A U T O N O M Y
I T H N E
Mark Fisher detects signs of a new underground resistance that’s better equipped than the old protest music models to tackle the political realities behind a year of unrest and riots
The image has cracked: Ealing, London, August
When the Real rushes in, everything feels like a film: not a film you’re watching, but a film you’re in. Suddenly, the screens insulating we late capitalist spectators from the Real of antagonism and violence fell away. Since the student revolts in late 2010, helicopters, sirens and loudhailers have intermittently broken the phony peace of post-crash London. To locate the unrest spreading across the capital, you just had to follow the Walter Murch-chunter of chopper blades... So many times during 2011, you found yourself hooked to news reports that resembled the scene-setting ambience in an apocalyptic flick: dictators falling, economies crashing, fascist serial killers murdering teenagers. The news was now more compelling than most fiction, and also more implausible: the plot was moving too quickly to be believable. But the sheen of unreality it generated was nothing more than the signature of the unscreened Real itself.
Sound was at the core of one of the year’s momentous stories, the still unravelling ‘Hackgate’ narrative of national newspaper journalists caught out cracking the mobile phone messages of public figures and the grieving relatives of crime victims for story leads. After Hackgate, the UK power elite looked like something out of David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet or The Wire television series (which itself turned on the moral issues of secretly recording phone conversations). The complicities of interest and mutual fear exposed by the phone hacking story brought to mind the party scene in the 1974 episode of Channel 4’s TV adaptation of the Peace quartet, where the illicit hedonism and skullduggery of cops, hacks, corporate plutocrats, private investigators – friends and ostensible adversaries – illustrated the true meaning of David Cameron’s notorious phrase “we’re all in this together”. In 2011, we were living the film; all that was missing was the soundtrack.
At the end of 2010, the BBC’s economics editor Paul Mason wrote a blog post called “Dubstep Rebellion”, which described a pivotal moment he witnessed in the 9 December student protests: when the “crucial jack plug” of a sound system playing “political right-on reggae”, was pulled by a “new crowd – in which the oldest person is maybe 17”, and replaced it with what he mistakenly believed to be dubstep. He was corrected by Guardian contributor and author of Kettled Youth, Dan Hancox, whose own blog posted a playlist of the tracks he heard at the same protest. They turned out to be mostly Grime and dancehall (Lethal B, Elephant Man, Vybz Kartel), alongside chart rap and R&B such as Rihanna and Nikki Minaj. What’s striking is the lack of explicit political content in any of this music. Yet Grime, dancehall and R&B have a grip on the present in the way that older forms of selfconsciously political music don’t, and here is the impasse. It’s as if we’re left with a choice between the increasingly played-out feel of ‘politically engaged’ music and the sound of the present. In the past year alone, The Guardian has run numerous articles bemoaning the lack of ‘protest’ music, but for many of us, ‘protest’ has always been a rather pallid model of what political music could be. Besides, it’s not protest music that has disappeared: go to the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s and you won’t find a shortage of acoustic guitars. What’s missing is a specifically 21st century form of political music. While some Grime tracks can be understood as having a political message, for the most part the genre’s political significance lies in the emotions – of rage, frustration and resentment – to which it gives voice. By contrast with US hiphop, Grime remains a loeD eweMathews/Panos
38 | The Wire | 2011 Rewind