taken from the diary of David Smith, the brother-in-law of Myra Hindley, girlfriend and accomplice of the serial killer Ian Brady (see Peters 2020: 211-12).
Furthermore, they do this in a form that almost becomes prose: ‘Hitler reprised in the worm of your soul / Horthy’s corpse screened to a million / Tisu revived, the horror of a bullfight / Fragments of uniforms, open black ruins / A moral conscience – you’ve no wounds to show / So wash your car in your ‘X’ baseball shoes / We all are of walking abortions’. Reading these lyrics, it is impossible to completely decipher their meaning or reduce them to a schism between a good ‘us’ and bad ‘them’. As these same lyrics indeed tell us: ‘There are no horizons’.
Perhaps the most illuminating example in the context of this article, however, is the Manic Street Preachers’ song ‘A Design for Life’, on the band’s fourth album: 1996’s Everything Must Go. The lyrics of the song present a working class anthem that, nevertheless, cannot be pinned down to one meaning, one message, or one voice. Instead, ‘A Design for Life’ works through different perspectives on and connotations of working class culture.
It opens, for example, with lines that refer to the engraving ‘Knowledge is Power’ above the entrance of Newport’s Pillgwenlly Library, to the liberating dimensions of work, but also to stereotypical notions of the working classes that are simultaneously turned into an empowering perspective: ‘Libraries gave us power / Then work came and made us free / What price now / For a shallow piece of dignity / I wish I had a bottle / Right here in my dirty face / To wear the scars / To show from where I came’. Continuously returning to the phrase ‘a design for life’, furthermore, the song sheds light on the complexities of living in a class society, in which one’s class both designs one’s existence in an empowering manner, but at the same time also limits one’s options if this society is classist.
The lyrics of both ‘Of Walking Abortion’ and ‘A Design for Life’ manage to avoid the simplicity that Olah criticises IDLES for. These lyrics cannot be reduced to one message or one perspective, and the position occupied by the lyrical ‘I’ is not one telling the listener what is right and what is wrong, what to feel and what not to, or how to solve political issues. Instead, these lyrics play with the structure and form of language, contain countless instances of intertextuality, and work through different personas and perspectives that trigger the listener into critical thought and reflection.
Music and Words
The observation that the lyrics of IDLES never reach the density of Manic Street Preachers lyrics, however, also has another consequence, which concerns the relation between music and words. The complexity of the Welsh band’s lyrics makes it, at least to some extent, possible to disconnect them from the music to which they are set. We can read these lyrics as they are written in album booklets, debate them, approach them like we approach literary texts, theoretical pamphlets or poems, as I have briefly done above with fragments from ‘Of Walking Abortion’ and ‘A Design for Life’. Of course, the post-punk-influenced and eery sound of the former song, and the anthemic and melodic music of the latter, contribute strongly to the meaning of these lyrics. Nevertheless, within these songs the lyrics also manage to carve out a layer of meaning on their own.
The band themselves emphasised the importance of their lyrics when they published advertisements for the song ‘Faster’ (from The Holy Bible) in the form of a white piece of paper containing the handwritten lyrics to this song, lying on a black background. In these lyrics, the lyrical ‘I’ presents him- or herself as ‘stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer’, and as spitting out ‘Plath and Pinter’, again emphasising theory and intellectualism. A similar emphasis echoes through the aforementioned line ‘Libraries gave us power’, stressing self-education as a working class value.
However, the relation between music and words is different in the case of IDLES. The directness and simplicity of their lyrics go hand in hand with a musical style that is influenced by genres like punk, post-punk, neo-post-punk, garage rock, and hardcore. Their music is aggressive and violent, and as direct as the sloganeering lyrics it accompanies, forming a musical manifestation of the architectural style of brutalism after which they named their first album. John Doran therefore argues in a article in The Quietus that this makes IDLES not into a new or original musical movement, but rather into ‘the last iteration of a much older, more mainstream continuum that has previously contained Glasvegas, Editors, Interpol, The National, My Chemical Romance’ and more ‘Reading Festival punk and emo bands’.
Indeed, IDLES are not as experimental as black midi or OAKE. Nor are they as aggressive and inaccessible as Igorrr or Cattle Decapitation. Instead, IDLES combine styles that we are already familiar with, such as the dissonant sounds of bands like Josef K and Gang of Four, the directness and aggressiveness of Black Flag and Bad Brains, and the sloganeering of Crass and the Redskins. They also do this in such a way that the end product is more commercially viable, recognisable, and catchy, and less rough and formalistically experimental, than these same influences. IDLES songs form danceable battle hymns, meant to pull the audience in, energise them, flow through them, make them experience joy and pleasure, and include them in a collective experience of community.
IDLES’ singer Joe Talbot himself reflects on this relationship between his band’s music and words in an interview with The Guardian: ‘I’m not virtue signalling. I’m not hiding behind any sort of surrealist bullshit. I’m saying: this is what I believe in. On paper I don’t think our message comes across as well. People think: ‘Fuck off, you cheesy bastards.’ But on stage is where they are loud and clear. We’re a band that has to be seen to be believed. You come to our show and you believe us.’ Responding to the above-mentioned critique, he includes the following lines in the song ‘Grounds’ (on Ultra Mono): ‘There’s nothing brave and nothing useful / You scrawling your aggro shit on the walls of the cubicle / Saying my race and class ain’t suitable / So I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful’.
Talbot reflects more extensively on this idea in a 2018 interview with radio-host John Richards, during the band’s performance at the KEXP radio show. When asked what ‘music means to people’ and ‘why it matters’, he responds:
“I think it’s one of the most – the most – humane, visceral artform. […] I think it’s a universal primal thing that you don’t really need to de-naturalise. It’s just within you. You feel things when you listen to certain songs. It could be Barbra Streisand or it could be Swans. Whatever it is. And that is a vehicle for exchange. For passion, compassion. For human exchange. […] It’s the one thing we all have, that we connect with. Beyond that, I don’t wanna know any more than that. I just wanna be in it, forever.”
Using concepts like ‘visceral’ and ‘natural’, Talbot here describes a response to popular music that, in his view, is almost instinctive and more bodily in nature than cognitive or intellectual. Furthermore, he argues that it cannot really be put into words, and revolves around a kind of energy that is shared by all human beings. To characterise this energy, we can use the concept of ‘resonance’, recently developed by the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa. Rosa observes: ‘Behind punk’s furious singing and particularly metal’s wall of guitars, we seem to be able to hear the idea, the promise of other ways of relating to the world’ (Rosa 2019: 293). These resonant ways of relating to the world are presented by Rosa as the opposite of the form of alienation that he links to late modern and neoliberal societies: resonance embeds the self as a thinking and feeling being in a community and in the world at large.
In the case of IDLES, this experience of energy, embedment, and resonance is presented as a sonic embodiment of the political dimensions of their lyrics. As Mark Bowen, the band’s guitarist, observes in the same interview: ‘our live show is nothing without the people there. And it’s about communing with the people in the audience. […] If you extend that to everything you do in your praxis and everyday… […] It’s all about a sense of community’. Combined with their political critique, this emphasis on shaping energising communal experiences returns in the title of the band’s second album: Joy as an Act of Resistance.
It is this dimension of a popular music band like IDLES that Olah’s critique overlooks. I agree with her that the lyrics of IDLES might be overly one-dimensional – ‘Ultra Mono’ – and come closer to social justice propaganda than to thoughtful critique. I agree that this might make them appropriate class perspectives in a rather simplistic manner. Furthermore, I agree that the band do not necessarily do something new musically. However, these observations partly miss their mark because IDLES should be approached as a live band, which means that the critical meaning of their songs is primarily shaped during performances. Quoting these lyrics in an article and then analysing them, in other words, makes one ignore the way in which they are sung and come to form part of a song.
Creating a wall of sound and energy to which one dances and moves, sees and hears Talbot sing, scream and croon his lyrics in ways that express joy, fun, sadness, irony, hatred or contempt, and experiencing the band together with an audience, the observations that the lyrics are ‘pedantic’ (Saudis), ‘simplistic’ (Olah), ‘clichéd, patronising, insulting and mediocre’ (Williamson), or ‘cheesy’ (Talbot himself), therefore drown, to some extent, in the communal experiences that the band shape.
This is not to argue that if one creates an experience of catharsis during concerts, the specific content or form of lyrics should not be critiqued anymore. Especially if they are shaped within a context as complex as the British class society. The German cultural critic Adorno would even argue that the moment one provides moments of catharsis in a culture that is wrong, any critique at this same culture, voiced during that moment, loses its power. After all, shaping escapist experiences of catharsis might already make a culture bearable that should be categorically resisted (see Adorno 2005).
Furthermore, Adorno would reject the idea that the only way in which you can fight slogans is with other slogans, and instead would argue that only dense aesthetic forms that challenge the listener, or highly complex theoretical critique, might be able to trigger people into critical reflection on the context of which they form part. Lastly, Adorno would reject Talbot’s emphasis on individual experiences and therapeutic mindfulness as the basis of a politics of compassion, since this rather simplistically suggests that the realm of personal feelings trumps or escapes complex political reflection and critique (see also Jameson 2007: 125).
Even though it is important to take these Adornian cautions and worries into account and to practice a continual form of self-critique, however, one cannot ignore what a music group like IDLES manage to do and accomplish during their performances. If one wants to analyse a popular music group like them, it is necessary to take their sound, energy, and the resonating aspects of their concerts into account as well. This might shed a slightly different light on their critical dimensions, emphasising that these simplistic lyrics are written to do something specific within the context of a performance: trigger political ideals and permeate them with visceral experiences of togetherness and community.
Paradoxically, it is this same idea that Talbot expresses in the content of his lyrics. Observing in ‘The Lover’ (on Ultra Mono) that ‘You say you don’t like my clichés / Our sloganeering and our catchphrase’, he continues the song with the aim of presenting a message of love and compassion in an aggressive style, akin to the same toxic machismo the song tries to undermine. As he concludes, in a sneering and ironic voice that taunts the listener and triggers a visceral critical reaction: ‘I got a feeling I ain’t scared no more / Because my people love me and make me feel sure to say… “Fuck you, I’m a lover!”‘