Sunday, 8 May 2011

Dido as Axiom

For some time I've been thinking about the lingering effects of popular culture of the 90's and their part in shaping the neoliberal subject that we know. Thankfully the neoliberal dream is on its last legs and as we 'look back in anger' I'm still haunted by the lingering shadow of she who I see as it's face and postergirl. If neoliberalism has upheld the value of homogeneity, people reduced to their labour power as measured by key performance indicators, positivity at all costs then the 'singer' who heralds these values has to be Dido. This obsession all began when I included her song 'Here With Me' in a video as part of the Empty Orchestra series. This is a series of videos that looks at the pathos of the working world. The script for one of the films is below. I wanted to use the Dido song Here With Me in the film as short hand for a kind of poverty of spirit particular to that experience of sitting in the Wetherspoons in West London after work, scavenging for romance. You can watch the series of films here.

For me, Dido is shorthand for a poverty of spirit, the epitome of bland, dull, innocuous and non-
committal. She is the air brushed face of aspiration, a premonition of the hoardings on the side of sites that were council estates, now soon to be the dream homes for the 'even more tightly squeezed middle'. Her songs played out everywhere, lulling the working people along as they fell in line, crank up 'Life is for rent' as you sleepily leave the slip road. She's the face of the normalisation of normal, the default. That insipid look, heavy lidded, encouraging the consumer to go to Gap and Next for those work clothes, to look nice for work, to get highlights at the weekend, the highlight of the week. Dido is the giving up and giving in, the cul de sac, the putting up and shutting up and smile sweetly while your doing it. She's the moneyed lone female, in her one bed, eating her Waitrose ready meal, sipping the Chardonnay, except that the ready meal is vile and the Chardonnay turns into a bottle, two, a gin and tonic - oh hell, the rest of the bottle and a co-codomol for good measure. In the morning when her alarm clock goes off she wont be thinking about the bloke in her office who does less work than her but earns more, or the overtime she's obliged to do to keep her job, just whether she can fit in a trip to Debenhams before work to get those place mats. She's the chattering voice in your head as you go to buy a low cut top for work: 'not very managerial' she says, 'remember, you've got to fit in to live the dream.' Poor Dido, emancipated and free to be a wage slave like anyone else. Her face, tattooed into our minds, ubiquitous.

Dido is also the 'ordinary' girl. I read that she was popular because many girls identified with the way she dressed, t shirt and jeans, and
that haircut, the Dido flick. So if she was a 'positive role model' for the female populace, should I be leaving her alone? But wasn't this saying that Dido made it ok to be ordinary for this read poor i.e. too poor to afford to look like J-Lo? Or she was also the face of social mobility - you can do it too, I know you can only afford a pair of cheap Primark jeans and a t-shirt in the H and M sale, but girl, stick with me and you can make it to the top. Carl Neville in Classless: Recent Essays on British film (Zero Books 2010) writes about the way class was erased, and continues to be erased in some British film, like the Richard Curtis project. Part of this, is the way the films reflect a trend urged on by Blairism to accept poverty in Britain and see this simply as symptomatic of not seizing opportunity, rather than a right to a fair share of resources, fulfilling jobs and homes, British people should choose success over other distractions like getting bogged down about not having money and doing silly stuff like turning to cheaper thrills like booze and skag. he extends this to music. He mentions Eminem in this argument: "In the state of late capitalist precariousness, readiness is everything. "Opportunity comes once in a lifetime Eminem's ''Release Yourself'' tells us; you will have your chance, if you blow it you know who's to blame: not the system that democratically allocates an opportunity to all, but the individual. Given Dido's links with Eminem, safe to say they were part of the same project to promote social mobility that operates in a dodgy territory of perceived fairness.

In the article Blahspeak by Stefan Colini (LRB Vol. 32 No. 7 · 8 April 2010) exposes the current meaning of aspirational with reference to the Milburn Report 'Unleashing Aspiration: the final report of the panel on fair access to the professions. He points out the inherent flaw in any Blairite argument that 'everyone' in Britain should have a 'fair' chance at fulfilling their aspirational goals (financial security, social mobility, successfully educated children, properties at a good market value):

'The mixture of bounciness and vacuity indicates that the report is written for the most part in Blairspeak – or, since this idiom is now general not individual, ‘blahspeak’. In blahspeak, social mobility is equated with realising ‘pent-up aspiration’. One of the absurdities here is that the second phrase refers to subjective experience, the first to an objective pattern. People may realise pent-up aspiration in all kinds of ways without altering their position in the social structure in the slightest. This slide into the subjective once again reveals the individualist assumptions behind the Thatch-Lab pact, signalling the transition from do-good to feel-good. Social life is a benign competition in which most shall have prizes.'

He argues that for every success there must a failure, for every winner a looser. In the end its just the middle-class aspirer with the sharpest-elbows who'll achieve/acquire enough to truly 'get-on'. what Blair provides in his Blahspeak is a linguistic trap where meaning is occluded, nonsensical concepts that confidently put on the guise of sense:

'The Milburn report talks the language of optimism, but its assumptions actually reveal a deep pessimism. It is a pessimism, first, about there being any way in which society collectively, acting primarily through the state, can reshape its underlying socio-economic structure. Staggering inequalities of wealth are simply taken to be part of the natural order. Where it used to be said that ‘the poor are always with us,’ eternal existence is now granted to the rich as well. The market distributes wealth; government then tries to see ‘fair play’ in the resulting (destructively unequal) situation. And it is a pessimism, too, about there being any way for people to agree on what is valuable in life other than in terms of market-modelled consumer satisfaction. The only goals people may be assumed to share are a desire to ‘get on’, to move up some imaginary ‘social ladder’.'

In his article he goes on to provide current figures for the distribution of wealth in Britain and to counterbalance Milburn with the National Equality Panel’s Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK . This presents the larger picture:

'The concentration of inequality at the top end of the scale is what emerges most clearly. The disparities of income among the bulk of society (those in work, at least) are certainly substantial, but they are not huge: 90 per cent of those in employment earn less than about £42,000; the median income is around £21,000, so even the 90th percentile is only earning twice the median. But where the seriously better-off are concerned, the report draws conclusions that should stop all current talk about ‘equality of opportunity’ in its tracks. To take one example: ‘Households in the top tenth have total wealth (including private pension rights) almost 100 times those at the cut-off for the bottom tenth.’ It is worth spelling out that the ‘cut-off for the bottom tenth’ is quite a long way from the very poorest in society; below that point the graph falls away very sharply. Nonetheless, the households in the top tenth are not just two or three times as wealthy (the sort of differential we are used to observing in everyday patterns of consumption), and not just ten times as wealthy (the sort of multiplier that makes for wholly different kinds of life-experience), but one hundred times as wealthy as those who are themselves some way from the bottom of the heap.

This is dramatic enough in itself, but the aggregate figures disguise an even more extraordinary disparity. Within that top tenth, the gap between the 91st and 100th percentiles is huge: the former have approximately four times the median total net wealth of the population, but the top 1 per cent have almost 13 times that median figure. It is repeatedly (and laconically) recorded that the income or wealth or other advantages of the top 1 per cent cannot be properly represented visually in this report because they would be ‘off the scale of the figure’. All the distribution charts and bar graphs have this absurd appearance, with a huge chimney at the right-hand side disappearing off the page.

The Hills report establishes incontrovertibly that, first, this has not always been the case, and second, it is not the case in other European countries. It shows a massive increase in income in the top tier of society since the 1980s, and quite staggering increases for a small (but still numerous) elite since the 1990s. The top 0.05 per cent of the population had seen its share of national income decline pretty steadily from 1937 till the 1970s, as might be expected as societies moved in a broadly social-democratic direction, but by 2000 its share was higher than it had been in 1937. And the very rich got richer faster than the merely wealthy. In the 1980s, every group in the top tenth of taxpayers increased their share of national income, but in the 1990s ‘the increase in the share of the top tenth was all accounted for by the top 0.1 per cent.’ Certain occupational groups stand out, and not just bankers, celebrities and footballers. Between 1999 and 2007, the real earnings of all full-time employees in Britain were almost static, but ‘the real earnings of the CEOs of the top 100 companies more than doubled (reaching £2.4 million per year), and those of the next 250 companies almost doubled (reaching £1.1 million).’ (According to a calculation by Compass, not quoted in the Hills report, the average ratio of CEO-to-employee pay was 47 in 1999; ten years later it was 128.) No less striking is that in other leading European countries the top 1 per cent’s share of the national income, having declined from the 1930s to the 1970s as in the UK, thereafter remained broadly flat. ‘The rise in the incomes of the very top,’ Hills concludes, ‘has not, therefore, been a global phenomenon.’ It has happened, of course, in the US, whose Croesus-versus-helot economic arrangements the UK seems more and more determined to ape.'

This indicates that the resources the aspirational are fighting over (time, energy, money) are all that's left over after the rich have taken a good fat slice of the pie for themselves. The crumbs are what this so called 'level playing field' is made up from. To talk of fair chances suggests that everyone has a fair vantage point, but Colini indicates how the rich are thoroughly excluded from this. Colini uses this Hills report to emphasise just how axiomatic the Milburn report is. In every sense Blahspeak is a coded language, occult, that works as a cover up act for a most despicable ideology that aims to fool the British reader. Still, as always, its up to the British reader to reject it. (Credit to Robin Bale here for directing me to this article and his insights, see his blog purge/glut for more on this.)

So Dido, to me, is a symbol of acceptance of the unfairness of the median, the quotidian, the 'normal'. This fetishisation of the normal in the 90's comes hand in hand with a Blairite blinkering of the truth about distribution of wealth. Just look at some of the song lyrics: See you when your 40, Life is for Rent, Stoned, Let's Do Things We Normally Do. She hovers in the zone where the desire for aspiration meets its impossibility. When I was in Wetherspoons (the best thing about this scenario) in Finchley Road some years ago I heard her on the juke box, I was drinking my continental lager alone in my semi industrial setting, the light from the Holiday Inn opposite dancing on my glass, knackered from work, drinking to break up the commute, when I looked down literally there were mice nibbling away around my toes, when I got home I wrote this and it became the script for Empty Orchestra II.

Weatherspoons Finchley Road north west london. open plan top floor of a shopping mall, glass A large window overlooks the dual carriageway sodium light and florescents cast a sickly yellow haze on the faces of the occupants of the pub. A man and a woman, greying hair, walk in. He orders a pint of guiness. She looks at the continental lagers on offer ‘erdinger, san miguel, leffe’ she chooses ‘lucky.’. They vere to some intimate – ish looking seating booths. As they sit down they are aware of a woman within earshot, wirey hair and a wild look. She mutters in some self built language like tongues. (beat) so they move to a sofa.
the cars rumble and Dido is playing on the jukebox. the woman drinks slowly and the man quickly. (beat) they talk awkwardly, too quietly to hear. The chattering woman keeps catching her eye as she continues to talk to the man ( beat) finally she looks down. the man finishes his drinks and gets up to go, he leaves (beat) mice scurry around on the soiled carpet (beat) (beat) lit by blue and red neon from an outside hotel she drinks down the lager - tears drip down her face.
A psychic fayre off the A40 in middlesex The doorway sheds only light on the pathway to the old raf hangar, inside is a long room and a large wooden dancefloor. the roof takes on the curves of the arched hangar, the walls are a thick mock tudor, draped with rose pink velour curtains. (beat) David Joylina Jenny are sitting at tables in a semi circle. and at each table a person is hunched listening close and in the air the gentle sound of secrets, an investment a promise. A group of traveller girls hang around the stage at the end of the room waiting for the action. dressed in flourescent thongs and thigh lengthboots.
She is waiting in turn with the other visitors. A man, puffa-coated puts his head round a door and beckons to her. she gets up and follows him through to the back room of the hangar. It has a seedy cottagey feel, small dining tables and floral armchairs. a deformed man is sitting in one of the arm chairs. ‘he cant hear you’ says the usher but he’ll ‘sign to you’. the woman looks at him, taking in the shape of his head, the way his skull merges into his shoulders and how his face slips down on one side. He smiles and gestures for her to come and sit next to him and takes hold of her hand. he looks far into an imagined distance the his mouth opens and a horrible sound exudes ….the hard metal deep rattling, the sound of metal bones snapping and a hurtling gravely heaving sigh (of the motorway traffic) she holds her ears and slips to the ground her face looks white and cold. the travellers gather around her, looking at her lying deathly still, they prod her with their boots. (written London, 2007)

See also k punk's
post where he compared existential Dido to consumerist SATC.

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