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Why is Sleaford Mods’ 2014 release ‘Divide & Exit’ such a culturally important representation of modern Britain?

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“Though the words chosen by Williamson cannot be called subtle, the nuanced critique behind them indeed is, with a sophisticated analysis of notions of postmodernism, psychoanalysis and politics paving the way for a comprehensive view of enjoyment.” – (Green, 2017)

Sleaford Mods had released seven albums between 2006 and 2014. Their most recent offering at the time, ‘Divide And Exit’ was only the second of which to receive acclaim from the media and wider audiences.

“The sheer speed at which they’ve shifted from underground concern to cause célèbre is still striking.” (Petridis, 2014)
 As political and cultural tensions mounted around the UK, Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn’s (who joined in 2012) relaying diatribe was beginning to resonate. Turner, L (2014)  remarked that “Divide And Exit is music for anyone who reads the papers, looks at the news or spends more than half a minute on the internet and realises that there’s something really rotten with Britain – no, England – at the moment.” Their vitriolic onslaught served as a voice for the angry, confused, bored and oppressed members of the British public. In spite of their typically grimy and often incoherent output, the Nottingham based two-piece gained appraisal from outlets known to spearhead culturally varied forms of creativity in their reviews; namely The Quietus. In the publications review of  Divide and Exit, they observed that
 
“You don’t even have to live on particularly grim streets to be able to empathise or understand what they’re on about and why they’re angry, or where they’re coming from. These are vivid landscapes, as fine a document of the time they’re painted in as a Hogarth, Gillray, or Mass Observation report.” (Turner, 2014)
 This essay/article discusses the cultural impact of Sleaford Mods on modern Britain, with reference to Postmodern and Marxist theory.
Initially, the music of Sleaford Mods “seem like thoughtless rambles fuelled by anger and profanity” (Green, 2017). However, it has past been unintentionally categorised as avant-garde in the arts department. They were described as “ Perfect for Supersonic Festival, Birmingham’s beacon of avant-garde” by BrumNotes’ Amy Sumner (2014).

The term ‘avant-garde’ lends itself to music that takes a more thoughtfully experimental approach, with more off-centre sources of cultural conditioning. The 1920’s adage ‘Agit-Prop’ derived from this as a Soviet movement, and later an art-term; in Tate Galleries’ description (2019) they say that Agit-Prop “ intended to control and promote the ideological conditioning of the masses. The term is now used to refer to any cultural manifestation with an overtly political purpose”
Music relating to these concepts such as that of Sleaford Mods’ can struggle to acquire acceptance into widespread mainstream audiences. This is due to the cultural conditioning obligations of industry tastemakers and their artists, who ‘ belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in.’ (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944) Said obligations are to relay certain messages through their songs that can be used to instil a manageable societal structure within listeners; or ‘enlightenment as mass deception’ (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944). This directly relates to the generalizations by Karl Marx and thinkers alike that “Men make their own history; they do not, however, make it under self-chosen conditions, but under imposed conditions mandated by tradition.” (Marx, 1852)To reiterate, Sleaford Mods are still very much the products of cultural conditioning like their mainstream counterparts, in spite of their resistance towards traditional influence. Beatmaker, Andrew Fearn was quoted as saying that, “(In Nineties Nottingham) it was cool to be unemployed; it was the time to drop out and I was completely one of those people that slipped through the net.” (Fearn, 2014) This evident rejection of societal expectations paved the way for acceptance into more subterranean social constructs, which made access to

‘avant-garde’ influence more fluid.

Whilst Sleaford Mods were most definitely influenced by elements of Marxism, they have also subscribed to a Frankfurt School inspired reinterpretation of Marxist theory. “Three words: Cage, Wheel, Hamster/Here’s a bit of cheese – nibble the bastard!” – a lyric in ‘Under the Plastic and NCT’ which has already been compared directly to Marcuse by The Quietus (2016) for its observations on how consumers’ ‘happy consciousness’ (Marcuse, 1962) is manipulated in order to make them believe that they are in control of their own freedom. “Part of ‘happy consciousness’ involved feeding people cheap goods so that they felt like they were well-off.” (Wrigley, 2017)

A piece of work that is most notably relatable to this is Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964), which in review has been observed to “anger both orthodox Marxists, who could not accept such thorough-going revision of Marxism, and many others who were unable to assent to such radical critiques of contemporary capitalist society.” (Kellner, 1991) Such radical critique of capitalist society is apparent in the lyrics of ‘ A Little Ditty ’: “Become what you hate, become what we are/A series one with dreams to reach a series four/Drive, dive, six-packs, drive, drive, white teeth, kit-kat” (Williamson, 2014). Whilst the lyrics complement the ideas in One Dimensional Man and also Adorno & Horkheimer’s notion of the Culture Industry (1944), where “personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining  white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions.”; the “become what we are” lyric implies a more self-referential than opposingly critical outlook, suggesting that they themselves have also been duped by systemic motives, and are in fact a contributing accessory to capitalist regimes whilst actually being aware of it. This promotes the idea that to have a critically in-depth awareness of a social situation is still not enough to prevent it, and that an oppressed destiny is suggestively inescapable.

“Sleaford Mods, like Adorno and Marcuse, realise the necessity of overcoming the present capitalist system and, at the same time, its apparent impossibility.” (The Quietus, 2016)
Another standout target of the duo’s tirade is the role of media within the present capitalist system. The track “ Tweet Tweet Tweet ” (2014) refers to the human race as social media-induced zombies, where the narrator concludes by committing suicide on a Metro line. The zombie metaphor suggests the placid preoccupation of the general public, who are busy in their own daze “Surfing comments, looking at the likes.” (Williamson, 2014). This is a lyric in
‘ Under the Plastic & NCT ’ a different song on the album that pursues the similar sentiment that ‘Likes’ are social currency for everyday people all over the world.” (Marwick, 2014) Once again, this directly relates to the Frankfurt School’s observations on broken promises of freedom. In this instance, it is social media and its initial promise which was to bring more freedom to society through self-expression. Constraints on media freedom quickly became evident as they were observed by Hill (2018) to “occur in the form of state control, a lack of public accountability and restricted access to technological infrastructure.”

Upon the introduction of social media, the level of potential exposure that users could obtain was vastly increased to an unprecedented level. This was previously only attainable through mass media; 
“It is not only celebrities, entertainers and politicians who can reach thousands of onlookers; a high school sophomore from Indiana can have 10,000 Instagram followers.” (Marwick, 2014) 
Whilst this was a profound digital advancement, there are suggestions that it has been misinterpreted as freedom by its users. The supposed increase in freedom appears to only be an increase in the scope that allows users to “carefully design their online interactions to enhance or conceal facets of themselves, creating personas which they imagined would be eagerly consumed by onlookers.” (Marwick, 2014) Communication expert, Hanke (2018) discovered “that 74 percent of Millennials prefer conversing digitally rather than in person.” via a worldwide survey, and argued that such unbalanced statistics reinforce the depletion of authentic face to face relationships. Relationships which the general public are evidently much more in favour of initiating via the confinements of social media’s threshold, possibly acting as “drones to the delusions of a never-never land ” (Williamson, 2014), all whilst they pursue an increase in status by accessorising the implemented notion of ‘likes’ as a means for social gain. This instils currency into the matter. Currency regardless of its form is the key motive for consumers to obtain within any typically controlled capitalist system, thus materialising the fact that social media does not provide freedom for its consumers but is instead a tool used for the manipulation of them.

“Constraints also appear where the market freedoms of media institutions eclipse the civic freedoms of audiences and users.” (Hill, 2018)

To continue with the capitalist implementations of social media – what was also not taken into account during social media’s formative years was that it was run by major companies who marketed their ventures as cultural benefactors. However, Alice Marwick, (2014) a field researcher into the internal operations of major social media institutes stated that “their primary concern was not ‘changing the world’ but profit”. This could be what Williamson’s lyric “to disagree on social networking sites is to kill the counter-culture” (2014) could be interpreted as; a sarcastic warning not to use social media for negative purposes as it will expose the supposedly revolutionary promise of social media, that has been observed by Marwick to have “been replaced by a jockeying for popularity and status that is far from

world-changing.”  Williamson touches on this competition for social status in the lyric in Under the Plastic & NCT, “We pander to the camera and we want to be observed.” (Sleaford Mods, 2014) This could be related to the Foucauldian theory of Bentham’s Panopticon (1975) when applied to social media use with public acceptance as a motive. The idea, inspired by a prison design where the guards can see into the cells but the prisoners cannot see out, caused Rayner
(2012) to argue that social media users are “perpetually exposed to the gaze” of fellow users which makes them regulate how they act online. Rayner remarked that “The act of sharing content is a performance, to an extent.” This implies that whilst Foucault used Bentham’s Panopticon as a theory into the conditioning of the masses, further assessment suggests that modern society is not only aware that it is being observed, but actually wishes to be.

The Neo-Marxist relations to Sleaford Mods continue in their sound, appearance and mannerisms. Mod, which is a shortened word for the term Modernist (can also be used in terms of fashion) implies their stance towards current ideals. However, their skeptic rejection of grand narratives in not only their lyrics but in interviews, appearance and instrumentation – synonymous with Lyotard’s (1979) definition of postmodernism as “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” – implies more Postmodern ideals.

“Singer Jason Williamson speed-talks bile while Andrew Fearn provides coarse backing tracks, which barely get beyond cheap plastic keyboard presets.” is the summary of the duo’s instrumentation by Pitchfork’s Nick Neyland (2014). Traditional musical instruments are dismissed and replaced by Andrew Fearn’s laptop that is propped up on a makeshift surface during performances. Fearn is known to press play on the backing track and spend the rest of the song dancing next to Williamson with a beer in his hand (before they applied a more tee-total approach to live shows). This lack of production value signifies ironic sentiments of anti-capitalism. The irony continues with the usual performance prerequisite of the musician – a musical instrument, being non-existent, thus expressing an anti-pop stance  and “Shaking off the notion of adhering to capitalist regime in music – say this, say that do this, do that, play this guitar.” (Williamson, 2017)


Further rejection of grand narrative in this nature is apparent in interviews, as Williamson (2017) was quoted in the Sleaford Mods film documentary ‘ Bunch of Kunst’ (2017) as saying, “I think we’ve bitten off more than we can chew with this fucking voice of the people take they keep fucking giving us”  followed by Fearn (2017) who says later in the film “I don’t know if it’s as credible as people think it is”.The anger in Williamson’s delivery suits their distinctive tirade, with overuse of expletives highly present throughout Divide & Exit. In a semiotic study of swearwords, Robert Moore (2012) refers to them as “the expression of anger, hostility, surprise or similarly intense emotions” which appears to be synonymous with Williamson’s motives, that is to provoke an immediately intense emotion, be that the emotion in question varies between recipients. What does not vary, however, is the immediacy of said received emotion, as Pitchfork describes; “there are no half-measures, no stylistic arcs, no organic steps
taken, no time at all to let it sink in”. (Neyland, 2014)
In the same semiotic study, Moore discusses the similarities between swearwords and the use of slang, which is usually group-specific. In Divide & Exit s case, Williamson’s Nottingham accent delivers vitriolic observations that make use of regional slang words such as “shit grub” – an informal, typically low-class British substitute for the description of substandard food; or in the track Tied up in Nottz, the shortening of their hometown name to “Nottz, with a Z, you c*nt” (Williamson, 2014)

Such excess of the use of profanities and slang throughout the album also ties wholly to their “lack of regard or respect for facets of predominant social order.” (Moore, 2012) – typical of Gramsci’s (1929) anti-elitist theories on hegemony.
Continued use of improper language throughout the album signifies educational blips, whether that be through rejection or lack of application to the educational system (Williamson was expelled in his final year at school). In spite of this, the album contains high levels of informed intellect, which when referred to Gramsci’s theories would likely see Williamson & Fearn categorised as organic intellectuals, who have crafted their ideals and repertoire not via education, but via first-hand experience. Williamson worked as a full-time benefits advisor and held similar unskilled professions over 25 years. This was within Grantham, a very white Eurocentric area of Britain where he witnessed elitism and class struggles first hand, as well as some dated displays of racism by Britons, apparent in the lyric from Under the Plastic & NCT, “ Thousands of Saturday lager bellies punching the air/Denouncing the value of somebody else’s flag/Whilst viciously believing in theirs” – (Sleaford Mods, 2014). “Everyone in Grantham who I know is racist. In the cities there is multiculturalism, people are a lot more open-minded, but in the small
towns, f**king forget it” (Williamson, 2019)In spite of the majority of issues presented on Divide & Exit being largely exclusive to a British means of living, their music has begun to resonate overseas. An anonymous fan (2017) in Germany on Bunch of Kunst was quoted as saying “I don’t have to understand the lyrics to get it.” which at first confused Williamson, who eventually concluded that “Once you get over the language barrier, you get into the idea of why; because it speaks to people working a 39 hour week.” which signifies that their cultural awareness is more perceptive than they assume, as their tirade surpasses national acclaim. Said national acclaim that Divide & Exit received became enforced by consistently prolific album releases ever since, also in 2015 when they collaborated with dance hall pioneers, The Prodigy, and in 2017 when they supported The Stone Roses at Wembley Stadium, which was a huge milestone in the maintenance of the bands cult legacy. Furthermore, the lyrics that Williamson wrote between 2007 & 2014 have been published in print. Grammar Wanker (2015) showcases the lasting impact that his lyricism has had, and how it is regarded as relevant enough to be projected as its own entity when separated from the music behind it.

Sleaford Mods challenge their cultural situation in terms of lyricism, musicality and beliefs with their brand of quintessentially British subterranean upheaval, that had not appeared to have been portrayed in such fashion before. Their ex-manager, Steve Underwood (2017) was quoted in Bunch of Kunst as saying “They are completely unique. You get loads of bands that think they’re doing something new, but they never are.” Despite their consistent acquisition of accolades, the duo typically under-state their abilities, particularly when in an artistic context. “We’re not even a decent avant-garde band.” (Williamson, 2017) However, amidst their rejective skepticism of themselves, exterior accreditation from peers and followers alike tend to take the foreground.
 
It could be argued that their typically British, self-deprecating outlook, which is then projected outwardly towards their many destinations of disagreement, has added to their appeal as cultural figures; as Underwood (2017) summarises when describing the oeuvre of Jason Williamson – “He holds a mirror up first to himself, and then everyone else.”

Matty Dagger


Bibliography 


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