Johnny Boy and the beauty of class angst

generation

Regular readers will know that I absolutely love lists. Not only do they often both validate and challenge your own opinions at the same time, but they sometimes can bring unknown gems to your attention. There’s something great about seeing an unfamiliar song or album tucked in between two favourites and scoping out what strange sounds might lie in between the cracks of your record collection.

Which is how I discovered Johnny Boy’s 2004 single “You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve.”

Though I vaguely recall the song’s unforgettable title popping up on a music website here or there a few years ago, it wasn’t until Pitchfork put together their “singles of the decade” list that I was inspired to seek it out for myself. Mostly I was trying to figure out what this obtusely-named song was doing ahead of such essential tracks as Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster Stronger” and Spoon’s “The Underdog.”

Three minutes later, another question seemed more pressing: where the hell has this song been all my life?

An effervescent union of British attitude and pop bliss, “You Are the Generation” feels like it’s existed forever, buried for all eternity, just waiting to be discovered and blow wildly through one’s speakers. Its familiarity comes, in large part, due to its healthy sampling of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (not the first notable song to do so, obviously – the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just like Honey” is based around the famous drum beat as well). But like the best samples, it’s using the familiar not as a crutch but as a jumping-off point for something all its own: a “spinning in the street” anthem for our deconstructionist times. It’s romanticism with a sting. It’s rage with a kiss on the lips. It’s pretty friggin’ unbelievable.

It’s also got me thinking about why it is that the British can make class warfare sound so beautiful.

This is not an isolated incident. Some of the most outstanding British anthems ever produced use class antagonism as their key theme, whether it’s Pulp’s breakthrough masterwork “Common People” or (as I discussed a while back) the Manic Street Preachers’ exhilarating “A Design for Life.” There’s a vitriol that fuels all of these songs, but it doesn’t manifest itself as anger. Instead, it’s converted into a complicated, mitigated pride.

These kinds of sentiments are rarely found in American popular music; when they do sneak in, they tend to be either angrier about their situation (West coast punk) or seeking escape from it (Springsteenian motifs). It’s as if America’s class mobility – or at least, the belief in its existence – is a barrier to achieving the kind of status anthems that the British have produced. The spokespeople for the American underclass are not content to be “common people”; they’re “born to run” out of it all.

But back to Johnny Boy. “I just can’t help believing though believing sees me cursed,” sings Lolly Hayes. Finding underclass contentment in the consumerist wasteland is a burden, but it’s a burden that her sterling vocals wear with pride, if not joy. And dear lord, does it sound magnificent.

Watch: Johnny Boy – “You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve”

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5 responses to “Johnny Boy and the beauty of class angst

  1. Pingback: …in which McNutt counts down singles 50-31 of the decade « McNutt Against the Music·

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  3. Pingback: My top songs of the 2000s « McNutt Against the Music·

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