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Trish Keenan’s Broadcast

Alex Niven

Trish KeenanBroadcast
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Last Friday (14 January) Trish Keenan, the lead singer of Broadcast, died from complications with pneumonia after a lengthy stay in intensive care. Keenan was only 42 and seems to have been horribly unlucky. But what makes this a genuine calamity is that Keenan was one of the most understatedly brilliant singer-songwriters of recent times.

What did her artistic achievement amount to? Keenan and James Cargill’s Broadcast stood for bravery, they stood for intellect, they stood for a fundamental willingness to experiment without sacrificing form and melody, they stood for gentleness and delicacy, they stood for outsider’s soul music. Above all, Broadcast represented a popular avant-garde, something that arguably no longer exists in 2011.

Broadcast emerged in the very late 90s, and it’s worth thinking about how that time period differs from now. The years 1997 to 2000 were hardly a golden era for music, but with hindsight, there was something propitious about this slight four-year window between Britpop and The Strokes. This was a no-man’s land in the chronology of pop, a time when the music industry didn’t really know how to marshal an eclectic, chaotic scene into bankable mediocrity. Dance culture was still vibrant on a popular scale. The NME was still readable. The most notable indie bands of the day made bizarre, neo-psychedelic, almost unclassifiable records: The Soft Bulletin by Flaming Lips, Young Team by Mogwai, Three EPs by The Beta Band.

It’s this nebulous period—perhaps the last time that “indie” denoted a counter-culture and not a section in Topshop—that comes to mind when listening to Broadcast. There are elements of pastiche, for sure. But the retro approach embodied in their ethereal avant-pop is something quite different to the postmodernism-on-autopilot plagiarism of noughties bands like The White Stripes and Kings of Leon. Broadcast offered ghostly, evocative archeology of forgotten sounds; latter-day hipster alt-rock was content with mere consumerist fancy dress. Throughout the last decade, Broadcast upstaged their younger, clumsier peers with the maturity of their gentle subversion and the meaningfulness of their eccentricity.

If they formed today, Broadcast would surely be a very different band. There is no longer a John Peel to provide a focal point for significant minority leftfield pop. Broadcast would be just one short-lived chillwave act among many, or else Keenan’s beautiful and haunting voice would be bolstered with compression and sold as Florence and the Machine-esque lifestyle music. As with the death of Peel, this is one of those truly tragic occasions when something potentially redemptive has perished with a single human being. Trish Keenan was a continual reminder that a hopeful, down-to-earth progressivism was still just about alive in this country, quietly waiting to be revived whenever the wind changed.

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