Monday, 5 September 2011

Where Have All the White Guys Gone?

White guys with guitars are in crisis.

The once prevailing species of chart domination is now crawling along the streets of Britain, forlornly congregating outside the decaying doors of record labels, scratching at windows and grunting through letterboxes. They moan like members of the walking dead, seeking a revival of the long gone halcyon days when rock'n'roll music was mainstay in the British charts and insipid urban music was nothing more than an underground niche activity practiced by young offenders.

Times have changed and the smug nature of white guys with guitars has taken a severe beating. Last year saw the number of rock songs in the singles chart fall to its lowest level in half a century, with only three tracks appearing in the top 100 best-selling hits in the UK. The percentage of rock songs plummeted from a lacklustre 13% in 2009 to a despairing 3% in 2010; far behind hip-hop/R'n'B at 47%, pop at 40% and dance 10%.

To add further woe, the most successful rock song of 2010 turned out to be Journey's Don't Stop Believing. This was further indication that the only way to save rock music is to have it filtered through the Glee cast.

So how has it gone so wrong for white guys with guitars? How have they managed to ruin such a great run that's lasted almost 50 years?

15 years ago Britain was in the frenzied grip of a movement known as Britpop. Britpop was seen as a shining moment for the British music industry; a leftfield reaction to the American grunge scene that preceded it and the manufactured pop confections that came after. It was during the Britpop phase we saw bands like Blur, Oasis, Suede, Pulp and countless other guitar groups that cherished both lyricism and melody. Britpop was huge and for the first time in years provided Britain with a cultural backdrop that burrowed its way into film, fashion, journalism, politics and pretty much every aspect of 90s British life. The cornerstone of Britpop's success lay in guitar music and white guys were at the forefront of this mighty force.

Then everything sputtered and stalled. Guitar bands became interchangeable, producing transposable rhythms and styles, making everything sound depressingly familiar and dull. Added to this was the proliferation of illegal filesharing which effectively destroyed the established hegemony of big record companies. Labels became greatly perturbed and sought safer investments, turning to Svengalis like Simon Cowell and Simon Fuller to provide them with reliable products.

Now the music landscape in Britain has altered in ways we never saw coming. Urban music has metamorphosed into pop music, losing much of its perceived danger. Furthermore, generic pop acts sprung from televised talent shows like X Factor and Pop Idol have become the biggest selling sounds, dominating all the top chart places. More importantly, American pop music has become ever more ubiquitous in the British charts; a far cry from the 1990s when even the biggest US acts failed to chart well in the UK top-40.

Despite the doom and gloom there are some guitar acts still flying the flag for British music, but even they are witnessing diminishing returns.

The Arctic Monkeys are arguably the biggest thing in contemporary British alternative music, but their sales have receded badly. 2009's Humbug sold only a fifth of the amount their 2006 debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. Their latest album Suck It and See fared even worse, shifting only 154,000 units worldwide, a far cry from the 360,000 copies their debut amassed in the UK in just its first week of sale.

Arctic Monkeys - The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala

Other guitar acts like The Fratellis, The Rakes, The Twang, The Rascals, The Pigeon Detectives, The Wombats, The View and Hard-Fi have all returned in the last few years with new albums only to see their efforts flop, ultimately convincing some of them to either keep on idly persevering or to get real jobs.

On a cultural note, the death of guitar music certainly bucks the notion that austere times produce more meaningful songs. After all, the economic hardship of the late-1970s produced British bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Joy Division, The Cure and The Smiths.

Despite the British economy suffering its longest period of economic fallout in a generation, there have been no new bands that are creating music that reflects the pained mood the country's feeling. Despite experiencing the worst social riots Britain has seen in a generation there are hardly any songs that echo the brooding unrest and fury the country is obviously feeling.

Even the US recession of the early-1990s gave voice to angry American bands like Mudhoney, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, L7, Riot grrrl, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Dickless and Pearl Jam to name a few. America was caught in a depressive quagmire and was ready to feel miserable about itself, hence why the songs of Paula Abdul and Wilson Phillips were no longer relevant to a new generation of kids growing up during hard times.

I will argue that America is in an even worse state right now yet its charts are dominated by vacuous pop acts like Black Eyed Peas, Bruno Mars and Katy Perry: acts that have nothing to say about what the nation and its people are going through.

To bring it back home, British white guys with guitars are trying to get their act together and launch another assault on the manufactured pop dominion festering at the top. Bands like Joy Formidable, Foals, Everything Everything, Bombay Bicycle Club, The Vaccines, Yuck and Two Door Cinema Club are hanging in the ether, biding their time, waiting for people to bore of decks and embrace electric stringed instruments again. If there's one thing any British music aficionado knows it's that our music press, which is dominated by middle-class Caucasian men, feels uncomfortable writing about black music or unworthy pop acts. They in particular are aching for music consumers to get real and start buying records by bands that reflect the truth, if only to keep them in work.

If You Wanna by The Vaccines

Get Away by Yuck

They may be waiting a while because it's hard to see Britain tiring of pseudo urban culture or reality television pop gods any time soon. The demographics of Britain are seriously changing and ethnic prominence is becoming harder to ignore. It's difficult to see how a bunch of largely affluent white people who yell out their lyrics can reflect the experiences of an increasing young black and Muslim population in Britain. The only way around this is for adolescent minority groups to take an interest in rock music and for radio stations to broadcast their creative output. After all, the lyrics to a song like The Smiths Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now or Pulp's Disco 2000 are relevant to all cultures residing in Britain, yet one cannot think of anyone other than white acts writing such music.

The guitar may be the providence of rich white kids who prefer to dress like they're poor, but British urban music has become increasingly about white kids acting like they're black. Therefore the only way to shake things up is for an elemental act of assimilation whereby guitar music gets some colour and ethnic groups―probably the very ones who have the most interesting observations about modern life in Britain―take arms and reinvent guitar music in fresh, exciting and truly wondrous ways.

If there's one thing I know about Britain it's that we have some of the most amazing bands ever and create brilliant songs that travel globally. Unlike America where angry people have the option to pull out a movie camera and make a film about their experiences, we pick up our guitars and sing about how crap everything is.

Meaningful song writing is in our blood and the guitar is our weapon of choice. It's a shame to lose that.


  1. In Pericles, his queen and daughter, seen, Following!

  2. I honestly can't stand guitar heavy music these days. I'm personally very happy with the current state of popular music. Of course, I mainly listen to K-Pop and Lady Gaga, but yeah. Electronic music has always been so exciting to me, and I've learned to embrace the dance pop and haven't looked back.

  3. But...we have John Mayer! We Americans can share with you.

  4. I'm proud to be dating a white man who plays the guitar. Look at me, helping this cause!

    But yeah, I think it's a shame that white boys are gravitating towards rap music rather than sticking with their folksy roots. I'm not a big rap music or electronic music fan. I wish instruments were back in style.

  5. I stick to my alternative and rock stations online, but I was aware of the decline in this type of music, which is my favorite thing to listen to. I have nothing against Glee, but I was bummed out reading that a guitar song has to go through there to become popular.

  6. it is true, that a decade ago whole Europe was listening to British music and your top ten was full of hits we listened to as well, but nowadays, there are almost no British musicians scoring success around Europe and world. Adele and Leona Lewis are just two exceptions which I could think of right now.
    But if you ask me, the situation with music is bad all around the world.

  7. I'm all for alternative rock. Not much heavier, but heavy alternative.

  8. Great and thoughtful post!
    Adele is truly a new British sensation right now and I'll wait for other great pop talents from Great Britain.

  9. Every music awards show I think "Where is the rock 'n' roll??!!!"

  10. I love guitars and I love rock n roll. Maybe I should say I love real musicians, people who know how to play a non-programmable instrument. I think that's the problem - they seem to be the exception these days.