Turns out I’m still hated in Liverpool, even though I’m actually a fan of the Scouse. Wandering around Blue Dot Festival a month ago, I stopped to poach a fag off of a gaggle of Liverpudlians sat around the main stage. A young lad started rolling one for me, then asked what I’d come to the festival to see. I told him I was there to read from a book I’d published last year. “Sound, what’s it called?” Ten Thousand Apologies. “What’s it about?” It’s about the band Fat White Family, I replied.
I could see the name registered on some level. So I asked if they knew the band I meant. “Yeah, actually I do know the band. I saw them play in Liverpool a while back, around 2015.” What did you make of them? “I thought they were great, until I noticed the lead singer was wearing this T-shirt with a joke about The Sun on it, and I just thought ‘what an absolute fucking prick’, you don’t come to Liverpool and make jokes about The Sun.”
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I think I remember this controversy, I informed him. Wasn’t that T-shirt a kind of satirical mock up of a Sun front page? As in, the headline today is simply “consume more stuff”? “Nah man,” he replied, “and even if it was, in Liverpool, you don’t fuck with that. He should have known better. Have some fucking respect laa.” I’m pretty certain it was an anti-Sun T-shirt, I countered. “Nah man, it wasn’t, seriously.” Oh, I really think that it was. “How’d you know that for sure?” I was the bloke wearing the T-shirt.
This swiftly led to a five-way argument with the Scouse contingent. Seeing as any practical justification I offered up — the T-shirt said “The Sun, keep fucking buying” on it — was swatted away with waspish urgency, I reverted back to form: even if I hadn’t been in the middle of an eight-year bender, I told them petulantly, even if I’d soberly clocked the unfortunate local significance of the thing before taking to the stage, I would still have worn the shirt. They were scowling now. “So, you’re not even sorry?” I don’t want to patronise my audience, I informed them, I’m not going to water myself down for anyone either. There is no conspiracy so sinister as morality, I added, with deliberate pretentiousness. My job is to get you to ask questions. Art isn’t here to shepherd you along to a more positive perspective in life.
But my arguments were evidently beyond the pale. This group of young people couldn’t compute the absence of literalism. I would once have felt quite proud that I had been able to confuse people so permanently by simply wearing a T-shirt. Intentional or not, I would normally find this kind of outrage objectively comical. But there was something in their unanimity that was vaguely inspiring. Where else have people managed to club together and successfully banish that red rag of Murdoch-sponsored hatred? Was I fighting the wrong battle here? Either way, he eventually refused me the roll-up I’d asked for.
When the Fat White Family set out as a band around 12 years ago, we had few objectives beyond wilful abrasion. We saw the music industry — shrivelled after the streaming boom — as primarily concerned with little more than its own survival. Indie music featuring guitars had become so droll, so bitterly inoffensive and stale, that, as fans, it was difficult not to take it personally. The flipside of that — the positive, if you like — was that even through an endless fog of speed abuse, Glen’s vodka and unresolved childhood trauma, it was easy to spot a gap in the market for something genuinely discomforting. Our idols were Lou Reed, The Fall, The Make Up and The Country Teasers — wanton outsiders who turned politics into playdough in lieu of their aesthetic objectives. These people were world-builders, not box-tickers.
I’m approaching 40 now. Life has slapped me down repetitively; it has beaten plenty of moderation into me. My taste for shock tactics has diminished considerably. Today, I’m more prone to dabbling in sentimentality. But for a protracted period during the middle of the previous decade, my organ-grinding little brother and I found ourselves seriously considering anally fingering one another on stage. Even GG Allin, perhaps the most extreme frontman that ever lived, had never committed himself to live incest. I look back on these discussions now as the high-water mark in a take-no-prisoners exploration of the contemporary limitations of the stage itself. I wanted to become the Vito Acconci of rock and roll. One of Egon Schiele’s self portraits brought to life.
When I think of the word “punk”, the first things that spring to mind are mohawks and circles with a capital “A” drawn in the middle. But if we think of punk more generally as an aesthetic of dissidence, a counter to the status quo, what does it mean today? Where can it possibly bloom?
Maybe it was an excess of freedom that brought it on, but we seem now to live in an era of taboo-building, of rapidly expanding moral expectations, but one that refuses to offer people anything sensual in return. In essence, punk entails a certain amount of aesthetic juvenilia. Where punk is concerned, problem and solution are often one and the same: a lack of restraint can often prove the key to authenticity. A project defines itself by going too far. Until it has gone too far, it quite simply isn’t. It is transcendence in the wrong direction — it is only by painting yourself into a corner that you are forced to paint yourself out.
Apparently, this mode of cultural production now causes more agony than it’s worth. With an ever-tightening fist of critical rigidity, well-meaning purveyors of carefully cultivated static carry the day. Artists are now expected to live comfortably with the fetid anxiety that, at any moment, their already paltry livelihoods might be stripped away from them on account of some antiquated faux pas on Facebook. Maybe some new media ecosystem will coalesce around the mainstream, where young people can get things gloriously wrong for a spell, but I doubt it.
The problems are too fundamental. The birth of social media has lumbered us with an apparently fatal dose of accessibility, of democratisation: everyone in charge of their own little publishing house, their own micro-judiciary, each one a captain of industry at the infinitesimal scale. There aren’t enough shadows within which groups can get fungal. Everything is out in the world before it’s had a chance to properly malform. Meanwhile, the space separating self from all the rest has been obliterated. The upshot of this suffocating proximity? Alienation, and fear.
Back when I was utterly broke, trying to get into music, I got scouted by a modelling agency. This agency had me cycling all over London chasing fantastical sums of money in exchange for a few hours pouting. I didn’t land a single job. The only “work” I ever managed to land was unpaid, for a Japanese fashionista in east London. There was no money, but the agency assured me I had to build my portfolio. I spent four hours in front of a mirror being rendered in full geisha make-up, then had my photo taken incessantly wearing a piece of linen before being cast out into the weekend.
The garb brought another me to the surface, a new kind of tenderness that Friday night. And two years ago, I made a video for the DIY acid house side project I front, Decius, in which I decided to resurrect that geisha alter ego. The video budget amounted to around £70, as chipped in for by me and the bloke cooking the beats, all of which was spent hiring a young make-up artist I’d found online. The song is called “U Instead of Thought” (Watch the video: you’ll be able to see for yourself that she did an incredible job.) The whole project is an exploration of my masochistic tendencies, an aestheticisation of my will to subjection.
Days after, the artist in question got back in touch with me to remind me to credit her when the film dropped. Of course, I replied. A day or two later, she decided she didn’t want her name on the thing, that maybe the video constituted an act of cultural appropriation. I was a little bemused at this — a great many little Algerian boys dream of growing up to become geishas — but fair enough, your call, I replied. Then she changed tack again; actually, she did want the credit. Then, days later, she made her final decision: it was too risky, the video constituted some vague kind of harm and she didn’t want the association after all. That only around 500 people were ever likely to see the thing didn’t matter.
I brought up Flaubert’s comments on plagiarism, who regarded his own work as always nothing more than a bouquet of other people’s ideas. There are only two types of art: good and bad. Of course, good art can be put to bad ends; Leni Riefenstahl made great films for the worst people. I asked the make-up artist what she made of the blues? The bedrock of pop music. Should a barrier have been erected between black and white? She responded with a viral video of a young Asian guy attributing the racist attack he had endured on the London Underground to the prevalence of Kung-Fu thematics in Western pop culture.
Such moral urgency has supplanted spontaneity in the arts. As much as I found the make-up artist’s extreme prevaricating humorous, I recognised enough of myself in it. The endless doubt that now accompanies every outré aesthetic choice I make. Above all else, I felt sorry for her. Sorry for all of us. Are we slowly denying ourselves access to the architecture of self-knowing? As artists, are we really expected to choose between impotence and extreme marginality?
If one takes into account the serious critical acclaim heaped upon Harry Styles, it seems so. If one takes into account the even more serious journalism that props up The 1975, all is surely lost. I’ve seen the future; it is an eternal corporate skid-mark of pseudo-personality and pragmatic hypocrisy. Where provocation for provocation’s sake is concerned, the stakes are unbearably high, the competition non-existent. The orgy of self-censorship that is our historical portion thus ends here: in screaming silence.