Serfs and toffs and national popular culture


By Kari Kallioniemi


After I had finished my PhD about the post-war British pop music, one academic in my university asked me bluntly, "Are there really any significant British pop-stars after the Beatles?" Somehow this question implied that sometimes in Finland, contemporary (or post-Beatles) English pop is considered either as a joke or seen as an object of interest sustained only by intellectual preciousness.

This polemic echoes the idea, that England seems to have completely faded away from the cultural map in Finland, at least in pop terms. Oasis may be well-known worldwide, but the general attempt to (re)define Britain's place in the world post Empire and energetic debate surrounding its identity seem to gather little or not interest at all outside "the sacred island" .

The cultural position of Finland also seems to suffer from that kind of syndrome. The country is recognised by its Nokia-hype, but also caught up in the trap of ancient stereotypes. Because constructions of Finnishness seen by outsiders are generally located in an eastern, atmospherically liminal and sentimental space, in a kind of world in-between, it is not surprising then, that an insensitive outsider might well perceive this as a symptom of pre-modern semi-civilized living.

In 1995, a Melody Maker journalist, whilst visiting Helsinki clubland, caused some indignation among Finns by referring to them as serfs. The slanging match which followed disclosed a kind of rock'n'rollish love or loathe relationship between Englishness and Finnish (popular) culture. As much as some people in England consider Finland as a hopelessly remote and untainted exotic place, there are still enough natives in Finland who perceive that most of the English live in stately homes and are hopelessly repressed toffs.

Imaginary others of our dreams

In the light of these examples, national stereotypes nowadays seem to be as one-dimensional and irrational as they have always been. Because national is a cultural site with which the sacralised notions of pure, authentic and deep feelings are most often associated, it has led to the mythologisation of it as a realm of emotion rather than reason, and debates concerning its values are thus often highly emotional. Somewhere deep inside, we 'feel' and 'know' it in a quite profound way, as one of the basic experiences of the human condition, but as soon as we try to communicate and share this experience we are caught up in oversimplifications and stereotyping.

Among the more frequently mentioned American influences, Finnish popular culture has also been pervaded by Anglo influences. Although Finnish eccentricity has been recently displayed favourably in Britain in the form of the shamanistic craftsmanship of Jimi Tenor, I think that he is more to do with Finland's distinctive Anglophonic indie scene than with any quintessentially Finnish national expression. I believe that the peculiar hybridity of the music of Tenor could not have emerged without the 30 years of ambiguous Anglo-influences on Finnish popular music. And this is why British journalists recognise this historical twist of music appropriation, both representative yet distinctive, emerging first in the Anglo-American axis, seeing themselves in this popular cultural mirror. Or more so, sensing familiarity in the whimsy of English pop in Tenor's image and music.

It might be true that non-English people are often either anglomaniac or suffer from anglophobia, which explains the often extremely emotionally expressed attitudes towards England, be it in the case of Brideshead Revisited or English football. However, the more rapidly globalisation rolls our world, the more we tend to believe in the romantic myth of Volksgeist as the last sanctuary in the changing world. Although there is not, nor never has been, indigenous and pure cultures, only the imaginary others of our dreams.

The blandness of "Cool Britannia"

This was also the problem when Blairist popular and national politics converged. Those people who have been searching for something positive to say about the nature of contemporary Britishness are fond of taking a look at its distinctive culture. The incoherent, but often multicultural and also political, eighties English pop-identity was beginning to get rehabilitated when Englishness became gradually the catchphrase of the 90s perceived through popular music and the resurgence of English (popular) culture. The exploitation of Britpop during Tony Blair's courting of the youthful vote with the image of 'Cool Britannia' was based on the anglicising of the 60s synthesis of rock, music hall and folk, which produced a new strand of national music woven into Britpop. Britpop's infatuation with British pop history created a basis for the relationship between pop music, Blairism and its neo-nationalism.

This was, after all, the impetus behind the re-branding of the country as "Cool Britannia" a couple of years ago, a campaign which since its launching party has been attacked by malicious articles about the whole blandness of its concept. It seemed to be a fascinating idea in 1995, while constructed, but as soon as it showed its emperor's clothes by revealing the very anti-rock'n'roll cultural homogeneity of its cultural roots as part of the "real" English culture, the magic disappeared.

British cultural commentator Andrew Calcutt recently explained in the introduction to his new book on British culture, Brit Cult, that "the common currency of British politics is not ideology and economics but lifestyle and emotion. With the collapse of empire, the demise of British manufacturing and the end of ideology, Britain is British culture, no more and no less". In his book he shows how the vitality of the culture is exemplified by the critical command which also recognises the emotional reading of a seemingly irrational cultural condition.

Imaginary nationhoods

This is what I also tried to do in my thesis. I tried to view Britain through the mirror of popular music which recognises and acknowledges its diversity. 'Imagining England' from the outside, from the point of view of a foreigner, and through pop music might sound problematic and a bit self-indulgent, but when successful, it is both a strange and familiar feeling which sets our psyche ticking and visualising those endless mutations of imaginary nationhoods created by cultural interaction, dissemination and integration.

From this point of view, the sixties-style-based confidence of British pop-cultural output, which was so conspicuous in the latter part of the 1990s, has always seemed to surround modern Englishness/Britishness. But it consists of much more than the mythical concept of pop-Englishness reconstructed by the historical output of the sixties and baby-boom generation. The exclusion of dandyism, British eccentricity, women, multiculturalism and ambivalence towards Englishness manifested in the transgressive character of Britpop could not corporate "the lived culture" lively enough.

The historian Hayden White has argued that there are four different stories of society's self-understanding: comic, tragic, romantic and ironic. It might be, that in the Blairist Zeitgeist the romantic and comic have erased the ironic and tragic. Subscribing to Beatles back catalogues and inviting Elton John sing Candle in the Wind is such a lazy way to cater for national cultural tastes. You will have to get more toffs and serfs to the table before the version of British post-war pop history recycled by Britpop will be served as the main course of the menu, decade after decade.


Kari Kallioniemi is lecturer in Cultural History, University of Turku, Finland. He recently finished his PhD Put the Needle on the Record and Think of England - Notions of Englishness in the Post-War Debate on British Pop Music. The work will be commercially published in Britain in 2001.


[home] [focus] [archive]