Having put off the inevitable for some time now, it seems the moment has come to concede defeat: the eighties are now inescapably responsible for the larger portion of the present era’s apparently limitless fondness for cultural copyism.
Perhaps the sixties held on to the title of Most Shamelessly Plagiarised Decade for far too long (what on earth happened to the seventies?) however, cultural relativism being all very well and good, it is something of an imperative that people recognise what an unusually awful period of history the years 1980-89 for the most part were.
Abandoning all forward-thinking momentum for an unabashed glorification of the sixties (idealistic, perhaps a little bit insipid, yet relatively innocuous overall) might have been unfortunate, but applying the same principle of hysterical retrogressive fetishism to a decade that attained to previously undreamt-of levels of socio-economic callousness and artistic awfulness is something that quite frankly scares the shit out of me for what it says about where we are in 2007, and more to the point, where we might be headed in the near-future.
It appears increasingly likely that David Cameron will get in next time around. If that isn’t a worrying enough thought in itself, it seems that our society is developing an ominous anticipatory passion for anything redolent of the last great Conservative era. An updated edition of The Sloane Ranger Handbook has just been published (is it just me or are girls everywhere beginning to look just a little bit sloaney?) and a new TV version of Brideshead is imminent, meanwhile the newspapers are full of reports that application numbers for private schools are soaring. Fashion is quite blatantly referencing the eighties left, right and centre, not least in what appears to be an absurd, untrammelled consumeristic decadence fuelled by the wide availability of ultra-cheap high street clothing.
Musically, the repetition of history is evident in the fact that the vast majority of British recording artists seem to be guided by an undeniably Thatcherite (and drug-fuelled) tendency towards solipsism, hedonism and greed (see The Klaxons’ suggestion that pop is an exclusively ‘escapist’ form, as well as Lily Allen’s comments on the need for working class mothers to ‘get their arses off the sofa to make some cash’, cited below) rather than political idealism or artistic vision, as was at least partially the case in days gone by. Thatcher’s dictum concerning the non-existence of society has apparently been realised to alarming effect in the British musical world. Where once it was possible to talk about musical communities and collectives founded on insurrectionary principles, it appears that the eclecticism of the nineties has merely succeeded to the kind of paralysing fragmentation, individualism and relativistic apathy that well befits an increasingly hegemonic consumerist order.
Good-time party music, drugs, fashion, celebrity – this is the essence of British music, both ‘alternative’ and ‘mainstream’ (if that increasingly meaningless distinction holds any longer) in 2007. The pre-eminent sounds of the year – New Rave and Electro – have borrowed from the electronic music of the eighties, but only in the most superficial, lazily copyistic fashion, so that the residual spirit of sixties-style radicalism and experimentation that persisted in the work of artists such as Cabaret Voltaire, Gang of Four, New Order, Human League, and the later collectivism of the Acid House period, have been almost entirely lost in translation. Intelligent, subversive pop lyrics have been exchanged for facile iterations of the retrograde trend (see Calvin Harris) and nasty, narcissistic sneering. The year’s most representative line, both for its egomaniacal mean-spiritedness and for its frighteningly close-to-the-bone summation of the present state of things came from Bodyrox: ‘You think you’ve got it all worked out, but you don’t know nothing, nothing, nothing’.
The eighties weren’t all bad. If there exists any fantastic hope at all in the present case, it is that we might in our manic pilfering get beyond the fancy dress and recover some eighties-style anti-establishment tendencies. In addition to the shallowness of the corporate surface currently being mined, the decade was also notable for a powerful strain of opposition to conservatism – both political and musical – that was to a certain extent done away with in the nineties of New Labour and Oasis. You only have to look at Rick from The Young Ones for an example of how this kind of radicalism might descend to ridiculous levels of naivety, but perhaps a little impassioned anarchism, even of the unsophisticated sophomoric variety, would make a welcome change in the current climate? If the signs are correct, and a new era of reinvigorated Thatcherism is upon us, we are going to have to start thinking about where we might draw inspiration from in establishing a solid counter-reaction to conservatism in all its odious cultural manifestations. The oppositional fringe of the eighties, with its Red Wedge, its Factory Records, its belligerent and subversive NME, and its Rick Young Ones, might after all be a good place to begin.