Earlier this year I was assigned a summative that asked me to examine how parts of my own personal life are related to neoliberalism. I chose to write it about the ‘post-brexit’ music scene I had become such a fan of, partly because I like to think of myself as a hipster liberal intellectual, and partly to impress my lecturer, also a keen fan of this scene. Frankly, it was a rather self-indulgent endeavour. Who actually has the time to intellectualise the lyrics of Dry Cleaning alongside Mark Fisher’s political philosophy? However, I came out of writing the essay with a revived notion of what the post-Brexit scene does for its listeners, and a greater sense of why I like this music so much.
The post-Brexit music scene is a broad-brush term for a group of bands taking on the nose punts at the fractured social dynamics within England today. Often Yard Act, Dry Cleaning, Squid, BCNR, and Courting get grouped under this umbrella, their lyrics toeing the line between satirising and recording what it means to live in England today. Think Yard Act’s Payday, urging us to ‘take the money and run’ or Squid’s GSK, set on a dystopian island ruled by the corporate. Funnily enough, Sam Shipstone, member of Yard Act, studied Geography at Durham. I felt instantly cooler knowing that we had something in common. Anyway, whilst this whole ‘post-Brexit’ scene is certainly an over-inflated term, there is definitely something to be said for the popularity of this spikey, deadpan scene.
It’s not merely being temporarily situated post-Brexit that unites these bands together. Rather I think that it’s their documentation-cum-caricature of neoliberalism that makes them seem so similar. Neoliberalism is itself a tricky term to pin down, you might’ve heard it being muttered by some jaded geography student, a perfect panacea to explain all the world’s problems. Simply, it defines the current political state of affairs, where money rules all and growing the economy is the only thing that really matters, think Thatcher and Reagan. Whilst it is usually understood to be merely a set of economic policies, it also has an influence on the way in which we feel, maybe exhausted, numb, bored, a bit defeated, as a result of the encouraged individualism, stress, and precarious politics. Brexit itself has exposed the cracks of this political system, catapulting us into a general sense of irritation at crisis prone politics, but also a general acceptance that it is now normal.
This feeling of general dissatisfaction with the political system but equal compliance with its project has been described by Jeremy Gilbert as ‘disaffected consent’. When writing the essay, I was overcome with a pang of dread. Gilbert had conceptualised my own relentless critiquing of neoliberalism, but my continued, reluctant, yet unavoidable participation in the system. What is left in this contradictory space he explained is a feeling of numbness and detachment. How does post-Brexit music reflect disaffected consent? And what does it do for the people listening to it? Is it rallying, familiar– albeit sometimes quite unsettling?
Disaffected consent slides together particularly in the music of Dry Cleaning, with an audibly bored Florence Shaw reciting the indignities of modern living interspersed with inanimate objects. She reels off an overt critique of politics “Nothing works/ Everything’s expensive / And opaque and privatised” to an immediate cry of relief that her shoe organizing thing has arrived, “thank god!”. There is an obvious political quality to their music, just listen to ‘Dog Proposal’, ‘Conservative Hell’, not only in their lyrics but embedded in their deadpan, scratchy soundscapes.
I find listening to ‘post-brexit’ music to be weirdly comforting, as if the sounds reflect a common experience of irritation, defeat, compliance, and comedy. Yet what troubled me was their lack of political instruction, remaining in a state of moaning, even romanticisation of said dissatisfaction. I began feeling cynical and a hypocritic, streaming these anti-capitalist anthems off Apple music. However, I think that I was mistaken in what I thought post-Brexit music intends to do. I think that its popularity and value comes from its ability to provide a sonic experience that is identifiable, providing a sort of discussion about how to navigate living in England post-Brexit, as a subject who can be both anti-capitalist and not really sure what to do about it.
I read that Yard Act described their infinity white background in music video for ‘payday’ as “the perfect purgatory for an anti-capitalist anthem funded by a major record company”. I suppose this is a neat metaphor for how anti-capitalist bands inevitably land in the present. I have decided that post-Brexit music is itself a sort of purgatory, a state of equal suffering and cleaning – our anti-capitalism can be laid bare, whilst we continue to consume in it – via mass produced Apple headphones. The point isn’t to be politically enlightening or revolutionary, its to be comforting, to provide just the right amount of humorous distance between us and politics.
(Image from Unsplash, photo credit to Habib Ayoade)