Among my generation there can be few formerly angst-ridden young women for whom the soundtrack to their sorrows did not include the songs of Everything but the Girl. The words of Bittersweet summed up my struggle between pleasing others and treading my own path:
“She is such a sweet girl, free of the taints of this world
think that's a compliment, don't be so full of sentiment
why worship sweetness, what virtue's there in weakness…”
Thorn herself embodied a similar struggle with some of the ostensible paradoxes of our generation, perhaps even attributable to then mostly unspoken gender stereotypes: a bookish girl from an ordinary background who managed to become an uber-cool pop star; a creative songwriter and haunting vocalist who hid in the cupboard to perform. Even the name of her band, in a nod to her experience of being patronised as a female singer, negated her existence and power in it. So, it was with a warm sense of nostalgia that I listened to Tracey Thorn talking about her life on Desert Island Discs this week. Thorn has previously written that she felt her early identity as a serious left wing music maker was compromised by the fripperies of the 1980s pop scene. But that juxtaposition of seriousness and artifice was emblematic of the rebellious possibilities of our generation. While the Johnsons and Camerons of this world were ensconced in Eton and Oxbridge, much more exciting things were happening in the real world. Universities seemed to contain a broader social mix: I was from a one-parent family with a mum who was a primary school teacher. My friends’ parents were cleaners and firemen as well as lawyers and bank managers (remember them). It felt to us like social mobility might be taking hold and change was afoot in other ways too. Thorn described her excitement at the new, androgynous appearance of female stars such as Patti Smith. Cool women in men’s suits and Bowie-inspired men wearing make up, sequins and frills were the start of the more mainstream gender fluidity we see today.
Academic studies on social mobility do not achieve consensus on the extent to which social mobility rates did in fact change during the second half of the 20th century. They are clear, however, that economic inequality has increased since, which might account for a general feeling that social mobility (or its effects) have declined. An explosion in gender fluidity seems also to have stalled, caught in a quagmire of insurmountable problems and competing rights between feminists fighting for women and trans groups fighting for men’s rights to become women. Questions of sex and gender have become entrenched, politicised and polarised. Reflecting society’s discourse more generally, they are unlikely to result in mutual accommodation or progress. Two groups who each experience discrimination are now competing to claim their spaces, with seemingly little room for mutual understanding and compromise (at least if the public debate is representative of the field). It is obvious to me that a transgender woman should not be forced, for example, into a men’s only changing room or lavatory, which could leave her threatened and vulnerable. At the same time, there are potential vulnerabilities and inequalities where trans women can occupy women’s only spaces or make it onto women only shortlists etc. The challenges are no doubt complex, but surely none are insurmountable where there is a will on both sides to learn from and accommodate the other, starting by building on their shared experiences rather than the issues that divide them. In the 1980s the younger generation were at least in part offered the chance to emerge from censure and class constraint; we now seem to be in danger of coming full circle to an age where censure by the self-appointed righteous has led to widespread “no platforming”, intolerant extremes of opinion and irreconcilable differences across the spectrum.
I have not – looking naively through rose-tinted spectacles - forgotten the uncompromising political strife of the 1980s. The conflict between Margaret Thatcher, the Unions and old industries left indelible scars on large swathes of the country. Singing about those times, Billy Bragg’s lyrics in Between the Wars could equally apply to today’s troubles: “Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand / For theirs is a land with a wall all-around it / And mine is faith in my fellow man.” It is rather that the tone of politics and debate has changed and this can be felt even in the music world. The lyrics of singers such as Tracey Thorn and Billy Bragg seem a world away from the much angrier, even violent, political music of today: I’m sure I’m not the only uncool mum who is shocked to hear my children swearing at the top of their voices as they sing along to explicit lyrics, apparently oblivious to the meaning of the words or whether I hear them.
But no matter how disconnected I may sometimes feel from the turn our world is taking, it is critical to stay engaged with it, not allowing today’s dominant, polarising forces to silence other voices. If older women can offer something, it is their experience of navigating life in an underrepresented group, of the consequences that brings to them personally and, in my case anyway, how I now understand myself better and am more tolerant of paradoxes and inconsistencies, both in me and other people. As a result I hope that I question myself more and am prepared to step back from the moral high ground to listen to another view. This is not wishy-washy, snow-flakey milk-toast opinion, as attempts to find middle ground and compromise are often now portrayed. It is the challenging work of stepping into another’s shoes, looking beneath the surface and learning from it.
Thorn now writes books as well as songs. She has described the freedom of growing older and how writing is about knowing who is in charge. After years of being described and reviewed by male journalists, she has assumed her writer’s voice on her terms. If you have the chance to write and be published then you have some power to shape the bigger story. In a very small way that too is what this blog, drawing on my experiences, is about.