Totally Wired: Postpunk Interviews and Overviews (2009)
“’Everyone’s Given Up and Just Wants to Go Dancing’: From Punk to Rave in the Thatcher Era” (2007)
Neil Nehring (Popular Music and Society, Vol. 30 No. 1)
Warning: The following is more a collection of thoughts than an actual essay or formal post!
I’ve been thinking about how to tackle Adam Ant’s rejection of his place in New Romanticism. I locate him in that subculture because of his preoccupation with class, looking flash, creating new tribes of belonging, as well as a desire to take inspiration from punk and to make it into something just as subversive but more glamorous. He didn’t like the New Romantics because he thought they were obsessed with class … in a bad way. But as I argued in my post on Ant’s autobiography, this is a misreading of what bands like Spandau Ballet and Visage thought about class. They weren’t worshiping the upper class but were rather interested in how they could use the earmarks of being upper class as a tool for disruption. Boy George and others saw being in the Top 40 as the ultimate infiltration of the establishment.
Ant sees the New Romantics as frivolous, as being involved in something self-centered and self-important that is less about entertainment and more about self-aggrandizement. Surely Ant’s evolving fashion looks track alongside of the style evolution of Spandau Ballet and others? Why would their desire to look good be different from his? I think in part because Ant saw his look as facing outward to the fans rather than facing inward toward the self. This would track with his desire to entertain and please his audience.
As Simon Reynolds clarifies below, entertainment and success were part of the postpunk genre, no matter how spare or synthy or fashion-driven the bands were. What marks the movement for Reynolds is an “open-endedness” that would allow for the kind of variations in approach that Ant rejects.
The way I loosely defined [postpunk] was: groups that had been catalyzed by punk but didn’t sound ‘punk rock’ in the classic Pistols/Clash sense. They wouldn’t have existed without the spur of punk giving them the confidence to do it themselves, but they interpreted punk as an imperative to keep changing.
Perhaps the best way to think of post-punk is not as a genre but as a space of possibility, out of which a range of new genres emerged – Goth, industrial, synthpop, mutant disco, et al. Because it’s a space – or maybe a discourse about music, rather than a style of music – what unites all this activity is a set of open-ended imperatives: innovation, willful oddness the jettisoning of all things precedented or ‘rock ‘n’ roll’. This open-endedness encouraged diversity and divergence, such that by the end of the period the book [Rip It Up and Start Again] covers the distance between all the post-punk fragments has become vast: From Goth to New Pop to the Big Music of Echo and the Bunnymen/U2 to the second wave of industrial outfits … Everything has scattered and followed its own path, often completely antithetical to the other directions taken. But the shared point of origin – the mythic site of lost unity – is punk. That’s the ignition point. The Big Bang. (404-405)
I really love the idea of “a space of possibility”. This perfectly defines the diversity within postpunk. What is also interesting in Reynolds analysis of postpunk is his comparison between New Romanticism and showbiz, particularly in light of Ant’s use of the term “showbiz/show business” in his autobiography. Reynolds argues that, “Unlike showbiz, which really was an authoritarian monologue from start to audience, New Romanticism was a community, a sort of egalitarian elite where anybody could be a face on the scene if they made an effort” (400). In a way, Ant was interested in dictating the terms to audience as he saw his role as guiding them through an experience rather than allowing the audience to have whatever kind of response they wanted. His reliance on thinking of himself as participating in show business would then preclude his ability to see himself as part of an egalitarian elite. In another way, though, he did create a “new royal family/a wild nobility” which invited the audience into his world in whatever guise they chose, as long as they left the non-Ant world behind. This would connect quite clearly with the New Romantic reliance on community.
Ant’s “Ant music for sex people” motto also runs counter to the humorlessness commonly assigned to postpunk. People often think of bands like Joy Division when they encounter the phrase “postpunk” and there is some truth to the idea that darkness was the focus of the genre. The same can be said for the New Romantics, as Michael Bracewell points out in his book, England is Mine. He explains that for the New Romantics, “grey was the colour and alienation was the game” (207). In their pursuit of class confusion and other insurrections, the New Romantics often weren’t cracking a lot of jokes or viewing things with a fun, irreverent eye, at least on the surface. Ant’s music, conversely, is layered with informal impudence and a comedic point of view. His videos show him having fun while bands like Visage and Spandu Ballet retain as Bracewell sees it, a stoic greyness (I’ve posted Visage’s video for “Fade to Grey” below). In considering, then, Ant’s rejection of the New Romantics, this lack of humor surely plays a role.
(Visage’s Steve Strange evincing a stoic greyness)
Finally, I’ve added the following thoughts from Neil Nehring because his article was the first time I’d encountered a reference to Dave Rimmer’s Like Punk Never Happened and because Nehring helped to clarify the connection between New Pop and punk for me. I should also note that when I was working on my M.A. at U. of Texas, Austin, Nehring was one of my professors. He was so, so cool and I wrote a terribly subpar paper on Courtney Love for his class on pop culture theory. I’m grateful for the fact that I made no impression on him whatsoever and so he would never recognize me or remember my intellectual noodlings about why the press wrote about Courtney Love as they did.
Anyway, Nehring ably ties punk impulses to the desire to make top-selling singles in the following:
The term ‘New Pop,’ first of all, is a shortened form of the original coinage ‘New Pop Entryist’ which stressed a continuity with punk and the do-it-yourself (or DIY) ethos, a democratization of music by rejecting virtuosity. New Pop performers gained ‘entry’ to the music business not by limiting guitar playing to barre chords as punk did, on the model of the Ramones, but by minimizing even that scintilla of musicianship even further, to noodling on synthesizers. (4)
Nehring also notes that bands like Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and Soft Cell “made sense as an outgrowth of punk, particularly after the Young Marble Giants’ truly spare pop on the Rough Trade release Colossal Youth (1980). The drum machines, minimalist keyboard playing, and lower-register voices resembling a less morbid Bryan Ferry all suggested musicians making something out of very modest talent, like the best of punk” (5).
Although the bands Nehring mentions aren’t New Romantics (though Marc Almond does talk about “experimenting” with New Romanticism in the very early days of Soft Cell and he has a great story about being glared at during a gig by Spandau Ballet), they share some qualities with them. What’s more punk than just deciding you’re going to do something, even if you have no idea how to do it?