‘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!”‘