As the UK enters its most disorienting period in recent history, we examine the artists subverting patriotic zeal.
Undoubtedly one of 2016's enduring images was that of a Union-Jack emblazoned swegway, paused over a cinema-ready view of contemporary London, the sky an eddy of rich royal blues and honey-yellows, the buildings below all glass and light. It was an image of Britain.
To risk falling into the cycles of fruitless deconstruction that typify most things written about his work, it's probably best not to try and be too clever exacting what Babyfather (Dean Blunt) was trying to say with the cover for "BBF" Hosted by DJ Escrow—but it seems reasonable to assume it was about as genuine in its display of patriotism as it was its celebration of swegways. The artwork was a deliberately garish imagining of a country intent on glorifying its past and its future, without ever trying to understand either of them. It was the dream of a modern, proud United Kingdom, turned into a lurid nightmare.
It's a nightmare that shares unlikely lineage with William Blake's Jerusalem. Perhaps the most well-known—and consequently most misunderstood—example of satirical national pride. The poem, most often sung to Edward Parry's hymn-like melody, was recently suggested as a new national anthem for England, despite the fact most readings of the original text understand it to be deeply caustic in its sentiment. As Kate Maltby points out in the Spectator, the answer to the question "And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England's mountains green, And was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen?" is a resounding no. Blake's exercise was to hold exultant national fervour up to the reality of the nation itself. There was no Jerusalem to be found among the dark, Satanic mills of England's industrial revolution.
As we enter this remarkable time in our national history—as the reasons to be proud of the UK diminish by the day, yet in tandem the ignorant voices celebrating it grow louder—it is up to artists to continue this tradition. Respond to jingoism and xenophobia with statements that challenge the illusion of Great Britain.
If the cover's mood evokes anything from recent aesthetic history, it's the 2012 Olympics—a cultural event that tried its absolute hardest to fashion a version of national pride that was modern, inclusive and self-aware. That summer—in particular the opening ceremony—was a dreamlike moment for the nation. Tripping off Danny Boyle's social-political fantasia we were briefly allowed to imagine a country still in the throes of ongoing progression. A place of great wealth and achievement, but of even greater values—the multicultural paradise we'd been promised by New Labour. Like the cover of "BBF" the ceremony was a vision of Union Jacks against a sleek, chrome, commercially-minded city, and like the cover, the gloss was a mask.
The previous summer, London, alongside countless other major cities, had been ablaze with discontent gone nuclear, when a protest following the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the metropolitan police escalated into five days of riots and looting. The incidents spoke of a city, and a nation on the verge of collapse—a collapse David Cameron saw as moral, but might be better understood as the structural collapse of the Big Society, his vision of the nation as an empowered civil community. In his recent interview (alongside Gaika) in Crack Magazine, Blunt characterised the riots as a final, doomed charge. "The riots happened—that was a battle. The Olympics happened—that was the big parade. The world is over now. And London, it's like, it's done. We're living in Armageddon, we've all been in a zombie like existence since London 2012."
In 2017 the distance between image and reality has become truly impossible to ignore, the nation now bearing the scars of austerity and a demonstration of division as gaping as Brexit. Theresa May and Boris Johnson's constant references to an illustrious future for a great nation, let alone Farage's lyrical waxing about control and independence, are so out-of-sync with reality they sound almost cruel. If the illusion of a Great Britain is laughable, the question is, what does the laughter sound like?
Mock-patriotism is a storied tradition in music, through the sneering sarcasm of the Sex Pistol's "God Save the Queen," to heart-on-the-sleeve slagging of Big Hard Excellent Fish' "Imperfect List," artists have long challenged the supposed virtues of the UK by gorging on them. It's a deft and satisfying form of protest that undermines authority by glorifying its hypocrisies. It's no mistake that Dean Blunt's "BBF" opened with a seemingly infinite loop of Craig David's voice at the 2003 Brit Awards, repeating the words "that makes me proud to be British." It introduces the album with a statement of national pride that becomes hypnotic, and then nauseating. As on the cover, celebrating Britishness is pushed to gratuitous lengths.
It wouldn't be over-zealous to describe "BBF" as anti-British, or at least, anti the idea of a United Kingdom. It represents a poststructural response to the flawed idea of British values, exposing them as meaningless symbols and gestures through Blunt's irreverent, dense style. For a more delicate approach, Darkstar's 2015 LP Foam Island served as a far more frank portrait of Tory Britain's widespread neglect. Rooted in the pre-Brexit world of Cameron's big society, their record deserves even more credit now than it did on its release for just how presciently it evoked the desperation of the nation's forgotten corners, and how close to breaking point they were.
The album is comprised in part of field recordings and interviews with young people in Huddersfield. Paired with the Darkstar's lilting but unsettled melodies, the album is another exercise in the resentful, disenfranchised reality fizzing underneath the veneer. Album track "Cuts" is based around a recorded message from Kirklees Council. The pleasant, cheery female voice imparts the magnitude of savings demanded of them by the government, and the effect these cuts are having on public services. It's a clinical and straightforward unfolding of a Northern community dealing with systemic abandonment, yet paired with the pastoral bliss of the production—all quaint textures and whimsical melodies—it again communicates an unnerving, saccharine vision of a country rotting behind the scenes.
Interestingly, it is another album that opens with a well-intentioned audio clipping—this time a young woman saying "Loyalty, and kindness, honesty, just basic things"—looped until it becomes gently bewildering.
Another powerful tool in the pursuit of faux-pride is nostalgia. Nostalgia is normally a dirty word when we talk about music, but in the past few years two London-based acts have weaponised it as something revealing. Real Lies' debut album Real Life (2015) is a study in rave-malaise, pulling fragmented, cigarette burnt memories of 1990s club culture back together to tell modern romances. Its an album that leaves you longing for a world you never knew in the first place, softening England's edges through the glitch and fuzz of a VHS player. It's not a political album by any stretch, but it is concerned with communing with a country whose best days are behind it—if they ever existed at all. After all, it doesn't seem unreasonable to presume the men who drink in A-road pubs of "North Circular" would've voted to leave the EU.
"Home Sweet Home," by the Rhythm Method, described previously on THUMP as the "perfect post-fabric anthem," back when we thought the club was gone for good, is built around a simple refrain: "And all the girls are singing home sweet home, London, with every closing bar, there's hollows in my heart." It's a beautiful song, and a deeply knowing one. London, as is regrettably so often the way, is the inspiration for too much material, but perhaps a lot of that is due to its usefulness as a totem. The "Home Sweet Home," the Rhythm Method sing of is of course no home at all, but an increasingly faceless facsimile, the bland edifice of post-Blair Britain writ large. Similar things could be said of their song "Party Politics," with its killer line "things could only get bitter." Blair's kids grew up to discover he was, like all bad dads, little more than expensive suits and empty promises. And this is how Real Lies and the Rhythm Method sing of England—the hollowness of today via the fullness of yesterday.
There are, of course, artists who are invested in more abrasive explorations of the UK as a scorched, alien environment. From the continued post-dubstep experiments of Kode9 to the skittish landscapes of London label Tekres. Gaika's work doesn't bother with nods or winks in evoking a city, and a nation, already poisoned beyond recovery. His work on last year's SECURITY, accompanied by a short film of the same name, is a lived hallucination, created by an artist intent on communicating just how toxic the capital has become—"This is my city, and these are my streets, and it's murder out here," goes album track "GKZ." As he told Blunt in the same Crack Magazine feature, "They say this is the sound of 'dystopian London'. Listen you fucker, London is dystopian now! There's cameras everywhere! I'm not making it up."
Dean Blunt is not a prankster, as the Guardian once called him, and we shouldn't take his work as anything but serious, but what he shares with all the artists featured is just how effectively he captures the delicious ironies of contemporary Britain—a country committing suicide in its Sunday best. Given the UK's self-aggrandising in the face of decay, Blake and Blunt's mock-patriot zeal serves a far higher purpose than a conventional protest ever could. For as long as there are politicians waxing lyrical about British values and identity, it's better to respond with overdoses of their own medicine.
It's worth noting that much of the work featured in this piece was released before the Brexit vote, meaning that—beyond perhaps Sleaford Mods recent "B.H.S."—we're in dire need of more reaction. In some respects, we need these acts of sarcasm and sickly nostalgia more than direct protest, and electronic music and clubland make the perfect vessel for this model of irreverence. Firstly, it's a world distanced from a Brit Awards friendly mainstream that will always remain too cautious to really sneer at authority. Yet more importantly, at its core the production of dance music is concerned repurposing of existing material, so it's no surprise it provides the ideal context for an almost Dadaist repurposing of symbols. What's more UK rave culture in 2017 is cripplingly nostalgic, reliant on the notion that a warehouse party charging £25 a ticket is somehow authentic—a culture trying to escape the weight of its own legacy.
This abuse of memory sets the soundtrack for Brexit Britain: a pseudo-sincere yearning for yesteryear, looking back in anger through rose-tinted glasses. Because in times of crisis nothing sounds as disconcerting as a national anthem.