idles

IDLES Guitarist Mark Bowen at Glastonbury Festival 2019 (Photo: By Simoncromptonreid - Own work / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0)

On IDLES’ Danceable Relatable Battle Hymns

It is not in IDLES’ oft-derided lyrics but in their visceral performances that they connect with listeners.

“…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 society.

Simplicity

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’.

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Ultra Mono (September 2020 / Partisan Records)

Solving politics

It could be argued that the above-cited fragment from ‘Danny Nedelko’ refers 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.

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