The first person plural is hurting. A week after the election, Wesley Morris dismantled “we” for The New York Times, and detailed how Donald Trump crippled an already weak term: “He won, in part, by turning from ‘we’ to ‘other,’ which is what you become when you’ve been deemed ineligible for ‘we.'” In her forthcoming memoir, Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood addresses “we” in the broadest sense: “A we is so powerful. It is the most corrupt and formidable institution on earth. Its hands are full of the crispest and most persuasive currency. Its mouth is full of received, repeating language. The we closes its ranks to protect the space onside it, where the air is different. It does not protect people. It protects its own shape.”
“We” happens reflexively in speech and song. It is a projection, an assertion through the pronoun that some collective body exists, including both the speaker and the listener. Right now, “we” is a vague and optimistic word in an historical moment that is complicating optimism and is not improved by vagueness. For many, “we” has always been a fiction, so laying it bare for a wider audience is not a bad thing. But we’re going to keep — there it goes again. How to grab this piece of furniture and change it in a way that isn’t dishonest? “We” isn’t going to disappear, and we aren’t going to disappear.
The music of American resistance is often delivered in the triumphal tone, whether it’s Public Enemy or Fugazi or Rage Against The Machine. (The counter-strike can be as violent as the strike.) Americans are less practiced in the art of muted self-deprecation, reducing your position out of generosity. I’m not really a hollering knob end, but I might be sometimes, and I’d rather make you feel better than defend myself, the diminished voice says.
One example of a constructive “we” can be found in the music of Sleaford Mods, a duo from Nottingham, England. Their new album, English Tapas, is an example of exuberant negativity that sacrifices the self (and then, probably, you). The band’s singer, Jason Williamson, announced the album on Instagram at the end of last year with a short video, transcribed here:
This is a video nasty. Just when you thought 2016 couldn’t get any worse, the Sleaford Mods announce details of their next album, to be released on March the 3rd on Rough Trade Records. The album’s called English Tapas. Make do, crap, English, and above all, shit.
Williamson expanded on that idea, visually, posting photos on Twitter and Instagram in the following weeks. A pair of badly soiled Union Jack underwear; a pair of older women wearing Union Jack overcoats and sitting on church pews; and, best of all, intensely fried vegetable matter sitting in metal trays under heat bulbs, ostensibly taken at an English chip shop. This is the direct answer to “What is English tapas?”
Americans who feel at sea now can review the German conscience and the English outlook. Germany acknowledging its role in the Holocaust has involved financial reparations, governmental statements of responsibility, and a growing list of physical memorials, a process that began after the war and continues today. In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates made the case that America needs to face the same kind of reckoning. This is a structural act, though, and is only complete with an admission of guilt at the state level. As much as the idea of personal contribution may resonate emotionally, the potential disasters of unintended condescension seem infinite. Kickstarter for reparations? There may be a more terrible idea, but not many. This transformation is decades away, at best.
The English outlook, though, is both feasible and designed for at-home use. People in England have used self-deprecation to define personal responsibility for hundreds of years; it is also very useful when accepting the end of empire. The idea here is not that any particular kind of song will foment the kind of pressure that changes a structure; just that it can’t hurt to change the atmosphere and do a little prep. Americans can try this way of speaking, and thinking, by following the model of Sleaford Mods.
Take the first single from English Tapas, “B.H.S.” The chorus: “We’re going down like BHS, while the able-bodied vultures monitor and pick at us. We’re going down and it’s no stress. I lay in hope for the knuckle dragging exodus.” BHS is British Home Stores, a department store chain bought in 2000 by British billionaire Philip Green. After bankrupting the company and floating about on a yacht (reproduced in the video), Green sold the company for a dollar in 2015. A few weeks ago, Green was ordered to pay 363 million pounds to over 19,000 pensioners affected by the collapse, a record settlement for Britain’s pension regulator. Rings bells.
Williamson doesn’t spell this out in the song, as BHS is as well known in Britain as Wells Fargo is in America. Surrounding the cry of defeat are descriptions of an unspecified neighborhood where billionaires don’t live: “the shouts and music of the crowd down the road boozing near the free car park, the bins, and the alley way of the Chinese restaurant.” The music, made by Williamson’s bandmate, Andrew Fearn, is as distilled as all of their other tracks. A cheap drum machine, along with a second, less crappy sounding set of drums, bangs out a steady rock beat that never changes. The clicky bass line, which sounds like a sample of a live bass player, plays three descending notes. One tiny piano figure and one drum roll are the only variations allowed, except for a brief sample of what might be Williamson’s voice. It’s energetic and hissy, lo-fi, muscular, and not at all maudlin. Williamson projects loudly while never screaming, taking care not to vary his tone. If he wants to emphasize a word, he adds a second track of his voice.
Williamson never mentions race or class, though there’s an obvious power imbalance. Whoever “we” is, they’re going down with thousands of workers bled dry by a one-percenter. The implied message isn’t that we are going to be OK, except for this possible “exodus.” (“They” could be leaving, or “us.” But we’re probably fucked.) This doesn’t mean we are going quietly, a point Williamson makes clear in live shows. Christine Franz’s new documentary on the band, Bunch Of Kunst, shows how far Williamson will go to get this point across. He’s got a great schtick: his left arm stays immobile, holding either the mic stand or a bottle of water, while his right arm plays hype man. Sometimes Wiliamson keeps the arm behind his back, as if it’s about to say something inappropriate. When the right hand gets free, it bats away at Williamson’s head, as if he’s surrounded by flies. On stage, Williamson lets himself scream and yell, turning delivery into cardio. Fearn demystifies, tapping the space bar to start a track, then standing next to his laptop and drinking a beer while Williamson does the work. As Williamson described the entire project to me by phone: “unglamorous.”
English Tapas catalogues various stress points, most of them smaller than the trainwreck of BHS. “Just Like We Do” is a response to the haters, a staple song for any act on the way up. In a set of notes sent out to journalists, Williamson encapsulated the song: “Some people don’t like you having success. They like it when you first appear on the scene ‘A breath of fresh air!’ they say. Then of course you continue. They don’t like that.”
The track is a bit slower than “BHS,” but equally uninterested in detail. The bass and drums carry one motif, just one. The Williamson battle rhyme is a bit different than the American variety, as there seems to be no upside to fame here: “Punk’s not dead, well it is now or does no one care about you? Given half the chance you’d walk around like a twat just like we do.” Successful, fine, but you’re still a twat.
The healing here is in the act of throwing yourself into a hopeless vision, a spin on the “getting on with it” intrinsic to Britishness. This impulse could be borrowed. Before Americans can sort out how many different cohorts sold out how many other cohorts, they — we — can find a way to say “we fucked up” without giving up.
English Tapas is out now via Rough Trade. Sleaford Mods are doing a short North American tour, too. Here are the dates:
03/30 Brooklyn @ Warsaw
04/01 Toronto @ The Opera House
04/03 Chicago @ The Metro
04/05 Seattle @ Neumos
04/07 San Francisco @ Slim’s
04/09 Los Angeles @ Echoplex