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by Brendan O’Neill
The lauding of his new single 'Ill Manors' shows even youth culture has been colonised by the chattering classes.
British rapper Plan B’s new single has made the music and political worlds moist with excitement. Titled ‘Ill Manors’, it’s a song about last summer’s riots in England. Mr B raps about how ‘rich boys’ like David Cameron have no feeling for, or understanding of, council-estate ‘chavs’ and how this lack of respect breeds contempt. ‘Oi! What are you looking at, you little rich boy? We’re poor round here, run home and lock your door’, he raps, with an accompanying video showing news footage of the riots.
Media and politics people are lapping it up. Shadow health minister Jamie Reed says it is ‘absolutely brilliant’. One music writer pervs somewhat over the ‘muscle and swagger’ of this ‘very strong protest song’. Protest song? What sort of protest song gets launched at an event organised by the Observer newspaper, receives constant airplay on that squarest of radio stations BBC Radio 1, and has mainstream politicians singing its praises? ‘Ill Manors’ is less a protest song than an elite-sanctioned ditty, which piously parrots from the mainstream script about what caused last summer’s riots.
The way in which ‘Ill Manors’ has been promoted and praised demonstrates that every corner of youth culture has now been successfully colonised by respectable adult observers. A couple of weeks ago, Plan B appeared at a ‘festival of new ideas’ co-organised by the Observer at Sadler’s Wells theatre in London, to introduce the song to assorted journalists and Hoxtonites. He told them about his urge to be ‘a father to these kids [council-estate chavs], because they are parentless’. Patronising much? He must have impressed his liberal patrons, because his speech was later republished as an Observer comment piece.
Having won the approval of the Observer, Plan B then found himself beatified by the BBC. Radio 1, a station not normally known for playing rebellious songs (think of its ban on the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ or Frankie’s ‘Relax’), has played ‘Ill Manors’ so frequently it has achieved the status of a public service announcement. The song has had ‘nothing but a positive response’, said one Radio 1 dj - words which once would have induced a severe crisis of identity in any self-respecting rebel.
After adding the BBC to the Observer as yet another official backer of his, er, protest song, Plan B found himself fawned over by politicians and the charity sector. Labour’s Jamie Reed said he risked being ‘pilloried for praising the new Plan B track’ (no, Jamie, you really don’t), but he bravely went ahead and praised it anyway, describing it as ‘excellent’. Political journalists have cheered Plan B for helping to ‘raise awareness’ about how Middle England’s denigration of ‘chavs’ damages their self-esteem. The Young Charity Trustees, a collection of under-35s who are influential in the charity world, tweeted about ‘the genius that is Plan B’.
Now, you don’t need to be an expert in the history of pop/rock/punk to note that there’s something very peculiar in un-hip officialdom heaping praise on an alleged protest song. Try to imagine Sid Vicious penning a piece for the Guardian in 1976, or Shaun Ryder taking a break from sharing jacuzzis with prostitutes in 1987 to give a PowerPoint presentation at Sadler’s Wells, and you’ll see that the idea that Plan B’s lauded song is a punkish act of protest, the true and independent voice of youth, doesn’t add up.
It isn’t hard to see why The Man - surely the most apt term for the assorted bores bigging up ‘Ill Manors’ - is clutching this song to his bosom. It is because it conforms precisely to the mainstream, therapeutic view of what caused the riots. In emphasising the role of Daily Mail-style sneering at ‘chavs’ in stoking that weird half-week of violence, Plan B promotes the utterly unexceptional (and wrongheaded) idea that the riots were a case of put-upon youth fighting back against ‘rich boy’ repression. The conformism of his outlook is brilliantly captured in his frequent borrowing from the lexicon of government-speak, such as when he told Radio 1 that he gave ‘Ill Manors’ a ‘visceral energy’ because he wants it to be like ‘those horrible pictures we see on cigarette packets that are designed to shock us into being aware of our actions’. In the past, pop rebels self-consciously smoked and even sang hymns to ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ - Plan B apes officialdom’s anti-smoking propaganda in an effort to ‘raise awareness’ about the need to respect youth.
There is nothing properly protesty about ‘Ill Manors’. Indeed, strip away Plan B’s affected urban twang, and his aim to be ‘a father to these kids’ is not that different to David Cameron’s old plan to ‘hug a hoodie’. Both are middle-class outsiders (Plan B once admitted in an interview that ‘we weren’t working class’) who look with pity upon the sad/angry proles of rough Britain.
‘Ill Manors’ is really just prole porn for its respectable patrons. Plan B is providing journos and politicos with a tantalising glimpse into what he and they imagine ‘underclass’ Britain to be like. It is ironic that the song opens with the line ‘Let’s go on an urban safari’, because that is what the song and video really are for those people who inhabit the rarefied worlds of Radio 1 and the Observer - an urban safari in which they can vicariously enjoy, from a very safe distance, the sadness and anger of ridiculed urban youth. Plan B is a bit like a rapping DH Lawrence, not in linguistic terms, of course, but in his lifting of the veil on underclass life for the entertainment of the middle classes. Where Lawrence gave the Bloomsbury set gruff gardeners and horny-handed labourers to perv over, Plan B gives suburb-dwelling music writers ‘muscular and swaggering’ but essentially damaged ruffians to get excited about.
The illest thing about ‘Ill Manors’ (and I actually mean sick, not cool) is how much it exposes the emptying out of the independent youthful spirit. Launched and promoted by mainstream do-gooders, and shot through with their patronising ideas, this song is more the soundtrack of the liberal elite than a protest song. Today, a real protest song would surely need to challenge the paternalistic, oh-so-caring attitude of the Radio 1 brigade, and also have a pop at its anointed spokesman for tortured yoof, Plan B.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
Watch the video for ‘Ill Manors’ below:-----
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