British punk has had an unsurprisingly strong couple of years. At one end bands like Crows and Heavy Lungs are building fan-bases with festival slots and national tours, whilst groups like Fontaines D.C. and IDLES are storming mainstream radio, critics lists and, most recently, Mercury Prize nominee lists.
All of this is against the backdrop of a political climate that has caused a lot of anxiety in people. IDLES are the most obvious advocates of Tory/Brexit/establishment bashing, with their popularity culminating in Mercury Prize nomination and a victory air-punch for classic sounding punk.
But this incarnation of punk music has also seen some controversy, with IDLES right at the heart of the issue.
Back in February, IDLES were on the receiving end of an earful from established gobsters, Sleaford Mods, via an NME interview. Singer Jason Williamson said he was disappointed to find out IDLES were middle-class despite the impression their music and lyrics gave, accusing them of “appropriating a working class voice”. The two then exchanged some fire through more press, with things seeming to have died down for the time being. But their beef shines light on a broader debate around punk and identity politics.
Though IDLES’ member Joe Talbot maintains he “never once claimed to be working class”, some of his words suggest otherwise. It’s when he strays into first person that Williamson likely takes exception. On ‘I’m Scum’ he claims to be “council housed and violent, I’m laughing at the tyrants”, “I’m minimum wage job / I am a mongrel dog / I’m just another cog / I’m scum”; on ‘Mother’, his mum “worked 17 hours 7 days a week”. For a man whose parents raised him in a well-off part of Exeter, Talbot certainly seems to assume an underclass struggle not resembling his reality.
For the most part though, Talbot’s lyrics contain funny, insightful attacks on Conservative-led Britain that don’t exploit its working people. But Williamson’s issue was also one of identity; explaining his band “comes from a place where this music has been created. Without that, we wouldn’t be here”. Iit’s clear he values punk for what it has represented and the impact it had for people in working-class communities more than for what it sounds like.
This argument relies on there being a sustained, successful marriage of punk music and the working class. What exploded in the 70s in a spit-soaked rage was one of those special moments that changed our music and culture forever, but how recognisable is the punk of today?
Accusations of inauthenticity can only go so far at a time when genres have evolved and amalgamated to become brand new variations or guises, if only just to survive – Sleaford Mods have themselves strayed from punk purity in refusing to ever use any live guitars or drums but have always been praised for sticking to roots.
Besides, IDLES aren’t the first band to throw a gauntlet at the government from the middle class. Groups like Enter Shikari and Slaves have acted similarly, from privileged positions but without the stick. For the past two decades, political movements in music have been so scarce that audiences have been grateful for anyone outspoken, even if it means the working class rebelliousness of punk is no longer recognised.
And are young working class Brits still listening to this music? Their interests are more likely spread across other genres and chart material. It is hard to discern what entertainment is reserved for the working class of today’s UK, but no one can deny that punk music, football and your favourite Northern stand-up aren’t what they used to be.
Perhaps that is what Sleaford Mods are angry about – the fading of their culture, only for it to be worn by outsiders at opportune moments. If so, they have every right to be.
In today’s climate, it only takes one person to accuse you of appropriation for it to become commonly accepted fact. People are right to defend the underrepresented and question intentions of those who have a voice. But we should be careful not to confuse exploitation with sympathy. Using someone’s struggle for separate gain is not the same as discussing that struggle in order to draw attention to it. No one should be shut up for showing support.
Joe Talbot and IDLES are not Kylie Jenner with a Pepsi.
The battle that brewed this year in the long-ignored belly of British punk, that which turned out to be no more than exchanged words between IDLES and Sleaford Mods, still managed to encapsulate a much broader conversation about art. Should we feel, as Sleaford Mods do, uncomfortable about privileged people exploiting the words of the working class? Should be wary of their culture wearing away? Or should we care if a group like IDLES want to argue for a tribe that they know go overlooked, even if they don’t belong to it? Although it was only brief, the conflict between IDLES and Sleaford Mods tapped into some interesting issues around identity politics in music today. The Mods were right to call out what they thought was abuse of their culture, but ultimately it was not IDLES intention to exploit anyone. Punk music might not mean the same thing it meant 30 years ago, but IDLES are a punk band with opinions to voice and in 2019, we need all the establishment bashing we can get.