One of the (substantially true) cliches about the British is that we’re fixated on the two world wars of the early-to-mid 20th century. Certainly the subject comes up remarkably often and is a surprisingly constant source of reference given there are so few living participants or witnesses remaining (someone who was five years’ old in 1945 is now 78-79, someone who was five years’ old in 1918 is now vying for position as one of Britain’s oldest residents.) In some ways it’s understandable: to be British is to live in a relatively crowded country where most streets follow courses laid down hundreds of years ago, where digging down any depth reveals we’re walking on past settlement, where we’re rarely far from a physical remembrance of decisions hundreds of years old. The British character seems to have drawn something from this shrouding in memory – we mostly live in the property and belongings of past generations. I can’t help but think of that when I listen to Ghost Box, Trunk Records, The Caretaker, Burial – it’s a very British musical form, this eerie invocation of relatively recent cultural heritage: rave, jungle, the BBC – things that once sounded like the future and, of course, faded to become just an accepted and steady present before acquiring a dusty vibe that marked them as the past. Maybe it’s an aspect of life in a wet climate, that crispness and sharp decisive lines become mildewed, warped and mangled.
Anyways, ramble over. I had the pleasure of seeing Bikini Kill over in Brixton on Tuesday evening supported by the deeply cool Big Joannie and The Tuts.
Remarkable seeing how Bikini Kill’s significance as a band that meant something more than music has given them the ability to fill a venue of this size so many years later. My friend was disappointed there was no music from any of the participants’ later bands (Julie Ruin? Le Tigre?), but maybe that’ll come (perhaps accompanied by new music) if the band stays together – there’s surely only so many times Bikini Kill’s nineties catalogue can be reiterated. Musically, it’s very much of it’s time and there’s a fairly stable and relatively unvaried palette at the centre of it all – sounded great on a big stage though.
Kathleen Hanna is such a wicked front person: a whirl of movement, eye-catching body language and captivating anti-rock god posture. She’s also a voice of rationality taking the chance to share her observations on the state of modern politics, then/now comparison, positivity and forward motion. Definitely not a ‘holier than thou’ figure, what I heard was both someone committed to their beliefs but equally committed to be humane and celebrating common humanity too – to not lauding herself over anyone.
My friend was determined to head to the front so we ducked our way through gaps in the crowd until she was ensconced in the first/second row and I held myself a couple of rows back. It was really enlightening hearing her thoughts afterward: “this is the first time I’ve been to a show and felt safe at the front.” It was so notable that the girls were looking after one another even as the mosh-pit surged as heavily as at any other show. I really value being challenged in day-to-day life and I realised immediately that, as a bloke, I’ve never had to think twice before heading to the front. With my eyesight being less than brilliant I’ve always needed to be fairly close to feel that connection to a performance, plus I actually like seeing not just hearing the creation of music. It felt like a flash of the blindingly obvious to be reminded that it isn’t necessarily such a thoughtless decision for a woman to step in close. Great to attend a show where this was called out and people were asked to make an individual choice – some went forward, many stayed back.
It was funny to see that crowd-surfing has become a bit of an embarrassing relic indulged in only by a tiny number of people: I remember losing the appetite for it at a Feeder gig in 2000 or so when someone’s boot cracked down on a friend’s nose and she had to spend the majority of the show in the toilets trying to stem a substantial flow of blood before we took her home because her head was spinning. Part of me wishes the mosh-pit would follow, I’ve never had much interest in slamming other humans – I bounce, pogo, headbang and vibrate to my heart’s content but I just feel sheepish when my energy collides with someone else’s space.
For me, what was interesting was to be placed in a position of awkwardness, where I couldn’t relax or just be thoughtless – this was NOT a bad thing. A lot of the time, faced with discomfort, the most human reaction is to reassert one’s own righteousness and lash out – it’s worth resisting this and taking time to question oneself. Very quickly, just by virtue of following a friend, I felt I was too close to the front. I was never able to really let go during the show because I was trying my best to not let the mosh-pit crush the front rows, trying to keep my balance and not get hurled onto the people around, passing water back between songs, stepping alongside one girl’s male friend so she had a bit of cover while replacing a contact lens…But, in truth, one’s own perception of one’s gig etiquette isn’t really relevant: it’s all eye of the beholder – I could never be sure what I thought was good behaviour was being thought of that way, my friend’s assertion that “you’re not a dick,” really didn’t cover it.
It was a very positive gig, the spirit was wonderful, it was nice to see girls being able to get together and set the course…But beyond gender, beyond any group identity based on a shared ideology or belief, people are still people. Hanna made a point of stating that the left wing needs to stop spending so much time applying purity tests to fellow travelers, to accept diverse of practice and approach, that individuals needed to stop trumpeting their own righteousness over others. Amen! But still, in the audience, there were authoritarian personalities who were more interested in asserting this opportunity for power by policing those around them. A gentleman had accompanied his girlfriend to the front row – legit! He’s entitled to stand with his partner. One girl took issue with this and used “girls to the front!” to barrack him until he bluntly refused to move. Crazily someone thought it was alright to then punch him in the head. Agh…No, nothing as low stakes as a musical performance should ever justify physical violence and ‘girls to the front’, I’m pretty sure it was meant to be a positive encouragement not a statutory regulation or a club to thud over someone’s head. Certain girls in the moshpit were as keen as any bloke could ever be to hurl themselves, or other human beings, into one another – at one point the back of someone’s head connected with my nose and I saw stars for a bit. I spent a lot of the gig trying to brace so the surging bodies wouldn’t hit others on the outskirts of the pit – equality does mean the right for anyone to be as self-centred as anyone else – as I said earlier I’d still like to see mosh-pits vanish into history.
Another incident erupted close by me and, after the gig, my friend commented “he looked like a typical Incel…” which made me wince – judgment by appearance when, in truth, he just looked like a skinny punk kid. Whatever the argument that sparked it, it was notable how quickly a dozen people had lined up against this guy to force him out. I can’t comment particularly, I didn’t see what occurred so I have no opinion, but mobs make me uncomfortable – I don’t believe for a second that all those people had a clue what had happened or were acting on a thoroughly accurate perception. I took the opportunity to head right to the back and watch the rest from there. A small cluster of guys were definitely going for it in the mosh-pit and I’d been very nervous about being lumped in with them already. People often privilege their own perception over a more rational acceptance of uncertainty or a belief that other people aren’t to be lumped into friend/foe categories and dealt with accordingly.
The crucial thing for me is that none of this soured me on the righteousness of Bikini Kill or the assertion of female-friendly gigs! It was a privilege to, for once, be the person who had to question whether I was doing the right thing at a show; and the vast majority of people were a courteous and fun-seeking bunch. Like anything, there’s always that 5% who can’t or won’t be decent – ah well. There are people on the right who would likely claim that the behaviour of a tiny percentage of people says something about the wider cause of liberalism, humanitarianism, feminism – rubbish. Pointing out a few difficult people doesn’t say anything at all about a cause that transcends individuals (just as fiscal rectitude, respect for historical/cultural roots, etc. are not bad things at all and the bad behaviour of a few people on the right does not say anything about the wider intellectual currents.) People have great difficulty remembering that they are simultaneously (a) an individual and (b) part of numerous wider impersonal groupings.