The Null Device

The Sound of Thatcherism

With 1980s sophistipop group Spandau Ballet reforming, the Graun's Michael Hann puts the boot into them for being perfect avatars of Thatcherism:
Thatcherism was about more than politics. It was, obviously, also a cultural phenomenon that transformed British society. So while one can list any number of cultural trends from the 70s or 90s without linking them irrevocably to Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, John Major and Tony Blair, that's far harder to do with the cultural products of the 80s. City wide-boys; chrome-and-black-leather furniture; mobile phones the size of bricks; me-first attitudes: those are among the fruits of Thatcherism.
To be precise, one can't blame mobile phones the sizes of bricks for Thatcherism; Britain would have had those either way, unless perhaps the government was so radically left-wing that it banned such a rampantly non-collective means of communication for ideological reasons or something.
I loathed Spandau Ballet first time round; I loathe them equally now. More than any other musical assembly with the possible exception of Stock Aitken and Waterman, they are Thatcherism on vinyl.
But the link between Spandau Ballet and Thatcherism is about more than the personal politics of Tony Hadley. It's about the emptiness of Spandau, the aspiration to do nothing more than look good in a nightclub, the happy embrace of style over substance. Billy Bragg has even attributed his decision to become a performer to them: "One day [I] saw Spandau Ballet on Top of the Pops wearing kilts and singing Chant No 1 and something in me snapped. I was waiting for a band to come along to play the kind of music I wanted to hear, and none was forthcoming, so it was that moment I finally realised it was gonna have to be me," he said at a press conference in August 2003.
And we still haven't talked about the music. We haven't mentioned the sexless funk of Chant No 1. Nor the oddly fascistic undertones of Musclebound. Nor the dreadful wine-bar soul of True, which was No 1 for four years between 1984 and 1988. And that's because, really, Spandau Ballet weren't about the music, just as chrome-and-black-leather furniture wasn't really about sitting down.
If the values of a period are associated with its music and art, one can consider certain phenomena to embody an ideology, despite not being explicitly political. Thatcherism, in this case, seemed to be about a few things: lightweight pseudo-sophistication, acquisitive materialism, and the supremacy of the market as a metaphor for all (which includes disengagement from society outside of one's role as participant in the marketplace, exaggerated awareness of one's status relative to others, and a sharklike competitiveness). In short, the iron fist of the thuggish corporate raider couched in the velvet glove of mass-produced luxury, no sensitivity or intelligence required. As such, one has the obvious Spandau Ballet (and, indeed, one could make a case for the entire "sophistipop" genre being complicit), Stock/Aitken/Waterman (more for their business acumen than anything else; after all, the whole point of Thatcherite art is success and competitiveness), and in the visual sphere, Merchant/Ivory costume dramas (which combined visual luxuriousness with the middlebrow conservatism of the median Tory voter in the 1980s) and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, similarly vacuous spectacles. As far as the literary sphere goes, one only need mention Jeffrey Archer.

When Thatcherism turned into Blairism (and it was more a generational change than a revolution), the former opposition became the new government. Musically, we got the trailing edge of Britpop, which grew out of culturally left-wing 1980s indie and into the mass market, much in the way that post-punk started with PiL, then turned into New Pop and ended with Duran Duran and our old friends, Spandau Ballet. Meanwhile, the 1980s pop of Stock/Aitken/Waterman gave way to the hip-hop-flavoured sounds of the Spice Girls and their numerous followers. (When I first heard "Wannabe", I thought that it was an old Salt'n'Pepa song.) The cycle completed itself Cinematically, film production company Working Title seemed to be the Merchant-Ivory of Blairism. Where the Thatcherite message was that everyone could aspire to luxury, the Blairite one was that everyone could aspire to coolness.

The cycle completed itself in the late days of Blairism, with bands like Coldplay and Keane, Nth generation facsimiles of the 1980s indie scene reconstituted into music for furniture showrooms; only this time, the furniture was a breezier New Labour variant, the black-leather-and-chrome fetish of the Iron Lady's reign replaced by bland, vaguely upbeat neutral tones.

There are 5 comments on "The Sound of Thatcherism":

Posted by: Niall Fri Mar 27 20:02:43 2009

I was going to disagree - until I realised you're absolutely right.

Posted by: salty spice Sat Mar 28 10:46:54 2009

Still, think of all the other bands they inspired: Alcatraz Foxtrot, Supermax Square-Dance, Lubyanka Butoh...

Posted by: salty spice Sat Mar 28 12:03:35 2009

Serious Spandologists should also note the transcription controversy regarding "True" (evident on lyrics sites across the Internet), between the Beavis school ("Huh huh huh hu-uh huh", or rarely "Huh, huh-huh, huh, uh-huh") and the Nelson Muntz school ("Ha, ha-ha, haaaa, ha"). Beavis has the numbers, but truth is not decided by majority vote!

Posted by: Greg Sun Mar 29 07:43:37 2009

Take down Spandau, sure, but be wary of singling them, or the 80s, out. Consider how many bands/actors/tv/etc could be placed into the sentence, "It's about the emptiness of [name], the aspiration to do nothing more than look good in a nightclub, the happy embrace of style over substance." It would be easier to list names that *don't* fit that sentence. It is a problem with 90% of the pop culture of the last century.

Posted by: ianw http://www.tblspn.net/ianw Sun Apr 5 04:46:25 2009

hey Greg, betcha ten cents the writer of this article is of our generation, ie. those that started the 80s thinking somehow that this problem would be eradicated permanently, and have felt guilt (& anger) ever since, at our (their) failure to achieve this. I think the tendency has been to think that, therefore, such crimes as this, when they happened in that decade, were worse. I can say that, but (perhaps because I'm a member of this generation ?) I also think the substance when it was good was pretty special, and the style was perhaps worse than any other decade.

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