Skip to main content

New and old, big and small

Russell mentioned a piece by W. David Marx about Generation X which I liked a lot, predictably, having always been a sucker for anything about Gen X.

I was taken with it as a description not of a generation, but of…

a broader movement in American society to redefine cultural capital from high-society manners and high art to a more inclusive, ever-curious collection of intellectual and quasi-intellectual ideas. … And this focus on cultural capital also explains why the ’90s became such a fecund cultural decade: Individuals who believe in the superiority of crate-digging — i.e. the intense search for deep cultural knowledge — end up breaking established artistic conventions rather than replicating them.

And then how the next generation reacted:

Gen Y would end up rebelling against these “aristocratic” values. There was an immediate backlash in the early 2000s against the pretensions of indie culture. Big Pop was back.

This reminded me of a bit from David Cavanagh’s Good Night and Good Riddance which I’m still reading, a year or two a night. Last night I read about 1985, which included mention of the previous Christmas’s Band Aid, the “all-star famine-aid single”. From reading it, this felt like the start of a big mainstream/indie cultural split.

On [Bob] Geldof’s and [Midge] Ure’s side of the industry, a [John] Peel show in 1985 is less than irrelevant. Why does he play music that doesn’t sell? Why does he promote artists who refuse to be commercial?

On the other side of the barrier, the perspective is turned on its head. The Top 40 is derided. Videos are cheesy embarrassments … The blandness of modern pop alienates a generation of ears attuned to punk, while the grinning, winking camaraderie of the stars in the Band Aid video nauseates their peers in the indie sector who wonder what the hell there is to smile about.

The Eighties have split into two. Indie is no longer just an abbreviation for “independent”. It’s not just a style of music… For many it’s a political choice and a way of life.

I’ve no doubt plenty has been written about these cultural splits – I’ve probably read and forgotten a lot of it – but I was taken by the parallels. I’m guessing that when this book reaches the 1990s it will talk about these two worlds merging somewhat – Britpop, indie labels bought by majors, the growth of Glastonbury and other festivals, etc.

And so it goes on to the 21st century where the idea of there being only two broad parts of popular culture – mainstream and indie – seems quaint. On the one hand there’s no division, just a single culture: everything, new and old, big and small, is equally accessible to everyone. On the other there are innumerable different cultures, with many making no sense at all unless you’re immersed deep into it. Back to Marx:

This brings us to today, where the loudest complaints about “cultural stasis” tend to come from Gen X adults whose cultural interests have long been anchored in obscure and openly-artistic cultural forms. From their perspective, today’s cultural capital does feel very tame. Being “with it” requires listening to top-charting albums, watching blockbuster movies, and being well-versed in internet memes.

I also want to connect this somehow to a split in British culture, and identifying when that happened. Has it always been there? If not, is it possible to identify an event when it began, or when a shift happened? Some possibilities:

  • Most recently and obviously, there’s 2016’s Brexit vote, the division of the country into two.

  • There’s the 2012 London Olympics’ opening ceremony which many of “us” thought was a brilliant multicultural celebration of all that’s great about the country but which, in retrospect, feels to me more like one side of a simmering cultural debate having a great time, while the other grumbled quietly, biding its time until it later “won” Brexit.

  • There’s 1997’s death of Princess Diana and the massive, obsessive demonstrations of mourning which, to one side seemed bizarre, over-the-top and slightly scary.

  • Perhaps, then, we can pinpoint 1984/5 and Band Aid and/or Live Aid as a moment exemplifying a forking of culture into mainstream and indie, bad and good (or vice versa), conservative and open-to-new-things. I don’t think I’ve quite hit this possible target but it feels like a close miss.

Maybe there is no single start and someone who’s better read than me can trace this back decade after decade. And so maybe these events – and others – are markers, a way to calibrate just how divided the country is getting over time.

Anyway (as Russell would say).

Mentions elsewhere (Webmentions?)


    Phil digs around the cultural splits mentioned previously, going beyond generations to all the us and thems and mainstream and …

Mention this post

If you’ve mentioned this post somewhere, enter the URL here to let me know: