Welcome to Day 23 of our pop culture advent calendar. Every day we’ve been handing out a little treat in the shape of a mini-blog on something or someone we’ve admired or thought worth noting in 2012. Yesterday we handed out an award to the drama of the year – not Homeland or Breaking Bad but the Leveson Inquiry, the investigation that just kept on giving. Today, we give out an award for our favourite single of the year.
Previously on Pop Lifer.
- “2012 chart music has been obnoxiously dull, joyless and lazy”
- “We are not going to stop harping on about the Britney/ will.i.am atrocity until each has publicly apologised and all media agreed to never play the song again for at least a century”
- “2012 has reminded us of 1991 and 2003”
In conspicuously bad music years like 2012, you sometimes have to look hard to find hope. There were a couple of mainstream acts who rescued the year from being hopelessly clumsy and uninteresting, and we’ll be blogging about these at length tomorrow. And of course there always good music to be discovered hovering under the commercial radar, with thrilling albums from the likes of Grimes and Beach House, or gutsy singles from new bands like the Banshees-inspired Savages. And there were a couple of other mainstream acts who rescued the year from being hopelessly clumsy and uninteresting. Thankfully, for our single of the year, despite (or probably because of) the barren landscape it sprung from, our choice was hard to avoid.
Plan B’s Ill Manors roared out of the nation’s speakers in March 2012 – a response six months in the making following August 2011’s riots. Ill Manors is a song about 2012 Britain that sounded musically and lyrically like it could have been made in no other time and place. Unlike Plan B’s previous album, it never once wallowed in retro. As the nation got ready to settle into a summer of self-congratulation with Jubilee celebrations and gold medals, awareness of the UK’s growing inequality was being wilfully ignored, in danger of being tidied away in the nation’s attic. Ben Drew AKA Plan B didn’t let it.
Pop Lifer cannot stress how important and exciting this felt and was. For both pop and politics. That an important political point was with such a brazen, thrusting, perfect pop song ensured that amidst the tedium, the phoned in and the nakedly unambitious, someone got angry, took a risk, and it worked. Ill Manors demanded to be heard; it wasn’t asking to be liked.
But we did love it. The opening bars of jutting strings sharp elbow you into to the agitpop verses, spat out with fury and contempt. You are dumped into a chorus with the now iconic ‘Oi! You! You little rich boy! What you looking at?’ before spat out the other side into another jostle of political, musical and social references that are dizzying, intoxicating – sometimes funny, sometimes sarcastic, always angry. Just watch Plan B’s performance on Later with Jools at the foot of this blog to understand just how angry.
References bounce between the savvy and the savage. There is a dissection of Cameron’s expedient and oily switch from hug-a-hoodie social philanthropist to the man who relied on a Broken Britain narrative to get elected. The NHS is lauded and the loss of the community centre lamented (though in Pop Lifer’s view Plan B slightly gets it wrong when he condemns the Congestion Charge which is a necessary traffic calming measure and of benefit to the environment, but we’ll discuss policy detail with Ben another time). Punning Luton with looting is daft, but despite the odd misstep, the vitriol is relentless.
Ill Manors is a perfect collision of talent, anger and timing. It feels ridiculous to describe such an angry song as precious but it is. It is precious because to be musically relevant, politically relevant and commercial at the same time is practically unheard of in this brave new century.
Pop Lifer’s Single of The Year: Plan B’s Ill Manors