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Black Sky Thinking

Bum Rush The Show: Why Reality TV Has More To Do With Violence Than Rap
Luke Turner , August 12th, 2011 06:00

Luke Turner refutes the Daily Mirror's assertion that hip hop was to blame for this week's unrest. But there's another popular cultural form that reflects the kind of society that caused it

With weary predictability, the violence that has taken place across Britain this week has led the tabloid press to pick on a familiar scapegoat. "Is rap music to blame for encouraging this culture of violence?" thundered the Daily Mirror's Paul Routledge in an op-ed piece. "I blame the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority (especially the police but including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs."

It's the same trite argument that has led Marilyn Manson to be blamed for the Columbine Massacre, Wagner for Hitler's atrocities, and Emo for teen suicide. Curiously, though, there has been no boycott called on PWEI's forthcoming reissues thanks to the fact that Norwegian killer Anders Breivik was listening to Clint Mansell's Lord Of The Rings soundtrack piece 'Lux Aeterna' as he carried out his killings in Norway, describing it as an “incredibly powerful song”.

Obviously the effect music has on the brain is a deeply complicated one: I personally have a strange feeling of militant power when, wearing black, I stride down the road listening to Laibach's 'B Mashina' closely followed by 'Tanz Mit Laibach'. This has not yet led me to form my own state, issue a passport, and design a sinister totalitarian logo. Neither has my love of the turn of phrase in Nick Cave & The Bad Seed's murderous 'Stagger Lee' led me to "crawl over 50 good pussies just to get to one fat boy's arsehole", while laying waste to the patrons of my local hostelry. Los Campesinos! and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart have yet to be accused of contributing to the relative decline in white middle class population growth thanks to their pernicious influence as a form of musical bromide on male indie youth. To assert a direct correlation between a musical genre or artist and the behaviour of its or their fans is clearly fatuous.

Routledge has as arcane a view of hip hop as we might expect from a grizzled prog fan complaining about punks in 1976. He is clearly still caught up in the memory of the East / West Coast killings that tainted opinions of hip hop during the mid-90s - much as Norwegian Black Metal was also affected by the fascist, murderous habits of some of its musicians at a similar time. Neither genre has, in the popular imagination, been able to shake off this unfortunate past. Admittedly the Quietus has recently covered and praised an artist who has sung the lines originally written by Ice T in 1991, "Cop killer. Let's kill the cops tonight"... but that was PhD-studying, blog-beloved white synth pop artiste, John Maus. Hackney hipsters crooning along to his take on the song were notably absent among those lobbing rocks at the Metropolitan Police from the end of my road on Monday night.

Routledge is also wrong in his accusation that the "trashy materialism" of hip hop leads to looting. Think of Dizzee Rascal there, with his love of... fishing. Perhaps it's because he doesn't know where the nearest broken branch of JD Sports is that Lil B generally wears the knackered trainers, bright jeans, and scruffy t-shirts of a skate kid. Professor Green, who himself comes from Clapton, branded Routledge a "moron" for his comments, saying, "Yea ban rap music, silence our voices even more. Surely this isn't about shifting the blame, but accepting responsibility? Neither my music or that of my peers is to blame for society and its faults. we didn't create the tiers.” Plan B took on The Sun's Trevor Kavanagh, arguing for education as a positive force: "The real thing that's going to help these kids is some knowledge and some education about how to live, because what's the point of getting arrested and put into jail for a pair of new trainers or a fucking microwave?"

Odd Future have as part of their mission statement a separation from weary bling of yore. So while Tyler's greatest flaw is that he is a typical teen nihilist, he certainly isn't a materialist: "I created O.F. cause I feel we're more talented / Than 40 year old rappers talking about Gucci." And he is, after all, just one member. Consider Frank Ocean, whose Nostalgia ULTRA mixtape's cover features a car that's more Basildon than Beverley Hills. Let's not forget too that Ocean now mixes with the likes of Kanye West and Jay Z, men who do charitable work and, while not shy of spending their hard-earned cash, do not necessarily live up to the materialist cliché. Compared to our very own Prince Regent and future King George IV, Sir Elton John, or Boris Johnson's hair, they're positively modest. After all, what of our top-and-tails-sporting Prime Minister, whose Tuscan tan certainly didn't come for free - unlike the free mixtape culture that's now so much a part of hip hop.

So while Routledge has clearly fished his article out of a folder of pre-prepared drafts titled "In Case Of Inner City Violence", we at the Quietus have, in the course of our conversations over the past couple of days, landed upon a pop culture phenomenon that can be seen in this frustrated, selfish violence. It would be of course be barmy - nay Routledgian to say that this week's chart topping hit by Cher Lloyd was a coded signal to go and loot a bunch of swag from Jaegar. Yet with the X Factor marketing machine once more hoisting a turd like 'Swagger Jagger' to the top of the charts and filling Simon Cowell's pockets at the time same time, and another series of Big Brother about to begin today, it is not far fetched to see a connection between the kind of materialist society that breeds the violence and looting we have seen across Britain this week, and reality television programmes.

I would add to this searing dissection of the impact of 2011's British materialist society, published in the wake of the violence, that X Factor, Big Brother and their ilk are the broadcast manifestations of a culture that prides superficiality and materialistic show over community spirit, talent and creative, considered thought

You do not become a hero on Big Brother through achieving anything worthwhile. Instead, fleeting fame is given to whoever shouts the loudest, or best degrades themselves for the hooting mob sat at home watching on the flat screen TVs so popular with this week's looters. On the night of broadcast of X Factor episodes, The Quietus Twitter feed is awash with comment from those of whom we follow who are bizarrely obsessed with the polished, tightly orchestrated programme. As much as some might claim otherwise, this is not evidence of music bringing people together, or the creation of a community. Instead, they are a modern take on the 4.32 Hanging Special from Liverpool Street, or the circus freak show. Celebrity culture and reality television are symptomatic of a selfish society that can lead teenagers to mug an injured passer-by. They have not learned this from hip hop, but from a culture that demands you feel insecure about your lack of ability to purchase what you are told you need, just as it delights in picking on the weak and humiliating the different.

Divide and rule, humiliation and hierarchy, dreams that are easily crushed and nearly impossible to realise: these are the methods of late capitalism as manifested through reality TV and talent contest. The deeper the humiliation, the more degrading the act, the more mockable the contestants, the greater the fiscal reward for the companies that control the phone-ins, the single sales, the endless, self-perpetuating and dreg-gathering tabloid coverage as practiced by Mr Routledge and his ilk.

To say, as many friends of The Quietus and apologists in the broadsheet press often do, that reality TV is merely the broadcasters giving people what they want is to insult millions by linking class and intelligence. Instead, it is the television signal bouncing around the intellectual and aesthetic void in which we increasingly live, in all aspects of life.

Just as reality television rewards banality and the uniform, so we live in cities that all now resemble each other. How can you have pride in your community when your high street could be anywhere, just as the songs of your culture all sound the same? Reality television, unlike hip hop (Wu Tang's philosophy, Public Enemy's politics, Odd Future's complex internal rhymes schemes and word play), shies away from any hint of the intellectual, kneels before King Moron, and serves only to maximise profit for a few who, one suspects, despise what they are making, and mock those who consume it.

Yet this week has, curiously, been a week when we have in fact seen many British heroes on our television screens. The people refusing to be silenced as they question the politicians making walkabouts of their damaged neighbourhoods. The Muslims and Jews joining forces to protect a synagogue in Stamford Hill. The lady who has been watched by 1.5 million people on YouTube berating the rioters in Hackney. And perhaps best of all, a different kind of reality TV, showing British people performing at their very best.

Sangat TV, a community channel ran by the Sikhs of Birmingham, has been broadcasting constantly through the disturbances, from cars driving around the city reporting on the violence, and talking to local people of many communities, many faiths. The unifying theme of the ad-hoc discussions on limited budgets has been of pride, pride in being British, pride in standing up to would-be miscreants, pride in religions putting aside their differences. The programming is interrupted by adverts, cheaply made, for local business and butter ghee. And what's more, unlike the X Factor or Big Brother, it has a pretty nifty soundtrack.