amy winehouse, analogue vs digital, Avon vs Stringer, Edward Burra, Gil Scott Heron, Harry Belafonte, history and style vs fashion, iPod, Jayaben Desai, Lonsdale, Marvin Gaye, music, Pauline Black, Ron Hardy, Sam Selvon, skinheads, The Wire, two-tone ska, Zoot-suits
Visuals without vocals? Vocals without visuals?
Ok. So Marvin was handsome. Sam Cooke too. And over the years many a tribute has been paid to the beauty of a Belafonte, or an Ali, but the fact remains: without their deeds, the righteous anger, the slings and arrows, the extraordinary vocal feats, theirs would just be more lives regarded like so many others in an endless colloquium of the mundane. ‘Yeah the fella could box/act/sing a bit, but so what?’
Of late the landscape unfolding before many of us seems to have gone a similar ‘so what’ route. If social media, the ‘news’ or the evidence confronting one’s own eyes is anything to go by, we’re currently mired in a shitpit of despond.
And the key culprit?
Fashion – that deadly link between neoliberalism and culture.
The exemplar of all that is most wrong with this culture. Even that hoary old cheerleader for the contemporary, Simon Reynolds, concedes its toxic reach as the plant and machinery of ‘cultural capital’: there’s no hiding from fashion’s colonisation of space and time; its asset-stripping of the historical past; its rapid cycles of ‘engineered obsolescence’ – that’s just so last season/month/week.
Hardwired into its DNA, the hyper-acceleration of digital life; that curious combination of speed and stasis that encapsulates digi-culture’s furious impatience with the present – the constant ‘refreshing’ of web pages; the skimming of text; the widespread inability of the ‘networked’ generation to hold even the simplest of conversations when shorn of the omnicrutch of social media.
And at the more psychotic end of the spectrum, postcode murder as a peculiarly grisly ‘narcissism of minor differences’.
Bal’eads fighting over a comb, basically. But with deadly consequences.
We’re left smarting from the dismal lack of imagination that fuels such violence but which really also belongs to the overwheening narcissism of ‘fashionistas’. It feels more honest to say that whilst these appear on the surface to be distinct tribes, they are in reality very much cut from one cloth. That’s why their near-permanent dissatisfaction with the present, the obsession with nothing in particular – this postcode versus that – is also manifested in the rapid obsolescence of clothes: the dreaded ‘fashion cycle’ with a metabolism worthy of an old-time, cardiac-inducing set by Ron Hardy. And a vapid acquiescence with utterly fabricated conventions – what’s ‘now’, what’s not, what’s where, where’s not – becoming the unquestioned gospel for all the tribes.
Yet if all is truly ‘trending towards obsessive’, perhaps this is a good moment to ponder the increasingly wise-sounding words of literary philosopher, George Santayana (originally musing on the workings of the ‘puritan mind’), that ‘a fanatic is one who re-doubles his efforts when he has lost sight of his aims‘.
In its own way that could equally describe the self-appointed hipster or street ‘soulja’, conjoined in their regimentation of everyday life to the flimsiest pastiche of ‘outsider art’. As fake as the Lonsdale that used to be on offer down Lewisham market, but nowhere near as funny.
A quick point about fashion. Yes it’s always been there, and yes, folk have always purred and preened. But it’s been there, and been used, highly imaginatively, in conjunction with so many other expressive forms – with great literature, films, music and often with seismic social upheaval. At times too it has exerted its own tectonic appraisal of society. Zoot-suiters and modernists; skinheads and soulboys – tribes who instinctively understood that ‘style is grace under pressure’. That’s why it mattered. Back in the day, it was never purely about the look.
A jauntily perched trilby or a sari worn under thick layers can, and frequently does, tell you so much more about lives lived, struggles fought and landscapes renewed. Before surface became king, analogue life in its leftfield glory could indeed feel like some kind of feasting with panthers.
There’s triumph and tribulation; tea and two-tone. Smiley (R.I.P) and Apachi, style and patter, from Saxon Studio to the original nuttah; Harlem throwing Spanish shapes and Pauline hipping us to Coventry chiaroscuro; Roy and Norman, sipping cha and spinning platters. The beauty of the dawn chorus in Bengal; the grit of Jayaben Desai or the wonder of Amy. Gil and Sam, all lyric and heart; and the dream fever of Mr Burra.
Loafing and living, fighting and loving, and beneath it all,
the whisper of Avon to Stringer.