How Contemporary Electronic Artists are Challenging the Illusion of Great Britain
As Great Britain undergoes its own tumultuous shift in generational power, there are a few artists who are challenging the long protected illusion of Great Britain.This article originally appeared on Thump
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 England's pleasant pastures seen?" is a resounding no. Blake's exercise was to hold exultant national fervor 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 absolutely 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 characterized 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.