The Leveson Inquiry won’t stop us dehumanising celebrities

This morning, an interview with comedian Frankie Boyle was published in the Guardian. Boyle divides many, frequently crossing between the borderlines of offensive and risky, of malicious and cheeky, depending on your point of view. In the interview, he criticises the BBC’s Have I Got News For You for being safe and middle-class and obvious: ‘it’s people laughing at “John Prescott is fat” jokes long after he’s retired’. But Boyle, especially in his Tramadol Nights (C4) is just as lazy. For him, the jokes may be smarter, more biting, more challenging (they aren’t), but the jokes are always on the same people: celebrities. Jordan, Kerry Katona, Rebecca Adlington – there is little of intelligence or satirical value in his attacks on these figures. The reason we laugh at Boyle and at “John Prescott is fat” jokes? Because they’re celebrities. Because we think they can take it. Because, in the UK, with our media culture, our collective attitude to celebrity, nothing is below the belt.

 

At the Leveson Inquiry this week, the testimonies of Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and others highlighted exactly this problem. For too long, the British press have been intruding into the lives of celebrities, offering their personal lives as breakfast and commuting entertainment, selling us another’s family crisis as some cock-eyed window of truth into the murky underworld of celebrity life. The British public want to know, we are told. They have a right to it. Celebrities like Hugh Grant sell their images, movies and albums to us all the time, so we’re just taking something back, no? Grant lives off the back of a PR character he has created and we’d be none the wiser lest the brave folks of the gutter press were there when we needed them to shatter the heinous myth – right? Except, as Grant rightly explained to the Inquiry this week, it’s not just celebrities that suffer from the invasions of the press. The parents of Madeleine McCann and Millie Dowler, for example, traded on no such image. They had not thrown themselves into our living rooms, onto the sides of our buses, in the leaves of our magazines to sell products to us. They were the victims of a custom cruelly forged to wring real life of sex, death, murder, scandal and tragedy like sweat from a towel, a custom flimsily shielded by lofty, barely-comprehensible appeals to free speech and the free transfer of knowledge.

 

But this isn’t a blog about the phone hacking scandal and the overreaching arm of the British press. Wiser people than me have said finer things than these. Besides, it seems that the scandal is only interesting to the machinery of the executive now that non-celebrities have been found to be victims of the press. Does this not raise an alarm as to our view of the rights of celebrities? Have the British tabloids not – for decades – spun us a line that the personal life of the celebrity is open to all? The press have tried to convince us for too long that the life of a celebrity is worth less than yours – that their liberties and those of their families are owned communally by all who purchase their products. And we are convinced. We flooded in our millions to buy the McCanns’ trauma as it unravelled, day by day, in the press. If we bought that newspaper, we were part of the problem. We were convinced. We trekked in our millions to buy the sex scandals of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and John Terry. We scorn and splutter in our millions when Jordan is on our front pages or on our television screens. If we buy those newspapers, we’re all part of the problem. We are convinced. We are so patronised and medicated by the press that we take these stories to be ‘news’, so ill-thought-of are we by newspaper editors that this is all our ickle, wickle brains can take. Does celebrity ‘news’ exist because we want it, or are we told that we want it and we just don’t know to wonder any differently? If it all disappeared tomorrow, would we miss it? Everyone loves a scandal – as social animals obsessed with stature, we always have and possibly always will. It’s not unambitious to say that we probably can’t stop this obsession. But our media culture propagates turgid and relentlessly nihilistic spite trumped up as ‘news’, dressed up as social comment on just was has happened to ‘integrity’ and ‘class’ and accompanied by nostalgia (devoid of irony) that lusts for ‘celebrity’ like back in the days when the famous were famous for Something Good. But what we can stop is a neutered, comatose acceptance of celebrity gossip as something we are entitled to. We aren’t. Let’s give it up.

 

It is a victory that the Leveson Inquiry is happening at all. If it begins a national conversation about what our media should look like, then it is a positive start. But the Inquiry will do nothing to stop this culture. The Inquiry exists only because non-celebrities have been revealed as victims. Only – it seems – only under those conditions do we care about privacy. Plumbers, car salespeople, IT technicians, driving instructors – all of them trade under an image. But unless they are famous, they retain their right not to be followed home, not to be chased in cars and run over, not to have their personal calls hacked. It’s not funny, Frankie Boyle, if Rebecca Adlington has a face like a spoon. It’s funny because none of us care even slightly if she is hurt by the joke – because she’s famous, she can take it. It’s time we stopped devaluing celebrities as worth less than ourselves, time we dusted down a few trite old words about stones and glasshouses and time we realised that if we allow the press to treat the rich and famous like this, they will always – always – find a way to do it to everyone else. Like they  did to the Dowlers and the McCanns. Like they will this week – routinely, systematically – to Gary Speed’s family. And we’ll read all about it.

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Why a history of punk rock matters

Punk rock, perhaps more than any genre in the history of popular music, is almost impenetrably tangled in ideologies.

What began as an artistic movement, as an expression of counter-cultural angst, crossed continents into film studios, literature, poetry, theatres, art galleries and catwalks. By the mid-1990s, punk was a global commodity. Green Day, Blink-182 and My Chemical Romance are now household names. Punk, the bratty, snot-nosed upstart breed of rock and roll, built on anti-musicianship, built on the rejection of stadium rock, built on a sneering denial of technical skill, built – crucially – on the breakdown of the performer-audience relationship, on the attack against the musical mainstream – punk had now arrived squarely in that mainstream.

Yet the history of punk remains unwritten. Oral histories, biographies, fanzines and critical studies have attempted to codify the meaning of ‘punk’, and in many ways have offered valuable research on the popularity of punk, its language, forms, associations and movements, its economies, its social makeup, the roles of women and ethnic minorities and its influence on outsiders, including the media perception and critical reception. But very little attempt has been made to trace the origins of the ideas at the root of punk rock, to understand the intellectual culture or the social and economic pressures that shaped this curious and enthralling bag of philosophies. From Schopenhauerian nihilism to Nietzsche’s Dionysian value of art, from the visceral poetry of Ginsberg to the hedonism of Kerouac, the philosophies of punk can be teased out of the words of the progenitors of punk themselves, from the mouths of Joey Ramone, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol. Punk began as a set of ideas espoused, shouted and blasted through power chords, distortion and breakneck drumming.

This extraordinary culture grew up in America. Historians of punk, though they are very few, have hitherto suggested that punk as an identifiable form of rock and roll – with a distinct set of ideas – started or came to fruition in Britain. Tricia Henry, whose Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (1989) is among a tiny number of scholarly examinations of punk rock, argues that punk in its forms before The Sex Pistols arrived in Britain in 1976 was more a type of “underground rock” that only became the ‘punk’ that we may identify now with the influence of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood on the band and the politicisation of the music. In America, she argues, the “underground rock movement consisted primarily of middle-class youths rejecting middle-class values. In Britain, punk generally represented working-class youths reacting to the bourgeois status quo.”[1] In the atmosphere of unemployment in Britain, “when the English [sic] were exposed to the seminal punk-rock influences of the New York scene, the irony, pessimism and amateur style of the music took on overt social and political implications, and British punk became as self-consciously proletarian as it was aesthetic.”[2]

The assumption that punk’s nature is in some way political is ahistorical. The very term ‘punk’ has roots in an American outcast culture, as a pejorative word used to describe an anti-social branch of urban society, “the hoodlum, the useless element in society”, long before 1977.[3] In fact, the images and ideas of punk owe far more to apolitical cultural memes like Marlon Brando’s Johnny Strabler in The Wild One (1953) than to Marxism, environmentalism or anti-Republican civil disobedience. As Henry shows, the New York “underground rock” scene profoundly influenced British punk and the later, more sharply ideological subdivisions like hardcore and Oi! which took form in the 1980s. And there is no doubt that much of this music was deeply political. But before 1977, before the explosion of what Henry terms ‘punk’, artists like the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, Iggy and the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the MC5, Patti Smith and more self-identified as punks as part of a new musical movement called punk rock. If we say that punk was not punk until 1977, who were these New York ‘punks’? What did they believe punk to be, and why was it important? This history is still to be written. The history of punk as a dialogue, a particular dialect and a movement of ideas can be understood only with a new, cultural history.

A cultural and intellectual history of punk must begin in New York, with the intellectual culture of the punk scene. At CBGBs in Bowery, New York, owner Hilly Kristal and others provided the dancefloor, stage and microphone for hundreds of unsigned bands and thousands of disaffected youths in one of the most rundown areas of the city. Between 1973 and 1977, in the early years of American punk – at the beginnings of punk itself – a developed, sophisticated and dynamic culture grew inside the sweaty walls of CBGBs, now one of the most iconic rock venues in the world. This culture had at its centre a collection of ideas. Nihilistic, pessimistic, anti-authoritarian and anarchic in its civil and political message; provocative, Dada-esque and theatrical in its artistic expression; hedonistic, experimental and egalitarian in its social values – CBGBs was the hub of these ideas, ideas that were not new but prevalent in 1970s youth culture, ideas that have a peculiar resonance in the growing historiography of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Identities, some forged along lines of gender, race and class, demarcated cultural spaces, the dissolution of the holistic ideals of a ‘society’, contributed to a growing disaggregation of the social fabric into self-identifying ‘groups’, with triumphal moves for rights, powers and cultures of their own. Punk, to a large extent, fits into this history: young, urban, American punks were not largely concerned with where they could slot into society, but were overwhelmingly invested in this process of identification, disaggregation and fragmentation.

Moreover, a history of the genre must consider the words and ideas of punk from punks themselves, from the oral accounts and fanzines, interviews and contemporary biographies. This musical movement cannot be seen merely in terms of a radical departure within rock and roll, for that devalues its impact. Historians must begin to place popular music at the centre of cultural histories, in the furnace of cultural creation. This research will attempt to contribute towards an understanding of music that it, like film, art or dance, is as valuable a medium of historical study as all other artistic forms. Punk, by way of an example, will try to show that music can be as artistically expressive of ideas as film or art, and, by implication, popular music history to be as valuable to our understanding of our cultural past as the history of film or the history of art. This research will focus on the primary accounts of musicians, promoters, producers, managers, roadies, groupies, reviewers and the voices of the age to highlight that music can carry and transform ideas in unique ways and can, for example, resonate in ways that the cinema or television cannot, can build cultures around itself owing to its own power and magnetism as an art form.


[1] Henry, Tricia, Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style (London: UMI Research Press, 1989), pp. x-xi.

[2] Ibid, p. ix.

[3] Henry, Break All Rules!, p. 8.