Clampdown: Britpop Culture Wars, Kenickie & Shampoo

In an extract from her new book, Rhian E Jones discusses the relationship between Britpop culture - via Shampoo and Kenickie - social class and gender

This is an edited extract from Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender (zer0 Books, March 2013). The book looks at representations of class and gender in the politics and popular culture of 90s and 00s Britain, how these representations became increasingly narrow, restricted, and reliant on stereotypes, and how this development relates to the more recent debate on ‘chavs’.

Good taste is death, vulgarity is life: Shampoo and Kenickie

As Britpop’s tentacles uncoiled, extending from Camden into the wider world of New Labour, New Britain, its music grew to reflect and reinforce a wider cultural turn which rejected the perceived stifling excesses of 80s ‘political correctness’ in favour of the hollow postfeminist triumphalism of ‘girl power’ on one hand, and, on the other, ‘new laddism’. In the course of this, women artists tended to be squeezed to the margins, and their media presentation restricted, both by the elevation of ‘lad bands’ and the focus on male key players and kingmakers, and by the fact that the transformation of the UK independent scene into moneyspinning ‘indie’ was taking place alongside an odd concordance of feminism and neoliberalism, in which the former’s relationship with capitalism moved from critique towards accommodation. This latter trend saw the peppy and profitable brand of ‘girl power’ promoted as a depoliticised, nonthreatening form of feminism, a recuperation which not only displaced the explicitly political music of riot grrrl but also edged out other pre-existing alternative and less commercial expressions of female identity. In 90s indie, and in early Britpop, voices which diverged both from the vacant consumerism of ‘girl power’ and from new laddism’s deferent camp follower, the ‘ladette’, were heard alongside those by whom they appear to have been retrospectively drowned out.

Kenickie, a pop-aspirational indie band with wit, swagger and style to spare, and Shampoo, a mock-delinquent duo from the London suburb of Plumstead, both seemed more fully their own created cartoon, more at home in their proto-‘chav’ drag, than Jessie J or Lily Allen later appeared. Contemporary interviews often found half-baffled, half-seduced middle-class male journalists in awe of the bands’ offstage inhabiting of their onstage personae: rather than stereotypes of exoticised others, they were opting to play the pantomime versions of themselves. Both Shampoo and Kenickie were grounded in appreciation of the Manic Street Preachers’ escapist proletarian-glam aesthetic, both were able to articulate the experiences of suburban or provincial girls in fearless, loving awe of what the city and the future had to offer, and both embodied one music writer’s identification of ‘that terrifying stage where teenage girls are half-human, half-rat’.

Shampoo, remembered mostly for the bubblegum-punk perfection of their third single ‘Trouble’, were snottily disdainful of anyone over twenty-one and of anyone ‘still hanging out in Camden Town’. Jacqui Blake and Carrie Askew (their individual names seemed secondary to the bulletproof united front they presented) were informed by protective self-parody rather than stereotype, pouting and glowering in clashing styles and colours, a kitsch riot of fluorescent wigs, peroxide, high ponytails, dark sunglasses, animal print and glitter. Their songs were equally cartoonish, an escapist anatomy of the inane and mundane, staying out all night and staggering home at dawn to face the music, ‘running wild in the city’ and, in a line of splendidly evocative economy, ‘throwing up your kebab in a shiny taxi cab’. Hyper and combative where Elastica were laid-back, Shampoo’s music and image nevertheless evinced a similar kind of unimpressed and half-amused self-possession, offering no entry point for the vulnerability of sentiment or idealism. Their defensive, misfit outsiderdom lent itself to laconic lyrical viciousness: on ‘Dirty Old Love Song’ they casually skewered the very clichés which teenage girls were meant to swallow whole, and ‘Skinny White Thing’ derided proto-hipster culture with all the bored, bitchy observational accuracy of the playground and the small-town shopping centre sharpened into cutting critique. ‘Girl power’, before that term’s hijacking by the Spice Girls, had featured in the work of Swansea Ramones-botherers Helen Love, a band whose finest moment was to be Long Live the UK Music Scene, a 1998 reel around Britpop’s funeral pyre. Girl Power was also the title of Shampoo’s 1995 second album and its lead single. Although they were by this point a major label novelty act, Shampoo’s dour and dead-eyed anthem of ‘girl power’ as license for antisocial truculence (‘I don’t wanna go to college, don’t wanna get a job’, ‘I wanna smash the place up just for fun’) stood instructive comparison with the Spice Girls’ tamed and defanged brand of empowerment through consumerism, as well as mocking contemporary anxieties over female delinquency.

Kenickie began, like Elastica, as three girls with guitars and an unassuming boy drummer, forming in Sunderland in the summer of 1994. Like the Manics before them and the Libertines after them, Kenickie oozed Last Gang in Town glamour, but theirs was a distinctly girl gang: sticky cocktails and stick-on spangles rather than spilled pints and regrettable tattoos. Their acknowledgement of Courtney Love as a basis for their blend of charity shop chic and highstreet fashion also indicates the ways in which they extended the lessons of riot grrrl beyond that scene’s demographic. Kenickie excelled at anatomising female self-loathing in its biological and social forms, and at fashioning sleek, fierce paeans to poised and self-possessed female independence. Where Shampoo were wilfully dumb and impenetrably obnoxious in their music and presentation, Kenickie offered greater intricacy, sympathy, intrigue and vulnerability. Their songs were full of the competing impulses of self-belief and self-doubt that blight adolescence, each presented in its respective natural habitat: streetlight-bright and PVC-shiny nights out with no coats on versus shadowy dawns full of shivering sleepless regret. The music, like the subject matter, ranged from brash and upfront to achingly romantic to grittily bleak, mixing spiky guitars and shiny blasts of brass with silvery swirls of keyboard and girl-group harmonies and handclaps. And they were as unapologetically sharp, witty and smart as they were sexy. In a teenage world stuck for role models between the Spice Girls’ sham sisterhood and Sleeper’s smug potshots at suburban cliché, Kenickie’s attitude and aesthetic, as well as their music, did as much to outline my potential agency and autonomy as any feminist tome or broadsheet editorial I read.

The London music press tended to hymn Kenickie to the skies, as though the capacity of regional-accented girls for wit and articulacy came as some surprise. The band themselves, however, experienced their representation as a site of struggle. As purveyors of a regional and class-infused feminine identity, Kenickie complicated attempts by the music industry and media to fit them into accepted and appropriate boxes, and lost out in the process. Their guitarist and vocalist Marie Nixon recalls: ‘Because we were girls, we had to be marketed as pop. No one would have ever asked our male contemporaries, like Ash, to model sunglasses on the Lorraine Kelly programme’. In the music press and the wider industry, Kenickie’s novelty status as ‘northern lasses’ led to an anxious objectification based on their perceived ‘tartiness’ – which, according to their bassist Emma Jackson, stemmed from a confused, because class-inflected, reading of the band’s presentation:

We realised the importance of the visual and from our inception tried to look ‘glamorous’, in our own way. We favoured short skirts, high heels and synthetic fibres – preferably in an animal print, celebrating our idea of glamour… It became obvious that EMI had worries about our image, whispers about ‘tartiness’ began to reach the band and increasingly stylists seemed to be steering us towards the knitwear sections in shops. Our maxim ‘We dress cheap, we dress tacky’ was now a commercial problem. Visually, our rather aggressive northern femininity, which was part of our appeal, had to be watered down.

Kenickie’s brassy, breezy self-expression was also presumed to signify an ‘easy’ sexuality, making them the objects of an unstable mixture of lust and disgust:

We were asked if we were in anyway like Viz’s Fat Slags, ‘only thinner’, and these were the journalists who liked us! The interviewers seemed bemused by our hostility to their question – ‘So what you’re asking us, then, is, are we slags?’ replied Lauren [Laverne, vocalist/guitarist] coolly. The asking of such a question demonstrates the reduction of all their assumptions about our perceived class, gender and regional roots to the grotesque parody of North East women in the Fat Slags comic strip. This ignored our own statements about our identity in our music.

This lack of understanding by a middle-class media of how such a comparison might be received highlights the frequent intersection of sexism and classism, whereby all women who are perceived as working-class are implicitly ‘chavs’, and all ‘chavs’ are explicitly easy. Kenickie’s female frontline, like Shampoo, had an earthy, cartoon-glam aesthetic, half Old Hollywood starlets, half explosion in Claire’s Accessories. Their particular brand of glamour was, as Susan Sontag wrote of Camp, ‘a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it’. Their towering heels, aggressively revealing outfits and lashings of makeup were worn on their own terms; a Pink Ladies-inspired protective covering rather than a puppeteered provocation. Tangled up with the roots of this look was the history of glamour as a means for ‘ordinary’ girls to dress ‘above their station’ through artifice, lavish and luxurious but popularly accessible, which did not require the backing of ‘good breeding’. In its more recent forms, this kind of glamour has become identified with either ‘vulgar’ appropriation or defiant class drag, in both cases serving to emphasise rather than disguise the class of its wearer. Carol Dyhouse’s history of the term, however, traces how glamour’s possibilities for transcending class and gender barriers generated predictable anxiety, cloaked in snobbery and appeals to national loyalty: at the height of ‘glamour’ as emulative and ambitious artifice and excess, a signifier of the upwardly-mobile and autonomous woman ‘on the make’, British Vogue encouraged its female readership to forsake this brash, democratic and over-the-top aesthetic in favour of a ‘natural English look’.

Kenickie’s songs were suffused with the idea of harnessing the escapist, aspirational glamour of the Night Out, using its imaginative appeal to transcend the grime and gloom in which one finds oneself immured. Their music offered a presentation of provincial female life crafted with sympathy and solidarity, and an insistence upon their social and sexual agency. This self-expression, coded as ‘cheap’ and ‘tacky’ but also constituting a sociologically specific idea of empowerment through glamour, was interpreted by outsiders as ‘tarty’, imparting a certain vulgar showiness, forwardness and immodesty – a judgement based on the band’s perceived working-class identity and on their deviation from hegemonic feminine conventions. Subtly but significantly different from ladettism, whose template was a doe-eyed and football-shirted take on the gamine rather than the glamour girl’s campy excess and abundance, Kenickie’s was not an identity which sat comfortably within Britpop. Like the figure of the working-class aesthete or politicised intellectual, the working-class girl who expressed a casually confident, self-possessed and independent sexuality on her own terms rather than those of lad culture struggled to find a respected place in the Britpop pantheon, even as Blur’s video for Country House enlisted glamour models to portray working-class women’s sexuality, under male direction, in the form of commodified stereotypes.

Clampdown is available from March 29, published by Zero Books

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