Stand and Deliver (2006)
In September, I’m heading to Reading, England to participate in a conference on music subcultures. Participants will present papers on how one writes, investigates, thinks of, and defines what subcultures are and who participates in them. Here’s my abstract:
Though his ruffled shirts, working class background, and appeal to “wild nobility” would seemingly mark him as a New Romantic, Adam Ant rejects that he was ever was one. In his autobiography, Ant adamantly states, in fact, “I really did not want anything to do with them” (151). Considering Spandau Ballet and others as elitist and obsessed with celebrating the upper class, Ant saw himself as part of a wholly separate tribe, even if his songs referenced kings and looking flash, and his style evinced a historically rich, cash poor aesthetic favored by the New Romantics. If Adam Ant rejects his membership, is he still part of the subculture? Moving away from the generative core of Visage and Spandau Ballet, writing about New Romanticism becomes a complicated game of “who belongs?” as Blitz kids become bands and outliers like Duran Duran claim to have been New Romantics only long enough to make fun of them. Ant’s autobiographical rejection of membership is accompanied by Steve Strange, Boy George, Gary Kemp and others alternately placing themselves or others within or outside of New Romantic boundaries. Nearly anything can move those boundaries: belonging to the wrong social class, visiting the Blitz and failing the fashion standards, or more generally not being “authentic”. Ant’s rejection of membership, then, reads more like an admission of being part of a fast moving, complicated, highly stratified scene which saw fashion as an agent of political change and beauty as a destroyer of class and social differences. Using autobiographies, songs, photos, music videos, and interviews, this paper will consider who makes the New Romantic cut and who doesn’t (spoiler alert: “[he] may not like the things [I] say”, but Adam Ant is decidedly in).
Ant’s autobiography is interesting because he clearly anticipates what people want from it: a discussion of his mental health issues. Since it was published in 2006, the book doesn’t include his most recent struggles, though within the last few years he’s stabilized and done a series of successful revival tours. Throughout the book, Ant looks back at behavior like his hyper-busy work ethic and his obsessive need to control every facet of the visual aspects of his performance and ascribes it to his not-yet-diagnosed mental illness. He is frank about his behavior and the way it affected others, including friends, lovers, and family.
I read this book, however, for Ant’s take on his career and his potential role in the New Romantic movement. I say “potential” because as I’ve began to piece together who and what is/was this thing called “New Romantic”, Ant presents a particularly difficult case. He, like, Billy Idol was thought to be a sellout, someone who hungered for fame and abandoned a series of subcultures in his pursuit of money and recognition. Admittedly, “Puss ‘n Boots” is a long way from “Stand and Deliver” (Though Ant’s fashion in each is similar – that lip gloss remains on point, too! Check out the videos for these songs at the end of the post) but Spandau Ballet traveled a long distance between “Chant No. 1” and “Highly Strung” as well. Adam and the Ants (to distinguish the band from his later solo output), Spandau, Duran Duran, and Culture Club all were bands that started deep within a subculture and who moved out into making what was dubbed by Dave Rimmer in his book Like Punk Never Happened, “New Pop”. Rimmer’s book (I’ll do a post on it soon) is invaluable in understanding the movement from punk to New Romantic to New Pop. Published in 1984, the book represents one of the earliest meditations on the movement of the alternative music scene to the mainstream in the 1980s. Rimmer targets Ant as the one who truly began the trend:
In his rapid rise to the status of first teen idol of the 1980s, he mapped out all the moves for those who came after. Though the Human League and the Thompson Twins would later pull it off too, he was the first to engineer a self-conscious move from margins to mainstream, from cult to conqueror. He didn’t seem to have even the tiniest prick of conscience about ‘selling out’ (an old hippie concept which the punks had adopted), he just made damn sure someone was buying. (8-9)
Ant readily admits his willingness to move from “margins to mainstream” in his book as he sees all of his incarnations as just “show business”, whether he was a punk singing “Plastic Surgery” or a dreamboat being taunted by the moniker “Goody Two Shoes”. It was all the same to Adam Ant.
Midway through his autobiography, Ant reflects on his decision to go solo by noting:
I started a promo tour of personal appearance I Manchester, and the next day Friend or Foe the LP made number 5 in the charts, which was a good beginning, I thought. Unfortunately, that was the best it would do. Interviewers were asking me if I thought that it was all over for me, if my bubble had burst, and shouldn’t I have kept the Ants? Fuck you all, I thought. I will succeed. (203)
The desire for fame and fortune is what sets Ant within the New Romantics, not outside of the subculture. They, too, were using their fashion, beauty, and music as a way to pry open the Top 40. They made being “upper class” a performative event, one in which they mocked the very class they were seemingly trying to join. Ant misreads this desire as wanting to be upper class, while he was firmly entrenching himself in the working class status he was born into. Ant, however, used fashion in the same way the New Romantics did: as a way to create disorder within the class system and as a way to reflect what it might look like to be a working class kid who disrupts history.
Throughout his book, Ant discusses his fashion choices, describing his thought processes behind the feathers, makeup, and leather pants. Though he wore some Vivienne Westwood fashion early in his career, he insists that by the time he was wearing his “Apache/gypsy warrior look” (he’s sporting the “dandy highwayman” in the photo above) he was creating the looks on his own (146). This doesn’t, however, set him apart from the New Romantics as much as he thinks it does. Those earliest in the scene were famous for cobbling together looks from a number of sources, bypassing designer clothing because of the price and because they preferred to do things on their own.
I think that Ant rejects the possibility of being part of the New Romantics because he didn’t really hang out at The Blitz or pal around with others on the scene. He also isn’t one much for labels as he sees himself simply responding to what he likes and acting accordingly. So, if someone refuses to see themselves as part of a subculture, could they still be considered part of that subculture? I say yes! Ant was a punk, a New Romantic, and a New Popper. (He also uses the phrase “making love” far too often in his book but I suppose that’s a different point altogether. Also: he dated Jamie Lee Curtis and Heather Graham!) Rimmer argues that,
With a single-mindedness bordering on obsession – in itself as characteristic of the New Pop as anything else Adam got up to – he became the first artist since the Sex Pistols successfully to sell, not just an unmistakable ‘look’ (as he always put it’) and an unmistakable ‘sound’ (ditto) but also a half-baked set of theories and attitudes that pinned the two together […] Adam was the punk who grew up wanting to own or control everything he did [… His] explanation: ‘That’s business.’ And so it was. (9-10)
Ant’s book is a good look into the way he approached the business of himself, whether he was playing a punk in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee or singing with Diana Ross at Motown’s 25th Birthday Concert. It has most helpfully aided me in thinking about what to do with someone who stubbornly refuses to agree with my point of view on musical subcultures.
In case you’re interested in Ant’s fashion evolution, below you’ll find “Stand & Deliver” from 1981 and “Puss ‘n Boots” from 1983. The latter of which involves a little joke about his earlier look in the form of a sexy video vixen.