Are Manic Street Preachers ‘killing rock’?

Owen Vaughan at stuff.co.nz made a very bold statement in today’s headline: ‘Rock’s dead. Manics, you killed it’.

So, what were Manic Street Preachers up to that upset Vaughan, and a fair few other Kiwi TV viewers so much? (And it did. Just look at some  of the Twitter posts on the link above)

Last night, they appeared on X Factor New Zealand to perform their 1998 UK number one hit ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’. Without a new album to promote (as they are still at work on two at the same time), their appearance was peculiar. They were available as they are in the middle of following the British and Irish Lions rugby team around Australia and New Zealand and performing a few shows along the way.

While it’s difficult to imagine them appearing on the UK edition of the X Factor, that hasn’t stopped the Manics from making questionable appearances on Saturday primetime TV, with very little in the way of sarcasm. In December 2010, they performed their then latest single, ‘Some Kind of Nothingness’ on Strictly Come Dancing. Judging from the promotional material referring to its hosting album Postcards from a Young Man as a ‘one last shot at mass communication’, they have acknowledged that they are now in their mid-forties and have written with the intention of getting on the radio.  I will admit that that performance did make some viewers’ skin crawl, as they provided an overture for a night of Bruce Forsyth throwing around ye olde catchphrases, and Ann Widdecombe literally being thrown around.

Their X Factor appearance was still promotional, but it’s not very often that such a performance doesn’t happen months before the tour, as opposed to a cheeky plug of the shows that would be taking place over the next couple of days. There is no denying that it was exploitative, but I don’t think that it is nearly the wrongdoing that some are accusing that performance of being.

Now, take a moment just to process what millions witnessed last night. IF YOU TOLERATE THIS, YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE NEXT… on The X Factor.

Considering that while it was their biggest chart success in the British homeland, that honour is held by the much more recent ‘Your Love Alone is Not Enough’ in New Zealand, such a title on one of the epicenters of singles chart horrors over the last decade is definitely more than a happy accident. Not only that, but it was a darned good performance too.

The accusation that they have become ‘dad rock’ also raises the question of what constitutes this dreaded label. I quote from Vaughan’s article:

“Nicky Wire could have broken his guitar, just as he did in 1991. Or James Dean Bradfield could have worn that balaclava he used to great effect on Top of the Pops in 1994.” 

What do you think would have been more embarrassing? A cheeky stab at the show, or a trio of forty-somethings (or ‘dads’ if you like) clinging tightly onto their image of 20 years past with staged rebellious acts? They have aged, and they have changed, but they are no worse. In fact, this transformation is nothing new, as the track in question, however dark the subject matter is (a factor of the song that will never go away), certainly isn’t music to destroy to, and never was when it was released during their fresher state in their late twenties. I also think it’s incredibly shallow to assume that rock musicians must be confrontational, and protest anything more ‘pop’ or ‘mainstream’ than they are.

Ironically, this is a band whose albums, aside from 2004’s hiccup record Lifeblood, have charted at number three or higher, and from 1991’s ‘Stay Beautiful’ to 2010’s ‘(It’s Not War) Just the End of Love’, every one of their 33 singles hit the top 40, and two of which reached number one. Have they really been committing the ultimate sin in rock by selling records?

If anything, the ‘…Rock’s dead’ article is a call for The Manics’ retirement now that they are older and not breaking things – something I find very sad. Does a band’s credibility fizzle out at 40? Should a band hoping for ongoing success avoid doing outrageous things, in the knowledge that as soon as they stop, they will face accusations of lightening up, or selling out?

I can understand that anyone outside of the UK might feel this way about the Manics, as these statistics are drawn from UK charts, and they haven’t been nearly as successful overseas as they have at home. I speak for many, many music fans in the UK. James? Nicky? Sean? Please don’t listen.

As for the headlining question, were it even a dreadful performance, they are one band amongst a seemingly endless scene. , whether your perception of rock is rebellion and image, or simply the choice of sound, the answer is ‘absolutely not’.

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