Why are manufactured boy bands and girl bands so utterly objectionable? Why do they gall us so much? How can the sight of Westlife send us into inexplicable paroxysms of rage?
Railing against the onslaught of pop-clones is a difficult task, perhaps because it’s so hard to articulate precisely why we hold these â€˜bandsâ€™ in such utter contempt. When someone expresses their abject hatred of whatever group of automatons the Louis Walsh sausage factory (the Irish manager who brought us Boyzone, Westlife, Samantha Mumba, etc) has spat out this month, he is rapidly censured for being a whiner and a jealous begrudger. This accusation of jealousy tends to leave the ‘jealous begrudger’ with his mouth flapping.
I believe that the proliferation of manufactured boy and girl bands actually represents a serious threat to our society. I believe that they, in conjunction with the general takeover of the creative arts and mass media by marketing people, are a direct attack on the core values of our western democratic societies, seeking to stifle free speech, reduce choice and strangle the arts.
Marketing over Reality
I believe that Louis Walsh and the army of ‘suits’ like him are spearheading a war, to control the environment we live in, the books we read, the television that we watch, the music we listen to and the clothes we wear. This is a war where the ultimate goal is the triumph of marketing over reality, of the surface over the substance, of spin over truth. Where we are being coerced into accepting with feckless abandon Andy Warholâ€™s concept of the â€˜fifteen minutes of fameâ€™, a term which, I believe, he meant in ridicule not celebration. And I believe that, for now at least, we are losing the war.
Why do such apparently innocent groups of teenagers seem so threatening? What exactly is it about the likes of Six, Bewitched, Hearsay and Girls Aloud that is so worrying? Perhaps much of this depends on your feelings about music. Me, I love music. It has been, and always will be, an integral part of my life. I listen to it, I buy it and sometimes (when I get delusions of grandeur) I even try to play it. I believe that music has been and can be a liberating force for good. I believe that ultimately music can be an agent for social change.
Now, before you start sneering or before you despair that this is going to turn into some sort of U2-like â€˜Rock nâ€™ roll changes George Bushâ€™s mindâ€™ polemic, letâ€™s just quickly remind ourselves about the role of music in recent popular culture and history. To do this you need only look for the telling reactions of those in positions of authority. The 1950s saw Elvisâ€™ gyrating hip-movements banned from television and saw Rock nâ€™ Roll branded (an interesting word that we will come back to) as the work of Satan.
Some would now suggest that Rock nâ€™ Roll helped liberate an entire generation of American youth from the stultifying shackles of 1950s conservatism: that it was a youthful two fingers to the prevalent atmosphere of the witch-hunt-obsessed McCarthy era. Some suggest that the explosion of youth culture in 1950s America helped solidify the generation that would come to protest against and help stop the Vietnam War a decade later.
What about John Lennon? The FBI considered it necessary to keep a file on him running into hundreds of pages. What about the American anti-war culture of the 60s and 70s featuring such luminaries as Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie? There are a multitude of other examples, too numerous to mention and I am sure that you can think of your own. Whoever you think of, the point stands that popular music can be a force for generating debate, informing and raising hell against the status quo.
In recent times, the British establishment was falling over itself in the rush to blame the music of black Britain for the terrifying rise in gun crime. As any sane person knows, this has far more to do with drugs, lack of education, crime and social exclusion than anything that the folks at So Solid Crew say.
In this new age of marketing supremacy, where the United Nations has seen fit to appoint ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell as a ‘goodwill ambassador’ and where Will Young can butcher Doors numbers with impunity, no such dissenting voices seem to be heard in the mainstream. Perhaps this new brand of chart toppers do not posses the ability to think or speak for themselves.
As a sweet little example, consider the final episode of the Irish Popstars show in 2002. As we all know, young Nadine lied about her age in order to get into the band and when she made a much-publicised gaff about her date of birth, the game was up and she was out. The telling moment came when one of the other band members attempted to persuade the record company that she should be retained in the interest of band cohesion. A record company lawyer promptly put him in his place, and any squeak of youthful defiance was ruthlessly extinguished.
The members of Six are not members of a band. They are employees. Employees of a company, and as such they must tow the corporate line and say what they are told to say, do what they are told to do and wear what they are told to wear. As a group of people held aloft as role models for kids, they singularly fail to inspire. The music industry, (and itsâ€™ main engine pop music) once a force for social change, has been emasculated and left utterly impotent.
Now, the voices that we hear sing from the hymnal of a marketing department strategic plan. They have branded â€˜wildnessâ€™ and strategically drip-feed it to boy band members who desperately need some street cred. They have branded â€˜revolutionâ€™ and use it to sell soft drinks. They have branded ‘youth’ and sell it to us one CD at a time.
An Axis of Weasels
This core group of marketing people represent an ‘Axis of Weasels’ who care for one thing, and one thing only: getting their hands on your money. They donâ€™t want you to think. They donâ€™t want you to debate. They donâ€™t want you to do anything other than get your wallet out.
In a new age where American presidents can talk about pre-emptive nuclear strikes and not face international censure for doing so, we need a generation of people who possess the ability to be critical, engaged and ready to debate. We do not need a generation raised on the values of the marketing industry, which represent nothing other than consumption, slavery to fashion and mendacity.
We are told that teenagers are the main buyer of the Pop-pap PLC product. If this is so, then isnâ€™t it reasonable to enquire about the kind of messages this â€˜musicâ€™ is giving them? Now relax, this isnâ€™t going to turn into a Mary Whitehouse â€˜will someone please think of the childrenâ€™ thing. But, one does have to ask questions about the general progress of civilisation in the last few decades. I
n the 60s and 70s John Lennon had half the worldsâ€™ teenagers singing â€˜All you need is loveâ€™ and â€˜Imagineâ€™ and we have Avril Lavigne harping on about her affections for someone called â€˜sk8rboiâ€™ and the Cheeky girls bleating about their arses.
Tits and Arse
Letâ€™s talk a little bit about the image that these manufactured bands portray. Nudity, nakedness, a state of undress, showing some skin. Call it what you want, but getting your kit off is an integral part of the manufactured band membersâ€™ duties. There was a time, (if you will allow me to indulge in a moment of misty-eyed nostalgia) when ‘getting them out for the punters’ was the final resort of pop-starlets with fading careers, who introduced some jiggling flesh into the mix to bolster sales. For examples, see Kylieâ€™s arse, Robbieâ€™s muscles and Geriâ€™s frightening transformation from curvy attractive woman to biro-refill with teeth.
These days a new generation of â€˜starsâ€™ have cut to the chase and now produce the goods at the first opportunity. A fine example is the Australian singer Holly Valance who saw fit to show the world her birthday suit in her first video. An even further extension of this crass trouser teasing is the hideous â€˜paedo-popâ€™ Russian duo â€˜Tatuâ€™ who despite their carefully crafted school disco/Lolita image are about as sexually attractive as a dead badger.
Restless and Hungry
Evidently, the marketing people are growing restless in their pursuit of cash, and have decided to dispense ‘music’ altogether and to just get straight to the soft porn.
So whatâ€™s the problem you say? Whatâ€™s so wrong with looking at Holly Valance? Sure, isnâ€™t she the real winner because she is making a bag of cash from silly drooling men with too much money? Isnâ€™t Kylie a model for us all seeing that a woman of her age can succeed so well in an industry that traditionally favours more youthful specimens of popdom?
Well, my problem lies not with nudity or issues of censorship. I profoundly believe that I should have the right see, read and say what I want. Otherwise, my freedom of speech and thus my freedom of thought are curtailed. So, by extension of that logic, the marketing men have the right to make these low-budget skin flicks, donâ€™t they? Well yes they do. However, that same freedom of speech which I hold so dear also grants me the right to tear the arse out of these people and that is just what I intend to do.
Nudity and Power
My problem lies with the implicit meanings and power structures that underlie such marketing manoeuvres. Naomi Wolf, in her book The Beauty Myth, makes some fascinating observations about the history and links between nudity and power. She argues that throughout history, wherever you wish to seek evidence of slavery and servitude you need look no further than those who are naked: black slaves serving their white masters.
Women captured as prisoners of war paraded before the conquering armies. My mind returns to the now infamous image of Louis Walsh parading the six members of the original Boyzone before the Irish nation on the Late Late show, many of them half naked and greased up like oven-ready turkeys.
This was Louisâ€™ moment of triumph, the pimp parading his whores, like Oliver Reed parading his Gladiators before the mob. This was also the beginning of the end, because we accepted it. Our smirking silence implicitly condoned this pathetic display of talentless twaddle. In that moment, Ireland printed the license for Louis Walsh and his army of grasping, biting, crawling low-lifes to do whatever they wanted and to drag any dead horse before us for sale. Marketing 1: Talent 0.
Itâ€™s not too late. We can still fight this. We have a choice. You donâ€™t have to watch MTV. You donâ€™t have to pander to the mob. You have the ability to say no. When you say no, you may find that you also have the ability to say just a little bit more than even that.
You have the ability to look at something, think about it and pronounce with complete self-assurance that that something is â€™crapâ€™. As Bill Hicks said, â€˜you are rightâ€™. You do possess the ability to decide, to choose and to lash back. Think about it. Use that choice. See how you feel. You might like the results.
However, one thing is for sure. Enough is enough. Louis, this is war…