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Austerity Pop

A Marxist history of pop examines how the 2008 financial crash changed music, from glorifying inequality to celebrating ‘relatable’ stars who struggled through adversity — demonstrating capitalism's adaptability.

Adele performs at the 2008 Brit Awards. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

The collapse of the West’s entire financial system in 2007–08 was, in the era’s terminology, an ‘epic fail’, the worst economic crisis since the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Despite the crash being the direct consequence of centrist deregulation, the elites, having gained better control of the news cycle since Iraq, made the story the economy’s rebuilding as much as its collapse. This enabled the new leaders of the Western world, Gordon Brown and Barack Obama — deregulation’s architect and supporter respectively — to become the crash’s heroes, and a few ‘rogue traders’ and ‘predatory lenders’ its villains. Crisis was thus conventionalised, establishing, in Streeck’s words, ‘disequilibrium and instability [as] the rule rather than the exception’, thereby ‘resolving’ capitalism’s enduring contradiction of boom and bust. For, in an approach that Naomi Klein named ‘disaster capitalism’, crisis — a war, a hurricane, a financial crash — enables the capitalisation of chaos, a loss to become a net win, the damage to be recycled back into the system. Or as Katy Perry put it on 2010’s ‘Firework’ (UK 3; US 1): ‘After a hurricane comes a rainbow’.

Disaster capitalism was absorbed as a cultural structure of feeling, with this period’s pop regularly citing Kanye’s – and Nietzsche’s – assertion that ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. On Kelly Clarkson’s 2012 ‘Stronger’, she insists she’ll ‘come back swinging’ after a breakup, her emotional loss capitalised as a net win. While the elite thrived on disaster capitalism, doubling its wealth over the next decade, the public, forced to pay for the crash by a swingeing, service-slashing austerity, simply survived. A year after its public-funded bailout, Goldman Sachs awarded its executives huge bonuses, with other banks following suit, just as Britain’s privatised rail network was revealed to be costing the public five times what the state-owned service had. The public had been paying for the free market all along: who knew? In short order thereafter, a 2009 climate summit confirmed capital wouldn’t be held accountable for an ecological emergency requiring rather more than recycling, Obama failed to introduce equal access to healthcare, and a damning British 2010 income disparity study was deemed unworthy of action. Yet, when Britain’s cities erupted into riots in 2011, the governing coalition condemned this as ‘criminality’, with draconian prison sentences dealt out accordingly. Moreover, the success of TV’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians (2007–21), The Apprentice (2004–17) and Dragons’ Den (2005–) indicated apparent acceptance of the financial and regulatory disparity between elites and citizenry, and the endurance of the idea that willpower was all it took to overcome it. Capitalism is neither omniscient nor omnipotent, however, and the flaw in Klein’s thesis is that it makes too neat a drama out of a crisis, positing capitalism as intentionalist rather than opportunist.

In this regard, the musical elite’s confusion following the crash is revealing. ‘There’s only two types of people in the world’, Britney Spears asserts on 2008’s ‘Circus’ (UK 13; US 3), ‘the ones that entertain, and the ones that observe’, thereby affirming a natural order of inequality, the social contract 2.0. A fall 2008 summit of hip-hop’s establishment on Jay-Z, T.I., Kanye and Lil Wayne’s ‘Swagga Like Us’ (US 5) co-opted M.I.A.’s antiestablishment ‘Paper Planes’ to assert their property rights (while removing the cocking guns and ringing tills from the original). Kanye, having ‘slaved’ — and read his Hegel — claims he deserves to be the ‘master’, while Jay-Z’s claim that ‘you can’t buy class’ asserts his preferment as providential. A subsequent 2009 summit between Jay-Z, Kanye and Rihanna upped the elite swagga, claiming to ‘Run This Town’ (UK 1; US 2), while flossing about living ‘the life everybody ask for’ on ‘Millionaires’ Row’. If the video suggests some defensiveness, with the public portrayed as a baying mob, Rihanna’s deadpan, dead-eyed purr of ‘Life’s a game, but it’s not fair’ jettisons all pretence of a meritocracy. Indeed, Rihanna’s 2009 ‘Hard’ video (US 8) presents her armed with sheer tights and a machine gun, insisting she’ll defend her ‘need’ for ‘the money, the cars, the clothes; the fame’. Postcrash, the haters have become the elite’s public rather than, as previously, their peers. Marx calls this a ‘class system’.

‘As of late, a lot of shit been goin’ sideways’, Canadian rapper Drake complains on his second hit, 2009’s ‘Successful’ (US 17). Viewing the conjuncture personally rather than politically, Drake is simply peeved that, following the crash, he’s being denied the respect he feels is his due: ‘Y’all don’t get it, do you?’, he seethes on 2011’s ‘The Motto’ (US 14). At least Drake merely misdiagnoses the problem — indie poppers OneRepublic, on 2010’s ‘Good Life’ (US 8), deny there is one: ‘Please tell me what there’s to complain about?’ Insulated in the celebrity club even after his assault on Rihanna, Chris Brown sneers at those left out in the cold on 2011’s ‘Look at Me Now’ (US 6): ‘I don’t see how you can hate from outside of the club/You can’t even get in!’ Lil Wayne’s guest-rap, meanwhile, does a Marie Antoinette: ‘If you ain’t eatin’, call a waiter’. When the public proved uncompliant with such privileged complacency and Britain erupted in riots for five days in 2011, panic about who ran these towns resulted in the elite and their middle-class enablers demanding the military be called in to crush the masses.

A more effective means of pacifying the public came in the form of a phalanx of less flossy, more ‘ordinary’ stars, with newcomers Adele, Ed Sheeran, Ellie Goulding and 2009 Britain’s Got Talent winner Susan Boyle all being ‘relatable’ celebrities. Having overcome crisis themselves — be that economic, mental or physical — these ordinary stars were living demonstrations of disaster capitalism’s ‘resilience mode’ (to adapt Robin James’ concept of ‘resilience discourse’).

‘Don’t say victim’, X Factor winner Leona Lewis chides on 2009’s ‘Happy’ (UK 2): ‘So what if it hurts me?/So what if this world just throws me off the edge?’ Rather than invoking Traverso’s distinction between the vanquished and the victim, victimhood here is being valorised as victory, loss as net win. Likewise, Adele’s riproaring 2011 ‘Rolling in the Deep’ (UK 2; US 1) transforms heartbreak into heroism via the gospel soar of her vocal — redemption in the crucible of crisis — and the push of the track’s aggressively assertive drums. Jessie J’s 2011 overwrought acoustic ballad ‘Who You Are’ (UK 8) insists ‘Tears don’t mean you’re losing/Everybody’s bruising’. The video depicts Jessie besieged by indoor rain, wind and lightning, while she remains stoic, broken but unbowed. Although this return of affect was a win after the detachment of the previous conjuncture, its co-option into such coercively pacifying ‘emoting’ — rather than, say, protest — was a net loss.

Another of these ‘ordinary’ stars, Katy Perry expanded her bubblegum brand with a resilience-mode hat trick. 2012’s ravey, Max Martin-produced ‘Part of Me’ (UK 1; US 1) served triple duty as a kiss-off to Perry’s ex Russell Brand, to her critics and to crisis: ‘Throw your bombs and your blows/But you’re not gonna break my soul’. On electropop power ballad ‘Wide Awake’ (UK 9; US 2), Perry is ‘born again out of the lion’s den’, while punching out Prince Charming in the video (no fairytale utopianism for her). On 2013’s arena-pop ‘Roar’ (UK 1; US 1), emotional damage has taken Perry ‘from zero to my own hero’, with the video featuring her as survivalist in a jungle that, unlike capitalism’s jungle, is welcoming, cooperative, cute.

This article is an extract from Mixing Pop And Politics: A Marxist History of Popular Music, out now on Repeater Books.

About the Author

Toby Manning is the author of The Rough Guide to Pink Floyd (Penguin 2006) and John le Carré and the Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2018).