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Five Pillars of British Indie

Alex Niven

ShameThe Maccabees
Given to the Wild
Fiction, January 2012


With typical hyperbole, the NME last month described Given to the Wild by The Maccabees as “the first classic album of 2012”. “By casting themselves to the flames”, the magazine’s reviewer wrote, the band “have forged an identity more purely them than ever”. Another review for The Fly magazine talked about the record’s “sweeping stamp of maturity” and “affective emotion”.

This is not the place to draw attention to the preponderance of tautology and confused writing in the British music press. However, it might be worth considering exactly what The Maccabees’ supposed mature classicism amounts to. Indeed, if Given to the Wild is truly a definitive summary of British alternative rock music in 2012, then we should be able to use it to compile a list of the genre’s key tenets.

With this thought in mind, The Oxonian Review has examined the album, and is able to identify the following Five Pillars of 2012 British Indie:

1) Vocal affectation. Something strange has happened to the voices of the nation’s youth. Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks yelps lyrics rather than sings them, as though drawing attention to the “idiosyncrasy” we all know is a clear sign that we are in the presence of Serious Pop Music. Perhaps this is what The Fly means by “affective emotion”. It’s a sort of meta-singing, an emotional emotion, an attempt to transcend the art of song by focusing solely on the human voice as an instrument of exquisite affectation. In case you weren’t aware already, Given to the Wild is a high-concept project.

2) Camouflaged poshness. The second point is closely related to the first. Privately-educated upper-middle-class people from London like The Maccabees have probably always talked in braying, nasal tones. But to enter the elite of 2012 British Indie, Given to the Wild suggests, we must combine a pedigree of indoctrinated R.P. grandiloquence with gestures at gritty cockney bathos. The result is a vocal delivery and overall aesthetic that conjures images of Kate Middleton doing a Jamie Oliver impersonation. The Maccabees like cricket and rugby rather than football, but their clever balance of exaggerated parochialism and urban pluck helps to paper over such privileged credentials.

3) Pastiche and formal repetitiveness. In the eyes of the NME, Given to the Wild represents “a brave sci-fi dawn”. However, without wishing to pour scorn on this succinct conflation of several different clichés, I would like to urge that scepticism be applied to hopes of a Maccabees-led futurist insurgency. Sadly I could detect no real signs of innovation within the formal confines of the album, only composite pastiches of the last thirty years of alternative rock music, though there were occasional attempts to depart from post-Libertines conservatism into the territory of hipster dilletantism. This may have been “the Wild” referred to in the title.

4) The persistence of the guitar band mythos. To give credit where credit is due, at times during the course of the album it seemed as though that The Maccabees were trying to do something genuinely progressive. However, there will inevitably be something self-defeating about attempting to move on from a culture of guitar-band commercialism when you are still being packaged and sold as an orthodox guitar band on a Universal Music Group subsidiary label. As far as making an avant-garde statement goes, I felt the band were severely hampered in this respect.

5) The lack of political engagement/any discernible worldview whatsoever. Opinion varies widely on the desirability or otherwise of political art. But surely everyone would agree that some sort of ethos or attitude to life on the part of the artist is an important part of aesthetic experience, especially in an “independent” art form with a proud heritage of counter-cultural dissent. Does Given to the Wild come with a discernible philosophy attached? Or even a thought or two about something or other? A band with a name as richly allusive as The Maccabees seems to promise a re-engagement with vital issues like religion, politics, and cultural history. However, a quick glance at Wikipedia undermines hopes of uncovering a Maccabees worldview: “The band came up with the name by flicking through the Bible and picking out a random word”. Somewhere in this metaphor of meaninglessness is the Fifth Pillar of British Indie in 2012.

Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Alex is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.