Rhian E. Jones is a historian and commentator on politics, music and pop culture. Her book Clampdown: Pop-cultural Wars on Class and Gender traces the drift in both politics and pop music towards a “bland, homogenous” product which serves the interests of a “complacent and privileged” establishment. She examines – and excoriates – the shrinking awareness of class and gender in independent music, particularly noting the demonization of working class women under the label of “chavette”. As actual female working class musicians were pushed from the scene, Jones points out the way their identities were adopted by other people as an ironic, caricatured style. At the same time, these grotesque media images of working class women provided a folk-devil onto which cultural anxieties could be projected, and enabled social and economic policies which saw poverty and exclusion as the result of individual moral vices. In Jones’ phrase, “class is increasingly identified by moral rather than economic or occupational factors”, a shift she sees as a revival of Victorian and Edwardian notions of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor.
There are a number of strands running through this entertaining and incisive book. Firstly there’s a concern for pop culture as a potential space for resistance, an insistence that “mass” culture isn’t simply a conveyor belt of pap designed to keep people somnolent and distracted. The epigraphs in the opening of the book from Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart and Antonio Gramsci signal her general theoretical direction and her location of real cultural activity in the uses people make of art in their lives, rather than in an aesthetic tradition which advances by formal experimentation. This is exemplified by her comments on the Lauren Cooper character, created by Catherine Tate, one of “the only relatively non-privileged mainstream comedian[s]” to draw on the stereotypes of working class women as feckless “chavettes”. Compared to Vicky Pollard from Little Britain, Lauren Cooper’s depiction is “nuanced and sympathetic”: Jones reminds readers that her appearance in a 2007 Comic Relief sketch used Lauren’s unexpected knowledge of Shakespeare’s sonnets as the punchline. (All together, now: “So BITE ME, ALIEN BOIIIII!”)
Lauren Cooper’s appropriation of “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” emphasizes the value which she can find in the sonnet, and the way she can wield it against those around her. Or, as Hoggart put it, it shows up The Uses of Literacy. For a moment, in that sketch, Shakespeare is seen as the legitimate possession of working class girls, not a source of cultural capital which can be bestowed upon them, or a means by which they “can aspire” out of their class. This connects with another concern in Jones’ writing: the way in which the term “working class” has been evacuated of any positive associations, and reframed as a marker for those who have not “aspired” sufficiently. Lauren’s break-neck recitation of the sonnet is notable because it isn’t presented as suddenly making her middle class.
This stress on the reception and use of culture doesn’t obscure another powerful strand in the book, though. Jones is insistent that it matters who is in control of cultural institutions, from TV columns to sketch shows, and that we’re heading in the wrong direction. The political shifts made by New Labour, the embracing of neoliberal economic policies and the supposed “end of ideology” by the main parties, and the 90s New Lad backlash against feminism, combine in her account to produce a toxic situation. The marginalization of working class women in the cultural sphere enables their image to become caricatured (as feckless, deviant, scrounging, threateningly ill-regulated), and the relative absence of those who can speak from this kind of experience reinforces the sense that “they” are not to be identified with “us”. The echoes of Richard Hoggart appear again in Jones’ balancing of working class cultural agency with a deep suspicion of the cultural industries which regard them as “the masses”. Amongst other things, Clampdown is a demand for more intersectional thinking, a larger dose of feminist analysis in mainstream leftist thinking, and a stronger recognition of class in feminist discussions. Both of which, she points out, can’t be understood without the lens of race.
Interwoven with this analysis is Jones’ own personal perspective. She talks about the way listening to female musicians shaped her own sense of identity:
In a teenage world stuck for role models between the Spice Girls’ sham sisterhood and Sleeper’s smug potshots at suburban cliché, Kenickie’s attitude and aesthetic, as well as their music, did as much to outline my potential agency and autonomy as any feminist tome or broadsheet editorial I read.
The middle chapters, which deal with a lot of Britpop bands I only dimly remember, both analyze the way culture interacts with people’s sense of their own potential, and chart the writer’s own experience of that process. It’s here that the most dense argument is constructed, and the most fun is to be had – even for a reader who has a truly sketchy sense of who was in what band or what the riffs sounded like, Jones’ writing really flies. The same effect happens elsewhere in Clampdown: admittedly I’m not the first reviewer to pull this line out of the book:
In the slice of South Wales where I grew up, the most substantial attempts at economic regeneration seemed to be the daffodils planted along the M4 corridor to improve the view for commuters.
But it’s still a superb encapsulation of her argument, the joke blending with a sense that the place she comes from is now being reframed as a quaint image for the benefit of people who move through it on their way to the real centres of power.
Both snippets I’ve quoted give a sense of Jones’ style. It’s tremendously fun, combining the long, epithet-laded sentences of music journalism with the outrage and epithets of political polemic, and intercutting both with the language of social analysis. Charles Shaar Murray meets Nick Cohen, if you like. Ruth Padel gets drunk with Beverley Skeggs. It has the same effect on me as reading Barbara Ehrenreich: I just want to get the pints in and demand “So what happened then?” Clampdown is a fascinating contribution to the public conversation about class, gender and pop culture, and I can’t wait to read whatever Jones writes next.