Tuesday, 1 November 2011

EMI, post-imperial reassurance and the ruling class

I loathe the idea - currently being promoted by vast swathes of the British media - that I am supposed to care about EMI, or to see any kind of moral distinction between exploitative, short-term capitalists based on which country they come from (Guy Hands' practices were arguably worse than the worst 1950s caricature of the rootless American, itself so often shorthand for anti-Semitism), or to think of pop music predominately in terms of the industry rather than the music itself, or to view pop music as predominately a tool of nationalism and the ruling class rather than a form in which the oppressed classes of the world can unite and reject petty nationalism (even more so when it comes from within their own social backgrounds than when it is promoted by elites). Let EMI be carved up between American and Russian ultra-capitalists. Wholly unlike pop music itself, EMI isn't worth saving; quite apart from anything else, the form it has taken is a threat to everything that has ever made pop music a progressive, liberating force, and a barrier to representative popular art.

The fact that EMI was the sole British survivor in its field from the era of limited capitalism within national borders to have remained a dominant force in the era of uncontrolled capitalism which knows no borders whatsoever has enabled a huge amount of sentimental mythology to surround it, which promotes pop music as something it never was (and indeed never could have been, and defined itself by not being for most of its first thirty years), and fundamentally ignores the cultural process that brought that music into being. Listen to most of the people crying crocodile tears over EMI - the same people who thought it was a moral outrage when a company producing tasteless, badly-made pseudo-"chocolate" was acquired by a set of capitalists who theoretically owed allegiance to a different country from that the previous lot theoretically owed allegiance to, but actively support the sell-off of the National Health Service - and you'd think the Beatles, without whom EMI would have been absorbed, almost unnoticed, decades ago, were a bunch of merry Olde Englishe grateful peasants, happily chirruping nonny-nonny-no and annually laying a wreath at the old squire's grave.

The reality is that not only did the Beatles represent a fundamental rejection of Little Englander nationalism and the idea that the mass of people should be subservient to the ruling class - something implicitly believed by those who have little interest in the creative arts themselves but plenty of interest in ensuring that their gatekeepers will always be exactly the same people acting in exactly the same way - but that even they might not have been enough for EMI to last this long had the British company not also owned their US label, Capitol. We all know that Decca had first refusal on the Beatles, and that had they taken up their option they might have survived until now whereas EMI might have disintegrated, unnoticed, at the dawn of the Thatcher era after years of stagnation, but the real serendipity for EMI was that they had acquired Capitol some years earlier, in a rare example of a declining power absorbing part of its usurper's business. Accordingly, the Beatles' US income - which was where their real money came from - could ultimately remain part of, and be ploughed back into, the British company that had signed them. This is a rarely-acknowledged truth for the precise reason that it points out a deeper truth that would bring the Tory distortion of pop's legacy crashing down; even half a century ago, Britain was already a ghost of a nation, which could do nothing meaningful on its own terms, and the "British Invasion" was really a momentary papering over the cracks rather than any kind of meaningful rebirth. The fact that it was the only way a Britain exiled from Europe could make any significant money or earn any significant international kudos for itself only makes the foundation stones of the modern EMI all the more retrospectively chimaeric.

Ian Gilmour was undoubtedly right when he wrote in 2003 that had the British been more nationalistic twenty or thirty years before, and prevented much of their mass media and entertainment industry falling into foreign hands, they would have been less nationalistic by then, because they would have had much more genuinely of their own and therefore much less need to fall back on kneejerk, vicious tabloid Two Minutes' Hate. This applies, if anything, even more perfectly to the role pop music has played in the creation of the current version of Toryism. Imagine if the British had not embraced the most obvious, most consumerist version of pop with such totality and fervour - demanding the impossible, but predominately, for the mass, of capitalism rather than socialism - during the quarter-century between Suez and the Falklands, and had instead shown a greater appetite than they actually did for new hybrid forms which were nonetheless more heavily rooted in earlier British culture (a Britain where Fairport would have had bigger hits than Free, perhaps). In such a world, much of the nationalism that surrounds those who would preserve EMI from the economic policies they normally cheer on wholeheartedly - Our Music, Not Like All That Nasty Foreign Muck (without which not a note of it would ever have been recorded, of course) - would not have had the chance to grow, because the British would have had enough that was unobtrusively, proudly but harmlessly their own that they wouldn't have needed it.

But even if you have a more positive view of pop's first quarter-century than displayed above - and I do myself, much of the time - few could deny that the cycle has been broken and that the EMI myth is at the heart of that process. In the last ten years, the epicentre of EMI's role at the core of the greatest nationalistic distortion of an open-minded, liberal-internationalist form since First World War flagwavers began the never-ending distortion of Elgar has been Coldplay, a phenomenon as crucial to the creation of the current form of Toryism as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies "thinking the unthinkable" were to the last reinvention of that movement. The reason why so many of us genuinely believed, for a while, that the Tories might never get back in was that after 1997 it was obvious that no government peddling an essentially pre-pop vision of Britain could ever be elected, and for a long time it looked as though the Tories would never be able to reconcile themselves with pop's legacy, which still had a residual hint of egalitarianism (even if never socialism) about it. Had it not been for the wave of ruling-class scions denuding pop of any hint of its original political meaning, and refuting any belief in the solidarity with the oppressed peoples of all countries (and against the ever-more global ruling class) which underpinned every note the Beatles played, that reconciliation might have been postponed forever.

Through enabling the creation of a whole new establishment culture - with just the right crumbs thrown at the proles just often enough to make themselves look "inclusive" (Chris Martin's regular association of himself with "urban" acts is surely the model for the Cameronite house "ethnics"), and through combining a passive, uncritical consumption of mass culture with passive-aggressive, One Of Our Own flagwaving - EMI and Coldplay, with the latter carrying the former's flag as a cypher for the Union flag itself, have effectively allowed the current government and all it stands for to develop almost from nowhere. Yes, Billboard can point out they've got Professor Green as well, but those who think EMI is some great national asset, a St Paul's for the modern secular religion, couldn't care less about (even) him. The objectively pro-ruling class - and thus anti-Beatles and, ultimately (even considering what pop meant for the Neil Sedaka or David Cassidy fans, the Photoplay Film Monthly readers, the white picket fence dreamers) anti-pop - reporting of EMI's likely defenestration is telling me that I should care about Coldplay's contract being in the hands of a part of the capitalist elite based in one part of the world rather than another, even though Coldplay's music could have been made by and for the ruling class pretty much everywhere (but not by or for the oppressed classes anywhere). What can be said about an idea of nation that has been reduced to this?

I never thought anything could be worse than old-fashioned British nationalism. I was wrong. Pop British nationalism is, and almost every word written about EMI proves it. Let it, and EMI, rot.

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