There’s a theory that hard times create good art. The idea recurs when rightwing governments come into power or when economic downturns are forecast. The hope is that the youth will react with rebellious new countercultures. Yes, everything seems fucked, people might say, but – fingers crossed – we might get some great music out of it.
It’s been argued that the first wave of UK punk articulated the “frustrations” of Britain’s recession in the ‘70s, and that the unity of the acid house movement was a rebellion against Margaret Thatcher’s coldly individualistic ideology.
Over in the States, the explosion of American hardcore punk in the ‘80s is often contextualised as a Reagan-era movement. In March 2016, the author Tony Rettman, who has written three books about US hardcore, penned an article for Vice titled Why Ronald Reagan Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Punk Rock. “As the 2016 presidential election approaches, it’s worth looking back on [‘80s hardcore] in order to find a silver lining in the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency,” Tettman wrote. “There’s no question some great songs would be written about what would be a terrible four years for the country.”
The Thatcher era, which ran parallel to Reagan’s power, was described as “the heyday of political pop, and the leftwing counterculture in general” in a 2013 Guardian article written by Dorian Lynskey, who pointed to political songs of the time like Shipbuilding, The Beat’s Stand Down Margaret and Morrissey’s controversial Viva Hate track Margaret on the Guillotine. Arguing that Thatcher was the perfect villain to inspire protest music, Lynskey also quoted what was presumably a half-joke made by Penny Rimbaud, the drummer and activist behind anarcho-punk band Crass: “I think Thatcher was an absolute fairy godmother. Christ, you’re an anarchist band trying to complain about the workings of capitalist society and you get someone like Thatcher. What a joy!”
There’s no arguing that we’re right in the depths of a bleak chapter in UK history. Eye-watering inflation and energy bills have crystallised as a brutal cost of living crisis. We’ve inherited a truly uninspiring Tory government who are supposed to steer us out of it, but within three weeks of power it seems they’ve already made a complete mess. So is this fertile ground for Britain’s next musical counterculture?
There are forms of music which clearly reflect hardship. The morose tone and lyrical depictions of violence in early UK drill – a hugely significant genre which sparked new trends in sound, style and slang – has been explained as a symptom of neglect in marginalised communities. But it’s insensitive, maybe even politically masochistic, to suggest that we have poverty or rightwing rule to thank for powerful music. Days after Trump was elected in 2016, music critic Jessica Hopper debunked “the silver-lining myth”, arguing that to even joke about it was a gesture of “indifference to the plight of other people, and ignorance of the many ways a Trump presidency threatens to ruin lives.”
Although a lot of the best music has an anti-establishment edge, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the arts flourish in stable economies. Writing for FACT in 2009, Simon Reynolds pointed out that the cultural explosion of the 1960s was caused by prosperity and employment security following years of post-war austerity.
“Teenagers and young adults had money in their pockets to burn on clothes, music and other forms of self-expression through consumption,” Reynolds wrote. “The resulting epidemic of pleasure-principled living-for-now was the foundation of the Swinging Sixties boom in pop, fashion and countercultural malarkey of every kind. Plentiful employment – in those days you could walk out of one job and into another the same day – bred a spirit of insouciance and insubordination in the young.”
“I think, generally, it’s absolute bollocks to say that hard times produce good art,” Alex Niven, an author and academic based in Newcastle, tells me over the phone. Niven says that the ‘70s, often thought of as the depressing chapter which provoked the high-octane anger of punk, is a particularly bad example, arguing that it was in fact “the most equal time for Britain in human history” thanks to a well-funded public sector, free higher education and government grants.
Education, Niven argues, was key for the structural basis for counterculture during the 20th century, along with the guarantee of full time employment. Take Britpop, for example. With the notable exception of Oasis, many of the big bands met at university, with members of Suede, Elastica and Blur mingling together while studying at Goldsmiths and University College of London. Higher education throws young people together to exchange ideas, and the confidence that they’ll likely be able to land a job at some point empowers them to take a risk on music.
“[There was] that kind of post-war economy incentive, that security of thinking ‘I can muck around for two or three years at art school. And then, if that doesn’t work out, I can get a job,’” Niven says. “From Thatcher onwards our economic system has abandoned the notion that most people should have full employment.” (Although Niven warns against oversimplifying eras. Thatcher restructured the way Britain works, but it took a long time for her vision to be fully realised. Remember that it was New Labour, not the Tories, who eventually introduced tuition fees in 1998.)
At the moment, universities fear higher dropout rates are on the horizon, with the value of a student loan falling to its lowest in seven years.
In terms of today’s UK music industry, it’s not looking good. Venues and recording studios are expected to close due to unaffordable energy bills. Spotify subscriptions are down, especially among people under 35. It looks like the independent radio boom might be going bust and sales for gig tickets – which have surged in price – are expected to plummet.
“People have got less money to spend and there are lots of people worried about what impact that will have on the demand,” said Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, CEO of the trade body UK Music. “2023 is going to be more difficult than 2022. Don’t be fooled by pictures of packed-out gigs at the moment, there is a big issue with consumer confidence.”
Regardless of how bad the economy is, how hopeless our governments are, or how desperate the music industry becomes, young people will never stop making good music and generating new trends.
I think back to the worst parts of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, surely one of the least inspiring periods in modern history. Gigs and festivals were off, and it was illegal to even socialise indoors, never mind dance together. But there was still plenty of stuff for THE FACE to cover. PinkPantheress blew up during lockdown, making so much impact she’s inspired a whole wave of bittersweet pop over fearlight d’n’b beats, as did Central Cee, who swiftly became a superstar breathing new life into the UK drill sound. Across North America, teenagers created an entirely online subgenre known as hyperpop or digicore from their bedrooms.
Near my flat in Stratford, east London, I’d walk past Pudding Mill Lane, usually an eerily quiet DLR station in the midst of the post-Olympics wasteland, and see groups of teenagers filming DIY rap videos and TikTok dance routines. BikeStormz would pull wheelies while blasting UK drill from bluetooth speakers. These were depressing times, societally, but it would be inaccurate to say that youth subcultures had been defeated (sadly, the kids have since been scared off by middle-aged ABBA hologram fans).
Jeshi is a 28-year-old rapper from East London, who wrote his debut album Universal Credit while struggling emotionally and financially, while depending on the titular benefits. The album is like Original Pirate Material for the Covid era, with razor-sharp lyrics about societal collapse, staring at Philip Schofield on daytime telly and trying to party away the pain with keys of ket and pills that taste like concrete.
Although Universal Credit articulates the malaise of the early 2020s, Jeshi has faith in the enduring spirit of young musicians. “I think it’s completely undefeatable,” he tells me. “This isn’t the first period in the world like this, it’s not going to be the last. And I think when the dust settles, there’s still going to be people kicking shit over and trying to make something in this world, to make a mark and change things a little bit.”
Not a week goes by where someone doesn’t release some good music, and that’s unlikely to ever change. Contemporary culture, however, is chaotic and fragmented and, like fashion, a lot of modern music relies on recycled sounds from the past. “The next big thing could be that there’s no next big thing… just further entropy,” Reynolds wrote back in 2009.
But are we going to see a movement as massive as punk, acid house or Britpop emerge as a direct response to the Liz Truss era? It’s hard to imagine.
“Human beings are endlessly creative, no matter what situation you put them in, they’ll always create and come up with ideas,” Niven says. “But we need a deeper cultural infrastructure in order for those random, isolated individual acts of creative brilliance to reach a critical mass to become something more large scale, and something more collective.”