3 Apr 2013

Morrissey, Bowie, the Stones: smells like middle age spirit?

Celebrating the icons we grew up with seems to be in fashion, writes Rupa Huq for Channel 4 News, but where are our next Ziggy and Moz going to come from?

Morrissey 'prays' during a performance in Paris in 2006. (Reuters)

Chart acts in the 1990s included a band called Pop Will Eat Itself. Current events suggest that they were prophetically named: it already has, writes Rupa Huq.

At the very least pop has morphed in form and function from something that smells like teen spirit to something that exists to delight the middle aged.

Consider the evidence of recent weeks alone: David Bowie‘s back catalogue has monopolised the airwaves, the V&A are exhibiting his frocks and the ICA have put on a Smithsfest with two days of events venerating Morrissey and his cohorts. Meanwhile contemporary pop of today gets less of a platform; Smash Hits and Top of the Pops, two mainstays of my childhood through which I monitored developments, have long gone as arts programmers look back in anger to the pop past of their own youth.

Sociology, the subject I’m employed in, is so identified as about the writing of “dead white men” that one recent text book was titled just that. It seems pop is preoccupied with the glory days of white blokes too who are if not (yet) dead middle aged and elderly.

It seems that in the scramble to celebrate these gargoyles of pop, some aspects of their past have been suitably airbrushed out.

As a one-time pop chart obsessive who’s now moving further away from the big 4-0 rather than towards it, I feel I’ve grown old following youth culture. When I lived in Manchester I remember attending a Smiths disco (where that’s all that was played) and it was rumoured that Morrissey, who was in his home town and turned 40 that weekend, might appear. He never showed up in the end. I heard one person make the same prediction of the ICA’s Smithsfest. The main difference is that he is now 53.

I appeared on a radio documentary the other week about the significance of David Bowie, who is now 66. The other big news from the world of pop this week is that the Rolling Stones are to play Glastonbury this Summer: a band who make both Bowie and Moz look like Spring chickens with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards both 70 this year.

The Smiths performing in 1984. (Getty)

Given the announcement that Morrissey may never tour again on health grounds, Smithsfest might have been an increasingly rare opportunity for his mostly white, male fanbase to commune together to celebrate their idol. Indeed hundreds of blokes gave up their bank holiday weekend to watch Morrissey’s kitchen sink cinematic faves, dance to anti-dance music and witness a Smiths cabaret as well as two panel discussion/debates of mostly blokes in Smiths T-shirts pontificating from onstage. Yet no doubt everyone in the room could claim expertise on the subject.

Pop should not be pickled in aspic

It also seems that in the scramble to celebrate these gargoyles of pop, some aspects of their past have been suitably airbrushed out of the versions that all-and-sundry now express fondness for, including David Cameron.

The Stones appeared on the buttoned up pre-swinging 60s popscene to cries of “lock up your daughters” and allegations from Bill Wyman’s shortlived 80s teen bride have recently surfaced. As someone of Bengali origin I wanted to ask the Smithfest panel about the meaning of Morrissey’s song Bengali in Platforms and the line “Shelve your western plans/ life is tough enough when you belong here” which I felt personally wounded by but reckoned I would be eaten alive if this or any of Morrissey’s other borderline racist comments over the years were to be raised.

Bowie notoriously performed a Nazi salute for fans at Victoria Station in the early 70s when in his Thin White Duke phase long before he married a Somali. These youthful flirtations are all but absent in today’s accounts.

Pop should not be pickled in aspic. Thankfully both Bowie (with a critically lauded new album) and Morrissey (who has an autobiography out imminently) are still producing fresh output but the retrograde tendency of constantly celebrating past pop triumphs should not be at the expense of new bands. All the young dudes should also get some recognition too, otherwise where are our next Ziggy and Moz going to come from?

Rupa Huq is author of On the Edge, The Contested Cultures of English Suburbia