Pop and the resurgence of fascism
Note: looking back through my email correspondence with my editor, it is become clear to me that, as this column has gone on, it has become less funny and more morally outraged and cantankerous. As it turns out, those two things are inversely proportional. As I sat down to write this week’s instalment, then, I wanted so much to see light-hearted and wheeze-inducing lines begin to form on the page; but given the truly, monstrously awful week that led up to my writing this article, hopefully you can understand why that clearly didn’t happen. The article you are about to read may look like I accuse Ed Sheeran of being a fascist sympathiser, but I promise that is not what I am actually doing. I say this only to protect myself in case, in a few weeks, there appears a Tab headline that reads “Exeter student hates new Ed Sheeran singles so much he likens him to Hitler” which would probably ruin any chance that the Poltimore Festival might have had of getting him on the line up next year.
Perhaps the most disturbing and memorable moment in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of A Clockwork Orange is the scene where Alex’s eyes are being mechanically held open, forcing him to watch horrifying footage as a part of the dictatorship’s experiments on the minds of social degenerates. This is a compelling symbol for the experience of the individual within capitalist consumer culture: listen to the radio, watch television, or walk through any built-up area almost anywhere in the world and you are bombarded with messages, both overt and subliminal, trying to influence your thoughts and behaviour. We cannot be surprised then, when the most overt message of a particular moment, one that is circulating with more energy than any other idea, turns up in pop music. Chart songs may not often seem to engage with the seismic cultural and political activity of a given time, but the dirt that these shifts kick up ends up settling in the Top 50 like dust on a high shelf.
Much of the talk of the last few weeks has come to resemble the sort of discourse seen in Europe in the 1930s: strong leaders who will finally purge our communities of the aliens residing amongst us; a long awaited end to the oppression of good, honest, ordinary folk; “giving power back to the people”; a return to a lost golden age where society was a wonderful, stable, homogenous group. The language used to convey these ideas is attractive and beguiling, because the ideas themselves are so repulsive, even to those who claim to be invested in them. As such, the language of fascism bleeds out of the small circles where its sentiment is truly felt, and into culture.
Look through the charts and you find, very close to the top, a Castle On The Hill. Castles are all that remain of a long-distant time when society was vertically structured and the beholder of absolute power was never questioned. The castle sits on a hill to exemplify its distance from us in space, as well as time, yet it is something the song bespeaks a yearning to return to. The image is instantly too problematic to be mere nostalgia.
The lyrics are full of a desire to return, not just to the youth of the singing subject, but to a different era entirely: “take me back […] I’ve not seen the roaring fields in so long […] I can’t wait to go home”. The country is the standard backdrop of a regression to a golden age, away from the burden of modernity and the state authority that comes with it: “I’m on my way, driving at ninety down those old country lanes”. The singer mourns the state of an old order which has long since collapsed: we hear a list of old friends who have been failed by life, and now exist on the fringes of society: “one friend left to sell clothes, one works down by the coast, one had two kids but lives alone, one’s brother overdosed, one’s already on his second wife, one’s just barely getting by”. There is even the language of a long overdue rejection, a purge of something toxic within: “me and my friends have not thrown up in so long”.
On the surface, these lyrics are obviously inspired by Ed Sheeran’s childhood memories and not are not a eulogy for European fascism. But encoded within this language are radically conservative ideas. Their sentiment may not be felt by the writer/singer, who is likely to be oblivious to the possibility of a such a reading of their work; but this shows how, at times when fascist ideology is circulating, its language spreads far and wide without us even noticing.