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Keeping it unreal: James Blake and social class

A number of critics have seized upon the rising electronic music star's privileged upbringing. However, the grey area between street and establishment remains fertile ground

In the world of popular music, authenticity in not easily acquired: for one thing no one agrees on what it is; for another, most people who care about it seem to think you have to be born with it. Only in Britain, perenially obsessessed as it is with matters of class, could the background of pop stars be so routinely subjected to this kind of scrutiny.

While Prime Ministers from Thatcher to Blair have claimed the country is now a meritocracy, 23 out of 29 members of the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat cabinet are millionaires, and more than half went to fee-paying private schools. What's more, as Prince William's wedding approaches, Britain's near-forgotten aristocracy will soon dominate its identity again. At the same time, trade unions are gearing up for their greatest fight in two decades. After the recent announcement that 490,000 public-sector jobs are to be cut, widespread strikes are now a real possibility.

This sense of a reemergent British plutocracy is suddenly flourishing in mainstream popular culture too. The response to the folk-rock quartet Mumford and Sons' recent Brit Awards win for Best Album of 2010 was suffused with old-fashioned "class war" sentiments - who were these "toffs", people asked, and what were former private-school students doing colonising a working-class art form like pop music?

Statistical evidence for "the resurgence of poshness" was supplied in a survey for the monthly music magazine The Word - a survey which has been repeated in virtually every British newspaper, and on many radio and TV programmes: it calculated that "at least 60 per cent of chart pop and rock acts are now former public-school pupils, compared with just 1 per cent 20 years ago".

The magazine's editor Mark Ellentrumpeted the survey's revelations: "Once upon a time, the rich weren't interested in the popular arts. If they dabbled in the performing arts at all, it would be within the highbrow ghettos: opera, ballet, classical theatre. In the past 10 years, the well-heeled young have decided it would be a jolly hoot to annex popular culture en masse."

It's a great story, but it's nonsense. The same people complaining about "posh pop", as represented by Mumford and Sons or James Blunt, are wistfully recalling a time when pop was full of the restless, wide-eyed energy of the working-class, wilfully ignoring Pink Floyd, The Clash and countless other former private-school students. Tellingly, The Word's findings were based on analysis of only one week's singles charts, a virtually meaningless sample base. But the idea took hold of the British imagination. One follow-up to The Word's findings, in the Daily Mail, bafflingly demanded to know what on earth had happened to "working-class heroes" like The Rolling Stones; not even Mick Jagger, with his talent for self-mythologising, would claim to have dragged up from the gutter.

The latest victim (or beneficiary, if you prefer) of Britain's immovable class prism is the singer, balladeer, pianist, dubstepper and most hyped musician of the year, 22-year-old James Blake. In 2006, while studying popular music at Goldsmiths, Blake started attending FWD>>, London's ground-breaking dubstep night - effectively the club that launched dubstep on its path to global renown. After a musical upbringing including piano lessons from the age of six, FWD>> opened his eyes to the possibilities of electronic music: previously, "when I thought of dance music, I thought of trance", he has admitted.

In a revealing interview with The Guardian, Blake explained that his first electronic creations, which appeared on labels such as Hessle Audio and Hemlock, had tried to capture some of dubstep's energy: "I was trying to sound like some of the people I was listening to, like Mala and Coki. Now I listen to it back, it didn't sound like them. The rhythm aspect's there, but I could never nail that real, eyes-down intensity. It was cultural: I never came from the place that those people came from, so to come in and go, 'I'm just going to try and make this stuff' was probably a bit naive."

This is a surprising disclaimer for a new pop star to issue, on the verge of the release of his much-vaunted debut. But seen through the British class prism, his defensiveness was understandable. It's a flurry of self-apology unthinkable from, say, an American musician at a similar point in their career. Blake was seemingly determined not to be seen as a pop magpie, or to have people accuse him of transgressing his own middle-class background in the vain search for street-level authenticity.

The idea of pop magpieism holds that there is an instinctive, unspoken wonder to new working-class musical movements, that they happen without premeditation or musical sophistication. They are then co-opted by wealthier, whiter fans, musicians and institutions who strip out rawness of the originals and render it polite, manicured, and most importantly saleable, to a wider (and whiter) audience.

While this is problematic, for its patronising assumptions about class, race, education and talent, the process of cooption is also an observable truth, from Elvis Presley to the Beastie Boys. Indeed, dance music has a rich a history of magpieism. Both IDM (intelligent dance music) and "intelligent drum'n'bass", are pretty repulsive genre coinages, because of what they imply about the unthinking sounds they were "smartening up" - and also, because they sound like the very antithesis of fun. Blake and his peers Mount Kimbie have similarly been damned with faint praise of their "intelligence", and "sophistication".

A provocative editorial in the weekly magazine NME entitled "James Blake is the new Phil Collins" captured the idea: "For all the weirdness of his melodies, Blake is coated with the kind of sophistication that would've appealed to the more broadminded Eighties capitalist - Blake and Collins both fit with a certain lifestyle, upwardly mobile and serious."

Blake's music does sound serious, but that's not its definitive quality any more than sophistication is - and on his self-titled debut, he's barely trying to make, let alone ape, dubstep. His classical training, soft, plaintive singing voice, and talent for electronically rendered fuzz, bleeps and shudders is vulnerable, moving, and ultimately transcends class. "I never told her where the fear comes from" he pines on Give Me My Month, a song which sounds more like a warped version of James Taylor's Fire and Rain than anything heard on London's underground dancefloors. Throughout, the album abounds with tinkling pianos and heartfelt, disjointed vocals.

The computerised sounds Blake employs barely hint at the bass weight of dubstep - nonetheless, what makes this more than simply a collection of piano ballads is his sleight-of-hand with electronics. The warming percussive clicks and whirrs on the opening track Unluck invokes masters of the form Broadcast. Meanwhile, the impressionistic soundwashes of I Mind recall Boards of Canada. These may just be modish bells and whistles to his critics, the dilettantish affectations of a conservative singer-songwriter, but they're actually perfectly apt to his sad-eyed piano riffs and sighing tone of voice. The result is more electronically rendered shoe-gaze than polite lite. To Care (Like You), with its clipped drums, recalls Portishead, while Wilhelm's Scream, resounding with echo and filtered vocal snippets, makes musical bedfellows with Darkstar's fractured synthesiser elegies.

For all that Blake is derided by some for being well-spoken, well-educated, and middle-class, his music's alleged politeness is not nearly polite enough for some. A recent discussion of his debut on a mainstream BBC radio programme descended into widespread bafflement at the record's otherness. After playing his widely-acclaimed, heavily emotional cover of Feist's Limit To Your Love, the panel seemed to reel, unused to such peculiar noises. "It's just too weird for me" said the presenter eventually, almost audibly shaking her head.

For some Blake is guilty of cynically cleaning up the rough edges of British working-class music to give it a wider appeal; for others, he's a rogue experimentalist ruining perfectly good songs with all those funny noises. In this respect James Blake exists in a grey area between the experimental underground and the radio-friendly pop mainstream. Fortunately for him, as fellow musical members of the bourgeoisie from Pink Floyd to Radiohead have discovered, a lot of people buy the records made in that particular hinterland.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.

Updated: February 25, 2011 04:00 AM