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The strange death of social aspiration

Today's popular culture looks down on those who want to move up in the world.

Neil Davenport

Topics Books

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The iconic style magazine The Face, which closed in April 2004, had reported on the ‘cutting edge’ of popular culture since 1980.

The Face never enjoyed huge sales – it peaked at around 90,000 in the mid-90s before shrinking to around 24,000 in early 2004 – but its influence far outweighed its circulation. During its peak between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, when The Face championed a look, a book, a film or a band, people took notice. And it wasn’t just style-obsessed readers either – editors of broadsheet supplements sat up and listened too. The rather muted response to The Face’s closure only underlined its diminished status.

In their obituaries, media pundits blame competition from other magazines, broadsheets stealing their thunder (and their writers), and internet publishing. But these explanations don’t really wash. Other style magazines, such as Dazed & Confused, I-D and Sleaze, barely sell more than 30,000 copies between them. Meanwhile, growing magazines such as heat and Closer have managed to capitalise on the success of the internet sites, such as the gossip website, Popbitch. The Face’s troubles are more to do with broader shifts within society and culture. The Face was out of place because its ‘brand’ has become glaringly unfashionable.

As Andrew Calcutt has argued on spiked, The Face became associated with championing lifestyles through the consumption of clothes and popular culture (1). Unlike the left-leaning New Musical Express (NME) in the 1980s, The Face eschewed political labels and embraced designer ones. To buy into The Face was to identify with a more glamorous and materially aspirational life than your own – even if you weren’t very interested in political struggle for the Good Society. In recent years, however, there’s a belief that maybe even the Good Life isn’t such a desirable goal.

This essay will assess popular culture’s changing attitudes towards social aspiration. First, it will look at the new suspicion with which material betterment is regarded, a suspicion that keeps The Face and its ilk off the shelves. Second, it will explore how social aspiration was once central to popular culture, and how and why it began to fade. And finally, it will assess the recent rise of ‘celebrity culture’.

We’re never so bad when we have it so good

The late 1990s and early 2000s, the period when The Face began to sharply decline, was also the time when the anti-globalisation movement came on the scene. These protesters expressed a profound hostility to the aspiration to material betterment – they railed against the ‘excesses’ of consumerism embodied by McDonald’s, Starbucks or Nike trainers, and blamed Western consumption for third world impoverishment. They looked grimly upon rising living standards and the expansion of consumer goods. Beneath the ‘anti-capitalist’ rhetoric, there lurked a palpable disdain for the ‘high street’ consumer tastes of the mass of British people (2).

There is a more pervasive aversion to the ‘corrupting’ influence of wealth. In recent years footballers’ bad behaviour has been blamed on them earning too much too quickly. Today footballers are held up as ‘anti-role models’, an example of how ordinary people just can’t handle vast sums of money. The tawdry gossip-circus surrounding David Beckham’s alleged infidelities, and Victoria Beckham’s not-quite-so-posh background, is partly fuelled by a derision for their nouveau riche pretensions. Indeed, the loudest championing of ITV1’s hammy drama, Footballer’s Wives, comes from broadsheet writers who love its unflattering portrayal of the Krug-swilling football set.

Material wealth is also blamed for destroying personal happiness. Since the National Lottery was launched nearly a decade ago, there have been regular reports on how becoming overnight millionaires has ‘ruined’ people’s lives. Teenage National Lottery winner Callie Rogers is only the latest jackpot winner who has become ‘depressed’ and ‘suicidal’ since scooping £1.9million two years ago. The sorry tale suggests that if only she’d stayed working as a Co-op checkout girl she’d have been much happier.

But it’s not just New Money oiks who’ve come in for a finger wagging. Anyone earning a packet through ‘corporate’ employment is also tainted with having dubious morals. Bret Easton Ellis’ Wall Street-based novel American Psycho and the 1999 film In the Company of Men indict high salaries with low morals, and good living with very bad behaviour. Elsewhere JG Ballad’s 1996 novel Cocaine Nights ‘exposed’ a sordid world of illicit behaviour among the British jet set. Cocaine Nights’ anti-rich theme helped to win the cult author Ballard a place in the bestsellers and on the shortlist for the 1996 Whitbread Novel Award.

In such a climate it’s not hard to see why The Face, with its Gucci adverts and glossy fashion spreads, should appear out of time. Having benefited from the Britpop years in the mid-90s, The Face continued extolling the virtues of material aspiration. It would publish trenchant articles defending the ‘exorbitant’ fees of high-profile club DJs, and champion Oasis for their desire to escape working-class drudgery. The magazine even defended Chris Evans for his ambition and his bank balance.

Rival style magazines, which had never enjoyed The Face’s kudos, began realigning to match the new mood in an attempt to win readers. In 2001 Dazed & Confused relaunched itself as a magazine with a political and ‘rebellious’ streak, with the then editor Rachel Newsome arguing that ‘we need to go beyond just consumption’ (3). This often involved lengthy articles on the UN and ‘anti-corporate’ pieces about the problems of over-consumption. Far more influential (until their publishers went bankrupt in June 2004), was Sleaze Nation. This Hoxton-based (and Hoxton-fixated) publication appealed to middle-class twentysomethings who parade ‘council estate chic’ as a form of anti-style rebellion. Whereas The Face championed up-market clubs and bars, Sleaze ran features on old alcho’s favourite chain, Wetherspoon’s. The May 2004 issue implored us to give up work, and by turn good living, and instead loaf around.

Ex-Blur guitarist Graham Coxon could already be one convert. Speaking to London’s Xfm radio station recently, he said his new solo album, Happiness in Magazines, was a putdown of the worldview once associated with The Face: ‘It’s their world of aspirations’, he explained. ‘They’re all about…great suits, great cars, great kitchens and great bottoms. Looking through those magazines isn’t very good for my sense of reality. It makes my reality look an awful lot more dull after seeing those things.’ (4)

Elsewhere, Electro-AOR trio Zoot Women released an album in 2001, Living in a Magazine, which presented style magazines as soul-destroying. For Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, it was appearing in such magazines, and the accompanying wealth, that proved so disdainful and destructive. Pulp’s 1998 album This is Hardcore was an eloquent rumination on the supposed perils of inflated fame and bank balances.

Even those pop stars who didn’t question good living were keen to affect some PR distance. In the late 1990s, many a social circuit ligger (Chris Evans, Keith Allen, Blur’s Alex James) began wearing garish sportswear or appearing unshaven and unkempt. A slightly bewildered Noel Gallagher said at the time: ‘In Manchester everybody puts on their best clothes to go out. But in London everything has to be very “street”.’

Today material aspiration is seen as being for the foolish, the naive and the morally bankrupt. But there is actually much to admire in the desire to have more for yourself. It is this that pushes individuals to go beyond what they’re born with, and to test the boundaries of society. Individual aspiration is one of the major motors for social development, for improving the lot of the whole of society. The fact that self-improvement is so widely derided presents a major obstacle for anyone pushing for positive change.

So how did we get here?

From the good society to The Good Life, from prosperity to punk

The 1960s was a period that embraced social aspiration. While the postwar boom guaranteed full employment, higher productivity caused commodity prices to fall dramatically. The spread of car ownership was one sign of the times, as was going abroad on holiday. Entertainment figures of the time, whether it was The Beatles and The Rolling Stones or football players such as George Best and Bobby Moore, confirmed the idea of an upwardly mobile ‘swinging’ Britain. There was a sense of optimism and experimentation, and of new possibilities that were there to be taken.

The popular fiction of the 1960s expressed the aspirations of working-class youth. Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving and John Braine’s Room at the Top all seethed with a desire to escape Old Britain’s narrow expectations and move towards a better and more rewarding existence. On television ordinary people’s lives and aspirations were taken seriously too. BBC2 plays dramatised changing social attitudes, while groundbreaking programmes such as Up the Junction challenged audiences in a way that would now be deemed ‘elitist’.

Few people today would defend the positive gains of the decade. As Frank Furedi has pointed out on spiked, conservatives have long derided the 1960s for compromising Western values and spreading ‘permissiveness’ that supposedly unravelled social cohesion (5). Today many on the left have joined in the attack on the Sixties. BBC Four’s recent Summer in the Sixties season essentially argued that the liberalisation and economic expansion of the period generated future social problems. Art and architecture commentators dismiss the era’s ‘naive’ belief in ‘brutal’ Modernism. Individuals who had pioneered 1960s consumer products, and the attendant marketing and advertising industries, seem full of self-loathing, as they felt personally responsible for the ‘horrors’ of consumer society. But all this tells us more about the values of today than about anything that went on 40 years ago.

BBC Four’s repeats of programmes from the 1960s, such as The Likely Lads and Steptoe & Son, are more accurate and insightful on the period. Dick Clements and Ian Le Frenais’ sitcom, The Likely Lads, was set in northeast England and featured electrical workers Bob Ferris and Terry Collier. They were shown exploring experiences unattainable to their parents’ generation – the inaugural episode, ‘Entente Cordial’, sees Terry and Bob reminiscing on their first holiday abroad. At the time, The Likely Lads was sometimes criticised for its ‘laddishness’, yet the best scenes and the best gags draw on the pair’s competition on who could appear the more sophisticated. There was also a bittersweet tension of aspirations being just out of reach, often as a result of social constraints.

The Likely Lads is noteworthy for being one of the few sitcoms that didn’t portray ordinary people as educationally subnormal or criminally minded. Bob and Terry continually assessed, especially in the 1970s follow-up series Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, whether material aspiration betrayed working-class identity and working-class politics (for Terry it did, for Bob it didn’t). This was a theme mulled over by left-wing radicals and intellectuals too – though they were more willing to cast material aspiration as a barrier to ‘progressive’ politics. For example, the sociologist Ferdynand Zweig put forward the ‘embourgeoisement’ thesis, arguing that affluent workers were adopting a middle-class outlook and voting for the Conservative Party.

If The Likely Lads questioned the limitations of the left, another seminal sitcom of the time, Steptoe & Son, did the same with conservatism. Rag-and-bone man Harold Steptoe described himself as a ‘humanist’ with a hankering for high art and high living, while Harold’s cantankerous old dad, Albert Steptoe, constantly thwarted his son’s attempts at self-improvement. Again, the bittersweet humour rested on aspirations never being truly realised. In an interview, the sitcom’s scriptwriters, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, claim that Steptoe & Son was a vehicle for reflecting the class struggle of 1970s Britain. Harold represented the left, while Albert represented the Conservative Party clinging on to a mythical Old Britain and obstructing change.

In spite of the heady promises of 1960s modernisation, people found that there were real barriers to getting ahead. ‘Modernisation’ was often seen as something that happened to people, rather than something they were in control of. Ordinary people may have managed to improve their lives, but they were also expected to lower horizons and accept the limitations of society.

The popular culture of the 1970s reflected a more demoralised tone, as economic stagnation began to set in. Skinheads exaggerated traditional white working-class imagery to emphasise their lack of clout in the real world (6), and football terraces became theatres of working-class aggression and frustration. The middle classes also began to doubt themselves. BBC’s The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and The Good Life were the first popular expressions of disenchantment with modern suburban living. In Mike Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party disenchantment is turned to scorn against the nouveau riche buying into the middle-class dream.

Even the supposed nemesis and antidote to 1970s banality, punk, was framed as an attack on social aspiration. Punk bands such as the Sex Pistols took on the stultifying old British establishment – but they viewed the working class, and working-class politics in particular, as being equally absurd. In the place of social aspiration, they came up with a rather meaningless ‘DIY’ individualism.

The gaudy aspects of ‘post-punk’ chimed with the sensibility of 1980s Britain. ‘New Romantic’ buffoons such as Duran Duran, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet (all punk graduates) garishly epitomised that decade’s vacuous pop culture. In recent years, the 1980s have been flagged up as the decade of material aspiration. No doubt city traders in London and New York did reasonably well, but the distance between ordinary people’s experience of economic insecurity and such pantomime displays of capitalist prosperity only made aspiration appear ludicrous and ill advised.

Radical critics took such high capitalist antics at face value. Harry Enfield’s comic creation, Loadsamoney, summed up the disdain with which the left viewed sections of the working class. But the ‘greedy’ working-class Tory, like so much of the 1980s, was a myth – many people were barely hanging on to the basics of a car and mortgage. More crucially, the belief in social experimentation and innovation had little purchase in a period marked by conformity as much as consumerism.

Nevertheless, by the late 1980s the private sphere of consumption had greater purchase, and became the main way in which people tried to improve themselves. It was from this spirit that The Face drew its agenda. The commemorations marking Margaret Thatcher’s twenty-fifth anniversary since being elected UK prime minister cited the selling of council properties as the high point of her achievements. In terms of legacy, they may be right. Today the acquisition of private property has become one of the main channels for people’s aspirations (7), and for many the private sphere and private consumption has become central to their lives. So why isn’t a magazine like The Face more popular than ever?

The rise of celebrity culture – private life as public melodrama

In the late 1980s and 90s, social aspiration was recast to mean privatised consumption and lifestyle choice. The ability to buy more consumer goods, and to express your individuality, undoubtedly has its positive aspects. But today’s emphasis on the private sphere, in the absence of public life, has created a narrower and less dynamic culture in society.

Previously, public debate and culture mediated between individuals and wider society, meaning that people aspired to goals beyond their own narrow circumstances. With the collapse of public life, prevailing ideas tend to reinforce a rather uninspired and banal individualism that doesn’t widen anybody’s horizons. The only popular ‘culture’ that exists today (or at least the only kind that makes sense to younger people) is what is called ‘celebrity culture’.

While the Swinging Sixties’ version of celebrity mirrored a confident and socially aspirant society, ‘celebrity’ now has very different connotations. Tabloid newspapers have always printed tawdry tales of public figures’ peccadilloes, but it hasn’t dominated discussion in the same way. After all, during the 1980s the Sun was arguably the most political newspaper on the market.

The influence of the gossip webzine Popbitch signalled a new prurient interest in the personal lives of the rich and famous. In an interview for Select magazine in 2000, Popbitch founder Neil Stevenson (who ironically became the Face editor in 2003) summed up the motivations behind the website: ‘It’s partly because as a journalist I couldn’t slag off famous people without PR’s making my job very difficult. It’s annoying because I know there are loads of people who really hate Posh Spice and want to read something about that. I know chart pop is supposedly for kids, but there are plenty of adults who are interested in any gossip related to it.’

Stevenson’s journalistic hunch proved right. In the same year Emap’s heat magazine relaunched itself from an entertainment to a celebrity gossip bible with huge success, while the arrival that summer of Channel Four’s Big Brother further illustrated society’s appetite for infantile gossip. This phenomenon may be called ‘celebrity culture’, but it has less to do with what public figures have achieved (which in many cases is very little), and more to do with what who’s doing what to whom in private.

It’s easy to get sniffy about ‘celebrity culture’, but it simply fills the vacuum in public life. It’s no surprise that Big Brother makes sense and reaches millions of people, at a time when we are stuck in our own private fears and concerns. Gossip culture chimes with individuals’ preoccupations with relationships and sex. What holds less appeal, especially for younger people, are broader culture or ideas. This is another reason why The Face has lost popularity – as well as appealing to individual aspiration, it also pulled together what was happening in society, appealing to readers curious to see what’s ‘out there’.

But today ‘out there’ is seen as a less exciting, even frightening, place to be. Between the 1970s and the mid-1990s, The Face, NME and nighttime radio acted as a lifeline to young people stuck in provincial box bedrooms. They spoke of the excitement and experimentation of big cities, and many sixth formers couldn’t wait to experience what’s ‘out there’ for themselves. Today sixth formers are more likely to stay at home than dare to study in strange new cities, and those who do rarely stray from campus. This is one of the reasons why club and dance culture has shrunken so dramatically in the past four or five years, or that ‘pop scenes’ seem like a quaint idea from the days of Ready Steady Go!.

As a knock-on effect, magazines associated with students, such as Select, Melody Maker, Muzik, Jockey Slut and, of course, The Face, have also closed down. The only pop cultural magazines that have grown are the retro-slanted monthlies Mojo and Uncut, which appeal to the same narrow and privatised mentality as does celebrity culture. They appeal to the ‘50 quid bloke’ who buys box sets of Bob Dylan bootlegs or reissued Roman Polanski films on DVD (8).

For all its limitations, popular culture once meant connecting with something that was happening in society or with other people. Now it’s something that we just consume in the privacy of our own living rooms.

Conclusion

Social aspiration has declined in a period when individuals live longer and are better off than at any time in human history. But never have we been so uncomfortable with being so comfortable. Wealth is seen as causing impending environmental doom, or personal moral failings and unhappiness.

Until recently, public life was based on the contest between left and right – between different visions of guaranteeing social advancement for all. When that contest collapsed, our perceptions of aspiration went with it. Whereas once social aspiration meant self-improvement by changing the way society is organised, now it is reduced to achieving satisfaction in our private sphere of consumption. These banal concerns have then been transplanted on to the world of popular culture.

The end of The Face represented the latest example of a popular rejection of ambition, success and material betterment – the very qualities needed to bring in a better society. Since the high point of 1960s innovation and optimism, the belief in social aspiration has waned to the point where today it is seen as elitist, destructive and undesirable. Indeed, the recent latest backlash against the 1960s is informed by contemporary prejudices against the Good Society. This means looking at the world, and our aspirations, through the wrong end of the telescope. There is an old Oscar Wilde quote that goes ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’. Somehow, this probably isn’t taken as a reference to Gwyneth Paltrow, Shane Richie or Peter Andre.

Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and a contributor to Uncut magazine.

(1) Why The Face no longer fits, by Andrew Calcutt

(2) See ‘Capitalism and Anti-Capitalism’, James Heartfield, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Volume 5, no 2, 2003

(3) ‘Confused? You won’t be, Guardian, 12 March 2001

(4) Quoted from NME.com, 19 April 2004

(5) The Sixties Myth, by Frank Furedi

(6) See Arrested Development: pop culture and the erosion of adulthood, by Andrew Calcutt, Laswell

(7) Safe as Houses, by Jennie Bristow

(8) ‘50 spent’, Guardian, 2 March 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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