The Indie Rebel Is Just a Hollow Cliché In a Leather Jacket
The “cocky prick” has been a staple character in UK indie for decades, but as guitar bands become politically impotent has the role lost all meaning?
This article was originally published on Noisey's UK site. NB: gob means mouth in Brit-speak.
“Step aside, Liam, there’s a new big gob in town,” read the subheadline plastered across the cover of NME last month (see below). The Liam being referred to here is obviously near sentient insult generator Liam Gallagher—a man so synonymous with having a big gob that he doesn’t even need to be named in full on the front of a national print magazine. The person hailed to succeed him as Britain’s most irrelevant mouthpiece is Van McCann, lead singer of Catfish and the Bottlemen—a North Wales indie rock band made of 90 percent flem. Oasis and Catfish come from different eras in music, but Gallagher and McCann both fit into a specific character mould that has come to define our expectations of the personality and aesthetic of UK indie rock overall.
The rebel—or “bad boy” as Van McCann would put it—has been one of the biggest tropes in music (and pop culture as a whole) for decades. From Elvis and his quivering arse in the 50s, to punks of the 70s, to Britpop in the 90s—when bands collected just as many checks for insulting their peers as they did for out-selling them in the album charts—the rebel has always played a significant role in portraying rock music as counter-culture, a form of subversiveness. When you think of stereotypical rebels in music, you think of Jarvis Cocker crashing Michael Jackson’s performance at Brit Awards in 1996, Mark E. Smith suggesting Jesus would have bottled U2, Paul Weller spitting on a picture of Sting; voices that scream in the face of conformity and stick it to The Man on the regular. To put it bluntly: dudes who play guitar music having a fucking tantrum.
The roots of rock music may be planted deep in American culture, but it was often British musicians you’d find chucking TV’s out of hotel windows and swearing their way through TV appearances, fulfilling the stereotype of rock ‘n’ roll after it became mainstream. Unsurprisingly, then, the success of rock bands often goes hand in hand with their image as the kind of men (because it’s always men, isn’t it) who would buy a $750,000 car just to do a line of high grade cocaine off the hood and then drive it straight into THE SYSTEM. Point being: rock ‘n’ roll is, to this day, referred to as a “mentality” and a “lifestyle” as much as it is a genre of music. Fair enough, in some cases. Whether it was Vietnam or the Falklands, Reagan or Thatcher, or even just conservative attitudes encroaching on personal freedom in general, rock music has always served as a method of protest. It only makes sense that its poster boys were hailed for pissing people off and ruffling a few feathers. But what exactly are the frontmen of today trying to piss people off in the name of?
If you scan the rock landscape in 2015 and assess what would count as our current “rebels”, you have Alex Turner and his infamous mic drop of 2014, Royal Blood and their “real music” (by which they mean “played with guitars”) complex, and now Van McCann—a dude whose achievements thus far include selling “cum sarnies” [sarnies = sandwiches - Brit Slang Ed] on their merch stand and being semantically indistinguishable from Finchy off of The Office. They have less in common with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards than they do with Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy. They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together”).
The problem is, rock music stopped being a viable vehicle for political rebellion the second it became, to paraphrase Viv Albertine in our British Masters series, a lazy definition for “modern music.” It has been completely absorbed into popular culture, fulfilling just as commercial a role as Apple products and the Kardashians. Pete Doherty was probably the last typecast rock rebel we produced and his legacy is now so uniform it’s spent the last five years being flogged to tourists in Camden.
What we are seeing now is a pool of mostly white male artists adhering to musical and visual cues laid down by the mostly white male artists that came before them. We have reached a point where some of our most celebrated bands are presented as the rebellious voice of a nation, but when you peel off the black sunglasses and leather jacket, you’ll find that not one of them has anything to say.
Perhaps that was always the point—after all, James Dean was a rebel distinctly without a cause, not fighting for or against one—but in a post-internet culture of increasing globalization and instant access to an infinite amount of musicians who are pushing against boundaries that still exist, why do we continue to adhere to a trope that no longer serves a purpose? We need to redefine the archetype to reflect modern music and the current issues that need rebelling against. With increasing porn regulations and a Prime Minister who can’t say “tampon” out loud, Britain may well be peddling back to its old role as the puritanical household with a stick up it’s ass, but for the most part the fight for our collective right to “sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll” was won decades ago. Why do we still give bands the proverbial high-five for boasting about how shitfaced they get?
It’s not like today’s musicians are at a loss for things to rail against, either. The majority of Britain’s capital cities, London most significantly, are facing social cleansing on an unprecedented scale. Young people, the key demographic that rock bands like Catfish and the Bottlemen are usually marketed at, are nearly three times as likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population and if that figure doesn’t change soon Conservative policitian Iain Duncan Smith wants them to start picking up litter to earn their benefits. Escalating national poverty finds over a million people in the UK relying on food banks to survive, meanwhile, Britain’s richest have doubled their wealth in the last ten years. I could go on, but basically British musicians have plenty to articulate with their big gobs beyond threatening to shit in Madonna’s handbag. Unfortunately, most of them would rather use every interview opportunity to either A) rip the piss out of Chris Martin, B) insist that they’re here to save rock 'n' roll, or C) rip the piss out of Chris Martin. And if you think that at least our rebel heroes of yesteryear are still keeping the glory days alive then you’ll be sorely disappointed, because Roger Daltrey spends his life bemoaning modern Britain to the Daily Mail and the Sex Pistols have their own brand of credit card.
Attitudes within commercial rock have become so apathetic that even our pop stars are doing laps around them in terms of political engagement. From Wels pop star Charlotte Church's blog post defending her right to protest against austerity and denouncing critics calling her a "champagne socialist," to Ellie Goulding firing shots at Hackney council in response to their proposal to fine rough sleepers, to Ed Sheeran joining the fight to save The Boileroom, we're seeing more and more massive pop stars speaking out on issues they could just as easily not address. Contrast that with Faris Badwan of The Horrors claiming “voting is for people who don’t have their own imagination. It’s for a different generation” and you have a clear-cut difference between musicians who are using their position to highlight inequality, and those who flat out don’t give a shit because it doesn’t affect them. On election day, while Britain’s most MOR pop singers—Ellie Goulding, Paloma Faith—were tweeting wildly about the dangers of Conservative rule, the Twitter accounts of Arctic Monkeys, Jake Bugg, Kasabian, Catfish and The Bottlemen and Royal Blood all lay dormant.
If we’re going to embrace the rebel as a cultural icon—someone to be plastered across covers of the last bastions of print media, allotted column space for every intentionally “outrageous” opinion they have, then shouldn’t they at least be a little bit different? Because at the moment they’re about as rebellious as Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, which wouldn’t be a problem if they weren’t pretending to be the absolute antithesis of everything Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran are supposedly about. The image portrayed by rock music in the UK has become such a dominant one that even Mumford & Sons have changed their look to blend into the landscape. The leather jackets, the black skinny jeans, the Bed Head-styled hair, the relentless insults hurled around for the media’s pleasure in a bid for the Gobbiest Prick of the Year Award, have become a uniform all of itself: a suit worn by rock bands that signifies they're doing precisely what they’re expected to do.
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