Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Trauma, change and acceptance

“I think after WWII Britain and all of its allies went into denial, a collective denial that there was anything to discuss… I think my generation had a difficulty with that. The Mod thing was definitely a reaction to that…
“Then I’m born, right at the end of the war, May 19, 1945, the week Albert Speer is arrested. It’s just bizarre, the idea that they have to go on and live their lives… To be a child at that time, you’re saying to your parents, I need mummy and daddy, and they’re going ‘Fuck off!’ Because they’re traumatised. So many of my generation experienced that kind of neglect. Do you think for a minute that it’s possible that I could have been so successful with my tiny thesis, if it wasn’t for the fact that everybody had endured the same thing… I’m talking about post-war neglect. Everybody was trying to find some way to survive without accepting that what had actually happened was tragic, and would lead to tragedy

Pete Townshend in Mojo

For successive generations the aftershock of WWII is becoming even more remote. But the idea of post-traumatic stress disorder, of a generation ingrained in silent denial of atrocities they saw or heard or just lived through, not to mention the corroborative economic austerity, is becoming even more relevant, and can perhaps mark the period right up to the late 1970s, when the Pistols and co arrived as perhaps the last expression of generational rebellion. Indeed, Phil Oakey in Steel City documentary Made in Sheffield saw the explosion of punk and the official reaction to it as the “end of World War II”.

With the adult generation in ultra-defensive mode, a necessarily expressive culture was engendered among the war and post-war children. They would soon want to define themselves on their terms, first with the rockers using the explicitly American filter, then the mods. Arriving at the time when we first became a consumer-driven society. It would seem establishmentarian to say now, but the mods asserted themselves in terms of the new burgeoning world of mass consumption, and were proud to do so. We’ve suffered in silence, now we’re showing out. Suits from Soho, mopeds from Italy, records from America, pills nicked from the drug stores.
On the authority side, they slowly began to see that chasing disaffected white kids taking speed or shouting their mouths off was the smaller fish to fry in Thatcher’s atomised Britain. On our side, maybe we saw just how resistant class-obsessed Britain was to substantial change and gave up the idea of a revolution through mass culture. The mere surface ideas of conspicuous consumption, looking good, tracking the trends, took hold. And with the means of production now more available than ever, we’d have too much to indulge ourselves to really mean much ourselves.

We were moving from a lousy, introverted post-war climate, catching up with baby-boom America and high capitalism, which under relatively benign conditions enfranchises ever more stratums of society. All of which also suggests that in some ways it doesn’t matter whether Lennon, or Bowie or Lydon existed because there was dialectical change being worked through that was beyond the realm of a clutch of pop artists to catalyse. Townshend said that the ace faces at the Who dos couldn’t care or less that “Roger Daltrey” or “Keith Moon” were on stage. Sometimes the articulators of a movement are only expressing the bleeding obvious for the initiated.

Indeed, they are not looking that way, but to the authority, the man, who they implicitly want to be accepted by (but on their terms, hopefully). It’s this wider idea that each pop-cultural movement is to do with a generation wanting to be accepted, that if they are going to be mediated then they want to control the perception of themselves. Either as sharp (mod), angry, engaged (punk), occult, lost (goth), out of it, mad for it (rave). Look how many mainstream writers trade on the fact that they have been there/done that/seen the light in their youth – Decca Aitkenhead. [Dom Joly doesn’t, but this is my half-chance to call him a cunt]. Look at grime now, trapped in the impasse between still looking to the underground and selling its interesting ideas and sounds to the mainstream. Not so much revolution as the mere addition of layers. The idea of the thing-in-itself, of a trend having nothing to do with major societal change, is seen in a small way by the fact that the returning Bauhaus manage to sell out Brixton Academy. They return to an even bigger media space ready to assimilate them, offering them to yet more nu-goths.

I’ve moved on in a tangent from WWII, but have hoped to explain why my mum’s generation still think their big bang was the loudest of them all. I hope to return to the idea that each pop-cultural “movement” – it is only classed as such when it has been “accepted” by the paternal elite – essentially hits the stage when it is seeking the approval of the F1 generation and aiming to move in its circle. The tools of revolution, particularly in a UK seemingly immune to substantive change, become the mere text of your trade.
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