Thursday, 12 November 2009

Joss Stone: the legacy of capitalism's first great compromise

O. Henry said that to be really happy in this world you must have "a little country where you don't live". Britain was the first country in the world to have a predominately urban populace, yet ran in fear from the full implications of this shift almost as soon as it had happened. Joss Stone's new album Colour Me Free! - am I wrong to find this title distasteful, as if she's trying to imagine a title The Holy Sainted Aretha would have used, had she been as crass and moronic as Stone herself is, a few years after the Civil Rights Act? - entered the UK album chart at number 75.

They may not appear so to the tediously compartmentalist, but these three facts are inherently and absolutely connected. When I'm told that I shouldn't be more upset by "Rep Ya Endz" graffiti on Portland than I would be if I still lived on the Thames Estuary, I offer the defence that such an instant reaction is illogical, irrational and Neurologically Typical - in other words, everything those around me have always wanted me to become. The fact that it can come even from as logical and calculated and unemotional a creature as I am says, I think, everything that needs to be said about the society I've grown up in. I attempted to make that point here, back in the old ghost ship, but I know so much more now.

The root cause of Joss Stone's unpopularity in her home country, even while she can still have Top 10 albums in the US and some European countries, can be traced directly to the trade-off between the landed aristocracy and the new business elite which followed the Industrial Revolution. Rather than take absolute control, as their equivalents would go on to do in many of the countries which copied our original blueprint but were then able to overtake us because they weren't ravaged by the legacy of feudalism, the new elite accepted an uneasy compromise - sometimes cited, probably correctly, as the key event in British history - in which a romanticised vision of a pre-industrial countryside would retain a key cultural role wholly out of scale with its actual role in the heart-of-empire economy, or the percentage of the population who lived there. And so it has remained, carried down through the generations to the point where, even today, even amid the grand technological dissolution of geographical borders, most of our predominately urbanised populace will not accept from those who have actually grown up in that "little country where they don't live" what they take absolutely for granted from those who share their own background. As the English are now far greater "prisoners of history" than the Irish on either side of the border, so Stone, in her home country, is arguably the greatest prisoner of all.

Of course, in a fanatically market-led society such as ours all such romantic visions are bollocks - inherently culturally embedded bollocks, but bollocks all the same. At least I am a critic of global neoliberal capitalism, the serious restriction and curbing of which would be the only way it would ever be even remotely possible to reduce the impact of hip-hop etc. in the sort of communities our urbanised majority fondly imagines to be more rooted and "traditional" (whatever that word means after decades of marketing speak) than the ones they themselves live in. Those who mock Stone for what they would take as the absolute norm from Lily Allen or Amy Winehouse - or, indeed, themselves - would usually be the first to tell people like me to go live (no "and") in North Korea.

No doubt all urban populaces have a desire to imagine their countries' hinterlands as somehow shielded from the levelling effects of global neoliberal capitalism. No doubt tall poppy syndrome is at least as strong in Britain as it is in Australia (where that term originates). But I'm convinced that if Joss Stone was from Dartford - where both I and, more pertinently in this context, Mick Jagger - grew up - nobody would have batted an eyelid at her 2007 Brits appearance (Russell Brand had a nerve to take the piss, because he's part of the exact same culture as she is, but it's a sign of how embedded this psychological sense of the West Country is that it is somewhere deep inside even him), and she'd still be at number 1 as she was back when neo-feudalists invaded the House of Commons.

Not that I'd welcome that, you understand. I mean, her music is fucking tedious heritage shit. Exactly what Richard Drax and the rest of the resurgent feudal elite would want, then.

1 comment:

  1. Traditional? That word doesn't mean very much, except perhaps for 'trad rock' or whatever that trad style is called.

    I think the hinterlands are the ones that get it first. It's been happening since the 1970s, in Sue Sharpe's epilogue of "Just like a girl", where they talk about the jobs for women in places like Cornwall and Devon and the West Country in general; and East Anglia for that matter.

    Duffy is probably the same, and so is Adele. (Take your points about Winehouse and Allen).

    There is something really funny about 'tall poppy syndrome', and it is written by an expatriate columnist called Kathy Lette, who is the wife of Geoffrey Robertson. It is about how Australians and the British relate to each other, and how that has turned around over the past few years.