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Big Society, Little Hope: False Folk Culture In 2011
Joe Kennedy , December 19th, 2011 09:23

From the broom-wielding legions of Clapham to Alex James' cheese and Mumford & Sons, Joe Kennedy examines the current vogue for nu-folk whimsy and its links to Big Society rhetoric

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Picking a single, defining image of this summer's riots would be tricky. Since mid-August, the gallery of Middle English paranoia has had a new permanent exhibition, and its hangings would unquestionably include photographs of looters spilling out of New Look or Carphone Warehouse, of the burning Sony warehouse just off the M25, and of police baton charges in the backstreets of South London and Manchester. Thanks to smartphones, rolling news, and CCTV, there was no shortage of delinquency-porn to aggravate the disgust of Tunbridge Wells.

However, the pictures which best captured the wider cultural implications of the disorder were arguably those which depicted hundreds of plaid-shirted, overwhelmingly white young people taking to the streets of Clapham to clean up. The 'broom army', visited by Boris Johnson and endorsed by a multitude of moralising Facebook campaigns, was manna to a media seeking, as ever in such situations, a tale of middle-class public-spiritedness which could truly show up the avarice of the lumpenproletariat for what it was. Predictably, the Blitz was invoked as the response of 'real Londoners' was lauded as a piece of marvellous civic improvisation.

Putting aside the ontological head-scratcher of what epithet the rioters deserve if the broom-wielders were 'real' Londoners (were they 'pretend'? 'imaginary'?), the most debatable implication doing the rounds was that the clean-up was a spontaneous, quasi-Situationist gesture of protest against acts which possessed no political legitimacy. A BBC web headline asked 'Are brooms the symbol of the resistance?', as if speaking of an English Gotham rotted by a conspiracy between gangs and their 'cultural Marxist' apologists. There was little debate about whether the riots themselves had at their core some hazy sense of resistance. Their alleged lack of a political basis was a rhetorical cornerstone for the likes of Theresa May and David Starkey, who both insisted that it was, at best, mealy-mouthed to suggest that institutionalised racism in the police, the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, or vandalistic cuts to youth services might have played a causal role.

The current government, of course, sweats blood in order to alter the terms of discussion what 'authentic' political expression entails. For a long time, David Cameron has dabbled in selective populism, aligning himself prominently to a number of folksy causes. Green Conservatism, as Alex Niven pointed out in one of 2011's most incisive polemics, constructs its identity around pastoralist totems such as organic food, slow cooking, and artisanal thrift. It imagines, or at least outwardly insists, that the UK's economic inequalities can best be eliminated via localism and a passionate embracing of the Best of British. Never mind class war: politics begins when you choose to buy your cheese at a farmers' market rather than at Tesco.

Shortly after the riots, a photograph was taken that let slip pop's complicity in this subterfuge. Alex James, a man who has spent the last few years protesting too much about how organic food production is infinitely more gratifying than the life of a touring rock star, gave consent for his Oxfordshire farm to be used to stage Harvest, a boutique food and music festival. Playing the garrulous country squire, he was snapped deep in conversation with both Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson, the avatars, respectively, of compassionate Conservatism and PC-baiting, speed camera-hating Little Englanderism. Harvest, it appeared, was an ideological interzone for disparate trends within modern Toryism.

Advertised with the saccharine promise of "a celebration of food and music for friends and for families", the festival gave much away about the centrality of spontaneity and earthiness in the grammar of latter-day reactionary values. On its website, headliners The Kooks were praised on the patriotic and yet essentially meaningless grounds of being "quintessentially English" (they presumably lost on penalties in the festival five-a-side), while we were told that KT Tunstall "shows young wastrels how to play a guitar with joyful intent each and every time". The latter claim possesses only a quantum of intelligibility – do young musicians need tuition in order to intend to play joyfully? – but was most revealing in how it encouraged the event's audience to imagine themselves. They weren't, as one would expect, middle-class professionals and students taking a brief rural break, but free-thinking bohemians living impulsively in the moment.

The 'wastrel' acquired its currency as an image when Pete Doherty was shilling his dubious Albion mythology seven or eight years ago. During the mid-2000s, forward-thinking tendencies in rock were suddenly overwhelmed by a glorification of spontaneity: it didn't matter what the music sounded like, so long as it could be knocked out at short notice to a crowd of thirty-six slumming private school kids in a Bethnal Green bedsit.

The subsequent trickle-down, attributable at least in part to Conor McNicholas' editorial policies at the NME, initially manifested itself in a spate of uninventive provincial four-pieces, but it wasn't long before the more visceral elements of the garage revival were done away with. Acoustic guitars, banjos, and ukuleles became the instruments of choice for a generation who embraced open-mike nights as a liberation from the conventional gigging channels of demo tapes and unglamorous support slots, and the notion of the band as the primary vehicle of expression was subordinated to a romantic vision of the contemporary minstrel.

The theory that this represented an alternative way of life should have been discredited in 2009, when Saatchi & Saatchi produced a reprehensible TV commercial for T-Mobile in which a game young musician used his free texts to organise a massive jamming session. The song which resulted, 'Come With Me', belonged identifiably to the post-Libertines tradition of jaunty semi-acoustic pop, but was set apart from the work of The Wombats or The Fratellis due to its featuring of over one thousand performers. Josh Ward, the song's author, was praised by the video's art director for being "a real person using his own social networks": this, we were told, was evidence of the democratic, inclusive potential of modern consumer technologies, which provide the wherewithal for us to act decisively on our whims.

Looking at the video, however, it's shocking how closely the members of Ward's networks resemble the 'real people' of the 'broom army', another putatively viral phenomenon. In this similarity, one can perceive a fundamental truth about the cultural logic of Big Society. When it did locate compliance in popular music, Thatcherism gave rise to an aspirational, future-oriented strand of New Romanticism: Cameron's Conservatism, by contrast, finds a less direct mode of expression in sham enactments of 'folk' autonomy. The organic, 'real' provenance of movements which affirm the ideological status quo is offered as proof that challenges to that dominant order are regarded by the majority of the nation's population as undesirable and inauthentic.

Given that austerity policies and meddling in the financial set-up of both further and higher education are combining to burden people in their early twenties with a deep sense of depression about their prospects, it would seem reasonable to expect that such assertions of a right to dictate what is 'real' might be held to account by musicians. 2011, however, has been frustrating in that pseudo-folk – in the form of affectedly intimate, exaggeratedly free-wheeling acts like Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons – has been almost ubiquitous. The death of Bert Jansch in October served as a reminder that folk music can be dissenting and democratically inclusive, but its most popular present-day practitioners have all the political clout of a rye bread loaf purchased at great expense on Borough Market.

When Marling, the Mumfords, or Noah and the Whale turn up at each other's shows to lend a hand on banjo, trumpet, or hurdy-gurdy – or, for that matter, when Ed Sheeran inserts a rap into one of his already-atrocious campfire strumalongs – an implicit request is made that the audience recognise the spontaneity of the gesture. Guest appearances and off-the-cuff lyrical improvisation have long been associated with the capacity of popular music to confound the rules and, so to speak, 'do the gig right here'; that is, they are actions which comprise a preconfigured lexicon of non-compliance. This vocabulary of 'wastrel' unruliness, however, acts as a mirror to Big Society's catalogue of false independence – roof-mounted wind turbines and retro chocolate - in the public sphere. Low-level quirkiness does not pose political questions; indeed, resistance is best achieved in forms of collective organisation which rebuke nostalgic representations of communal belonging with a broader sense of social purpose.

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Dec 19, 2011 2:50pm

sublime piece

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Dec 19, 2011 3:01pm

Like many opinion pieces i come across, this seeks to locate a narrative where none exists and tries to make sense of what is essentially nonsense. I don't believe music plays the central role this article suggests, let alone has any "complicity in this subterfuge".

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Dec 19, 2011 3:04pm

How do Jon Hopkins & King Creosote fit in? Or The Unthanks? Or Bon Iver? Or Bonnie 'Prince' Billy?

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Joe Kennedy
Dec 19, 2011 3:13pm

In reply to nigey:

In short, and IMO: not a fan of Bon Iver, and remain to be convinced by anything BPB has done since Palace, but the question of how American acts fit into discussions of contemporary (British) pop politics is for another discussion. The Unthanks I like a lot, but didn't really want to discuss them in this piece as I'd already alluded to Alex Niven's analysis of them in my review of his book.

Regarding your previous point, do you *really* believe that what we listen to/ read/ watch has nothing to do with the reinforcement/ questioning of ideological assumptions? Am I way off the mark in suggesting that cosy, inward-looking popular music inculcates a sense of everything being alright when it visibly isn't? Is it wildly inaccurate to suggest that the UK's widening social divisions are marked by an increasing polarisation in terms of cultural consumption?

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Adam Misrahi
Dec 19, 2011 3:24pm

This is one of the best bits of writing I've read in months and completely persuasive. However, personally, I believe in Laura Marling's tortured sincerity if none of the others'.

It would have been good if the article pointed out that the class making and consuming this music isn't missing the wood for the trees. They don't need need a "social purpose" for political change when there's enough cheese in the pantry. "Communal belonging" (people to come round and remark on your cheese) is exactly what they/(largely 'we' if we're honest) would want at this point. Yes, it's a sad, shallow and tory thing to talk warm inclusivity and only actually mean a select few but it doesn't try very hard to convince itself or its audience otherwise.

I'd personally say it's still an improvement on cold, hard be-successful-and-screw-the-rest music but for its superficiality, the music at least, is already pretty much past it.

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Dec 19, 2011 3:27pm

this manages to find the reason why i've been going round wanting to drive my thumbs into certain people's eyes.

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Dec 19, 2011 3:36pm

In reply to Joe Kennedy:

I'm not sure what I believe. I'm feeling ill so maybe I'm a bit grumpy and argumentative in lieu of my usual sunny disposition. My immediate gut reaction was this all seems a bit too pat - that said, I think you make some interesting points and I agree with the general tone of the article.

Sometimes though, I wonder if we overanalyse. I enjoy the music of some of the artists you reference and yet don't perceive myself as some sort of complacent, complicit, deluded quasi-Tory who has swallowed the Big Society bollocks. I just like folk music - mainly for the sound as anything else. On that note, for anyone who wants to hear the most creative mix of 2011, check out THE FLK....

Castles In Space: The FLK - We Know Where The Time Goes -

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Joe Kennedy
Dec 19, 2011 3:51pm

In reply to nigey:

I'm certainly not saying that the equation reads folk music = conservatism. That has never been the case, nor is it now; it's more that there's been a co-opting of the superficial sound of folk, with none of its traditional politics, which confers an automatic aura of authenticity around some of those musicians - and it's hard to separate that from what's happening politically. I mean, I could listen to Shirley Collins all day, but there's nothing performed about the weirdness there.

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Just a thought...
Dec 19, 2011 4:06pm

Whilst it is certainly fair to say that the riot clean-up movement was adopted by the big-society agenda right-wing of Tory politicians, I feel to go beyond that is to generalise to much. I can't speak for Clapham, but in south-east London much of what was hit was smaller businesses and in some cases homes. I think with Riot Womble and the like you saw a cross section of a community attempting to help with the aftermath of such violence.

My point would be that those of us on the left need to be very careful when discussing the riots to keep a level head, so as not to weaken our own arguments. For all the looted JD sports shops, you have to wonder about the vandalised and looted corner shops. It's important to make a distinction between riots that have their causes rooted in social and economic inequality (which I believe the summer riots do)and riots which are a unified and focused political statement with relevant targets (which I believe they were not - at least not entirely).

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Joe Kennedy
Dec 19, 2011 4:12pm

In reply to Just a thought...:

Well, yes - I wouldn't interpret the riots as being dictated by a coherent political goal, but I would insist that they were political in a way that Cameron, May, Starkey et al tried to deny in the most disingenuous of terms. My main objection re the clean-up was the way in which the media used it to draw a line between 'real' Londoners and anyone who took part, however minimally, in the riots. There were plenty of people involved, however, who seemed happy enough to say that they were sending a message to the criminals; by contrast, there were few voices coming out to talk about the potential causes. Too many people did buy right into the 'pure criminality' line (I'd love to know how many of them had engaged in acts of petty vandalism when they were in their teens/ at university, btw).

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Just a thought...
Dec 19, 2011 4:33pm

In reply to Joe Kennedy:

True, I certainly think that "Pure Criminality" is one of the most meaningless pieces of political rhetoric I've heard in a long time, and indicative of an establishment that simply isn't interested in investigating the causes of social unrest. The way the media portrayed the whole thing annoyed me as well but, I don't know... plaid shirts and the link to the T-Mobile advert...I get that implies that the clean-up was middle class and reactionary, and that the current generation is a-political, and allows a link to be drawn to mumford and sons et al. - Just strikes me as a slightly unfair reading, somehow. As I said, a lot of it may have been support for the smaller businesses and livelihoods that where affected, and might not have been a unified movement in unanimous support of JD Sports, T-Mobile, and the Tory Party....

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Eric Thant
Dec 19, 2011 4:43pm

You describe the broom army as 'putatively viral'. Are you suggesting that it wasn't viral at all, but secretly organised? By whom? Tories? Alex James?

It's odd that you bring into question its status as a spontaneous response because you don't like it. As though there's an inherently moral quality to spontaneity..

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Dec 19, 2011 6:47pm

Really good spot on the empty 'spontaneity' trend in pop, Joe: that's definitely been the risible substitute for spark we've seen across the various streams of shit that get on televised festival shows, Jools Holland and all that. The musical form of the last decade most defined by spontaneity must be grime – and you had to lose it fast if you wanted to chart.

Folkies were probably the most politically active British youth culture of the 60s – 'ban the bomb' marches and all the rest of it – but also found electricity frivolous and resisted the speed of the age. 70s folkies tended to be faux-rustic and anti-flash/glam, complementary to the craze for handicrafts, old Albion and dungarees: both anti-materialistic and anti-progress. In the 80s, you had the grey-jumper Smiths and McCarthy types – political but defeated – as well as bland, strummy shit like Del Amitri for the people with the nice new cars. (BTW, not sure if it's what you were implying but New Romantics weren't really Thatcherite; more like heirs to the mods, only with gay culture playing a bigger role.) In the 90s and 00s? No one's really done direct politics, no matter what the musical style.

So I think it's a bit of a leap – admittedly a tempting one – to tie Cameron's wellied fantasists up with skiffle twats and bearded berks specifically. They're all moneyed and don't want to rock the boat – that's the real connection, and it applies across the currently privileged pop landscape (they're all in this together!). Folk revivalists can plug into reactionary or radical fantasies about the past. So can all strands of retro, everyone from 90s bands reviving The Faces (harking back to when rock and a confident, unionised working class went hand in hand – or to boorish conservatism) or hauntologists (with their exotic take on modernist optimism and community – located in a time when social mobility was lower than it is today and your neighbours would have been tutting Christians). It's a question of focus, whatever you draw on.

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Dec 19, 2011 8:29pm

Bon Iver / Bushmills Whiskey

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Dec 20, 2011 10:47am

Pardon me if I'm wrong, but weren't folk listening to Mumford & Sons and going to farmers' markets a fair while before the current lot got in?

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And Something Else
Dec 20, 2011 12:23pm

Interesting piece but misses a key point. The nauseating Harvest with Alex, Dave & Jeremy festival subsequently went bust leaving artists, stallholders and others, including a local primary school severely out of pocket. Sums it all up really.

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Dec 20, 2011 12:55pm

"The death of Bert Jansch in October served as a reminder that folk music can be dissenting and democratically inclusive, but its most popular present-day practitioners have all the political clout of a rye bread loaf purchased at great expense on Borough Market."

Bert Jansch.. dissenting yes, but political? Across his work, only 'Anti Apartheid' stands out as being directly political. In fact, the bulk of the mid / late 60s freak folk / Acid folk / whatever folk seems largely a-political.. how many Marxist tracts did John Martyn compose?

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Jan 3, 2012 9:19pm

This piece would have been better and more coherent if shorn of the last six paragraphs. I agree entirely with your diagnosis of Britain under the Coalition, and found the Guardian's centre-spread image of Clapham Junction's broom brigade (every last one of them with mobile in the other hand, photographing themselves as part of the Great British Public) far more sickening than any other aspect of the riots. But you've belittled your point by dragging-in folk, faux-folk and anything else related to a current music 'scene' at all. There is no useful analogy to be drawn between 'affectedly intimate, exaggeratedly free-wheeling acts' and current government policy. The latter is important, the former isn't. I've no interest in any of the music acts you mention, so I don't listen to them. The same can't be said of the clowns in Westminster; neither I nor anyone else in the country can escape them.

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Clint Spoon
Jan 5, 2012 9:50pm

In reply to Joe Kennedy:

look here to find out more in answer to your Dec 19th post...

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Jan 13, 2012 1:27pm

Quite a decent article, the reason I like coming back to the Quietus is it's holier-than-thou cynicism, something of which I'm an avid standard bearer for, christ, they should teach it in schools!

One picky criticism is that I don't think it was purely just the middle classes huffing and puffing about some scallywags nicking plasma TVs — I for one was shiteing myself a fair bit too, especially as it started to gain momentum and creep up north! I think actual burning down of families dwellings and peoples places of livelihoods were the actions of, pardon my French here, total fucking bastard scumbags. Call them 'misunderstood' call them the 'product of society' but there's no need for the destruction they've caused. I've seen similar things on a much smaller scale happen in around my dead end northern provincial hometown and let me tell you that they are in no way to be seen as people standing up for their rights, or venting frustration at politicians and the governments policies, they're just purely a bunch unrelenting wankers who don't give a flying fuck about anyone else or anything around them, they wouldn't even be able to begin to tell you who was in government never mind be angry at specific policies! Never mind the real lowest of the low violent rioters/looters, you're trying to tell me that a bunch of posh law students nicking mobile phones were taking an honest political stance against the ravages of modern day capitalism? Balls. They just wanted the latest smart phone for nothing. The rioters were taking the superficial veneer of political protesting, without any real substance, and using it to burn shit up and destroy/steal property, in much the same way as your Tory antagonists take the aesthetics of 'folk' and use it to pander to themselves.

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The anti-Worral Thompson
Jan 18, 2012 10:45am

Anyone still playing a ukelele in the 21st century ought to be ashamed of themselves. Do they travel to the shops on a penny farthing as well? I'm also sick of the real food revival.
Junk food is as much part of a tradition now as anything else. Personally I've always felt proud of living in a country where we can tell the difference between a good packet of crisps and a bad one and we could instictively tell Cadburys made the best chocolate (up until recently ahem hem hem).

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Stipey Sullivan
Jan 22, 2012 1:23pm

One of the things that seems to encourage live events and 'off-the-cuff-ism' is that everything can be downloaded and provided electronically. So it's less important that a band can reproduce their sound or act live and more that they can deviate from the standard and make the event 'special'. A one-off. As newness is the only thing you can't download. And of course real/authentic is something you can't copy. It is immediately second-hand.
Though of course many people will miss what their actually involved in by camera-phoning whatever is going on to watch it later.

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grit bin
Nov 20, 2012 11:57am

In reply to Adam Misrahi:

Yeah, I really like Marling myself- she's got something.
Great article, though, best I've read in some time.

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Nov 20, 2012 1:10pm

Come now, it's been a *long* time since 'folk' intrinsically meant 'political'. To blame Mumford and co for that is silly. Accept that and you accept that knocking acts influenced by the folk tradition because they are a) wealthy and/or b) apolitical is a non-starter. It's not as if Mumford stand out for anything other than their massive success - where are the political acts of *any* genre in Britain? There are certainly almost non-existent in the charts and when a big act does put their head above the parapet (e.g. Plan B) columns pop up on websites like this taking pot shots at them for not being the right kind of political, having the wrong background etc etc. Yeah, we should all be fighting Cameron and his policies. And ideally we should all be acutely aware of the realities of class and its power. Tenuous links with bands you don't like only serve to obscure these issues and make the inevitable response ('you're bitter! you're extreme!') more persuasive to the kind of casual listener who doesn't give a shit what the background of Mumford, or One Direction, or Coldplay, or Labrinth, or Adele etc etc is and aren't suddenly going to develop a political awareness because a bunch of folk pile in to agree with each other that not being political and being rich is a terrible thing.

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Nov 20, 2012 2:24pm

living in ingland must be so so shite that you all feel you have to navel-gaze and self-deliquesce thouselves and "deconstruct" such banality. get out of that smoggy rainy shithole and avast thouselves from freezing tubes and rain and too much tv and being hung-over all the toime , you buncha pale faced oiks.

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Neal Wallace
Nov 23, 2012 11:33am

To be fair, the rye bread at Borough Market is really, really good.

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Max Florian
Dec 13, 2012 8:20pm

I'm becoming something of a Joe Kennedy fan on these pages. I love all his articles here, bar the Palimpsest review - but he's so good that I'm even willing to give that Chauveau (...) the benefit of the doubt.
anyway, I just wanted to post this comment before actually reading the article to say that I'm thoroughly looking forward to reading it. in the eventuality it disappoints me, I'm going to post another comment.

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Karen Sweden
Jul 1, 2013 7:54am

Great article, it points out some nasty tendencies I haven't been able to express myself. The close liason between "locally produced lavender honey" and conservatism. Here the "entrepreneurism" is the new national religion, and everywhere there are "heroes" and "brave people" producing their own jam. Yuck.

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Jul 1, 2013 8:32am

An excellently written piece which did truly make me want to agree with the general political point being made. However, no matter how much I dislike atrociously boring acts such as Mumford and Sons and the new wave of 'acoustic, singer-song-writers', or how much of a middle-class leaning their audiences tend to have, I simply cannot see any meaningful, compliant relation to Cameron's 'Big Society'. Possibly an overly cynical reading of a rather mundane, nauseatingly 'wholesome' popular movement.

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london celtic punks
Jul 1, 2013 12:06pm

how ridiculous to fall back on the Eton educated toff Frank Turner as the saviour of folk music. bloody hell he must be one of the few musicians more privileged than mumford!

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