Was Margaret Thatcher Really Responsible for *Every* Song in '80s Britpop? And If So, Don't We Owe Her Big Time?


Via Reason contributing editor Michael Moynihan, now pushing pixels at The Daily Beast, comes this awful LA Times story about Margaret Thatcher's Yahweh-like influence on British pop music.

She was everywhere, don't you see, fulfilling Pascal's description of God as "an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere." When it came ot pop, there was just no escaping her, don't you see?

Writes Reed Johnson:

Much of the best pop music of the Thatcher years was a response to the perceived bleakness, and it expressed itself in different forms. On one side was the aggressively politicized engagement of groups such as The Clash and the early UB40 (whose name referred to a British unemployment benefits form). At the other end was the flamboyant, clothes-horse escapism of larky New Romantics groups such as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club.

But all these forms could be interpreted, at least partially, as responses to a growing sense of anger and confusion, if not despair, about the transformations unleashed on British society by Thatcher…

So, in other words, all music produced during Thatcher's reign of terror can be attributed to Thatcher, whether it was political or not, punk or not, serious or larky, good or bad? As long as we're stuffing responsibility and causality into the Iron Lady iconic, oversized, Tinky-Winkly-like handbag, I want to blame her for Eric Crapton's '80s discography, Elton John's decline during her years in power, and David Bowie's slump neo-colonialist fantasies of "China Girl" and his slump into "Let's Dance" (it's an escapist dream innit, guv'nor, to put on your red shoes and dance while Maggie Mae's jackbooted thugs are closing coal mines that were supposedly awful places to work anyway, don't you see?). Can we also assume that Gary Glitter's irrepressible penchant for underage boys was a direct result of Thatcherite policies that led to an expanding economy and the valorisation of choice and rampant conumerism?

I'm no uncritical admirer of Thatcher. She did some things right (she liberalized Britain's economy, for instance, and that was good for everybody, even if it meant a generation of English layabouts were cajoled into working for a living by rising wages and increased purchasing power) and she did a lot of things wrong (she pushed homophobic legislation, persisted in stupid policies aimed at Argentina, and was a Pinochet apologist, among other things). But whether you think Lady T was the greatest PM since Churchill or "a terror without an atom of humanity" (as The Smiths' Morrissey opines) the LA Times piece is the worst sort of faux-cultural studies, generically linking any and all emanations of culture to a common source in a way that tells us nothing about anything.

As important, this type of analysis skirts over the stark fact that the original U.K. punk explosion was borne out of frustration not over Thatcher and her free-market policies but out of decades of state expansion over every aspect of life in the Sceptered Isle.

The punk movement kicked into gear well before Thatcher became prime minister in 1979. The first wave of punk had crested by the time she darkened the door at 10 Downing Street (indeed, the Sex Pistols had gone completely kerblooey by then, and the best days of band's such as the Buzzcocks and the Damned were behind them by the time Maggie and Dennis moved in).

It's far more accurate to argue that Thatcher was herself an emanation of punk, as some anti-Thatcherites have grudgingly done. She in no way came from the working classes, but as the daughter of a mere shopkeeper and and as a woman, she was transgressing the established order just as much in her own way as Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex (another punk band whose glory days were over by the time Thatcher arrived) or the swastika-sporting Siouxsie Sioux ever did. Or for that matter, Joe Strummer, the son of a diplomat.

Back in the very early Aughts, I had the curious honour of being interviewed by Johnny Rotten hisself on his "Rotten Radio" show that was part of the defunct eyada.com (ironically, back in my music journo days, a scheduled interview of him by me in 1987 fell through to my eternal disappointment). I suggested that punk had made a mistake for two reasons by not claiming Thatcher as one of their own. The first reason was because both were essentially a variation on Cromwellian roundheads rebelling against the overblown, sclerotic excesses in government policy and music respectively. Shrinking the state and shrinking the excesses of Emerson, Lake & Palmer were not, I argued, really all that different (I humbly submit that ELP's Brain Salad Surgery is the prog-rock equivalent of an 83 percent top marginal income tax rate). The second reason was that it would have absolutely driven Thatcher and her supporters far more insane to have been embraced by punks than mocked and derided by them (and punk at its best was not the idiot left-wing programme ultimately pushed by the Clash and others but an antinomian thumb in the eye of society). John Lydon readily agreed, noting that any and all pushback against socialisms national and international was always the right move. He was - and is - no fan of Thatcher's, but he remains dedicated to annoying the largest number of people at any given moment (which helps explain his refusal to piss on Thatcher's grave).

Punk was a movement rippling with political import and much of it both expressed outrage and frustration and anger (listen to a Stiff Little Fingers' 1978 tune "Alternative Ulster" sometime). But it and pop music more generally exceeds politics (I'm pretty sure that the Adverts' 1977 classic "Gary Gilmore's Eyes" isn't a particularly useful white paper on organ transplants or the death penalty, any more than the Ramone's epic "Commando" tells us much about late-Cold War politics.)

The urge to valorise the insights of typically stupid performers who may also be great artists is understandable when you agree with the insights, but it's sadly misguided. Yeah, yeah, Morrissey is so on-target about Thatcher, he must be equally right about calling the Chinese a "subspecies," right? Or in his ritual denunciations of dark-skinned immigrants who have "flooded" England in terms that would make Eric Clapton's slurred huzzahs for Enoch Powell seem positively enlightened, right?

But it's even more of a mistake to attribute whole eras of music - regardless of form, content, style, you name it - to a single cause, especially in a society where bands and performers were free to speak their minds and even leave the country with impunity. Thatcher may have been a lot of things, but she wasn't Hitler for Christ's sake (which you'd expect Nazi-obsessed punks to know better than anyone) or Stalin or the child-molesting Sandinista strongman Daniel Ortega or even Jerry Brown circa 1979, when the "zen fascist" was the subject of arguably the greatest protest song in American history.

Margaret Thatcher is doubtless making her case to her Anglican god right now. She can be blamed for a lot of things, but you can't blame her for Swing Out Sister or even the goddamn Communards.