Scarlett Thomas: So you wanna be a pro-establishment, market-researched rock 'n' roll star?

Sunday 16 February 2003 01:00

Guitar players, be afraid. On Thursday, our Prime Minister, perhaps sick of being grilled by Jeremy Paxman and flamed by the French, decided to take a break from international politics for a while and played lead in a Sheffield school band.

"That's a Fender, isn't it?" Blair asked, rather nervously, before suggesting a jam with the, er, kids, using the bluesy chord progression C, G and F. Then, with his suit looking a bit rumpled and his tie slightly displaced by the guitar strap, our leader strummed away happily for a few moments, looking like a teenager who has just retreated to his bedroom to play songs about no one understanding him, or the lack of world peace.

There's something about playing the guitar that relieves stress. It gives you somewhere to put your angst. I should know. Last year, at the almost-past-it age of 29, I learnt to play the guitar. It's great: when you feel powerless, you can simply play some powerful music. Perhaps Tony Blair does feel like the misunderstood teenager of international politics. That would explain the faraway look he had in his eyes, just for a moment, while playing.

As a guitar player, I know how nervous he must have felt, picking up someone else's guitar and playing for some strangers – and, in his case, a national news audience. But I can't help wondering if it's right for a world leader to colonise a space that is traditionally anti-establishment, young, edgy and underground. The space occupied by rock music should be one in which there are no diplomats, no PR stunts and certainly no economic strategy. Rock music should be about protest, truth and passion. But in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between obviously manufactured bands such as Steps and mainstream guitar acts such as Travis, Stereophonics, Coldplay and Doves.

The sad truth is that there are diplomats, PR stunts and economic strategy in rock music now. Mainstream rock isn't about music; it's about selling units. Like politicians, chart-friendly guitar bands play the tunes that their advisers think the audience wants to hear. Look at the phenomenon of the Canadian teenager Avril Lavigne, packaged to appeal to teenagers who consider themselves "alternative" and who might want a girl version of Blink-182 or Nickelback.

Meanwhile, the people most likely to be playing "real" rock or folk music are rock stars' parents not the rock stars themselves. After all, how many kids initially learn to play guitar from their mum or dad (with tutorials complete with anecdotes about the 1960s – or, I suspect more frequently nowadays, the 1970s)? I know one teenage girl who can play Bruce Springsteen's entire back catalogue on her guitar. He is her mother's favourite artist. She is also part of an underground guitar band, which is encouraging.

But, with parents strumming Bob Dylan songs on ancient guitars, perhaps teenagers are going the other way and are shunted into the most horrible of all musical routes: the piano ballad. Maybe that's what happened to David Sneddon – all he wanted was to rebel. Nominations for the forthcoming Brit Awards confirm that interesting mainstream guitar music no longer exists in this country. Most of the nominations are for pop or R&B acts: Amid Blue, the Sugababes, Liberty X and Robbie Williams – only with the insipid band Doves is there as any reminder of "Cool Britannia".

I suspect teenagers no longer disappear into their bedrooms to sing about being misunderstood or to lament the state of the world. It's people of my and my parents' age who do that. Post 1997, most of the best guitar bands in this country (Blur, Oasis, Radiohead and Pulp) have disappeared, gone downhill or substantially changed their output.

For a lot of kids, guitars, protest songs and anti-establishment antics are just things their parents were interested in. With get-famous-quick shows such as Pop Idol and Fame Academy so prominent in the public consciousness, with consumer culture so far out of control, and with young people having been so skilfully depoliticised, it's hardly surprising that so many teenagers want to bypass the angst altogether and simply become glossy, successful units.

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