I watched Danny Baker’s nostalgic excursion into the music of the 1990s last week. I enjoyed it enormously too – it was the era I grew up in. The programme was a distilled hour of all the NME reading of the back half of my teens and the front half of my 20s.
But towards the end, there was an intriguing moment.
The headlines outlined a predictable trajectory: Manchester, grunge, britpop, dance music. It ended more bleakly than I’d remembered (honestly, when the decade starts with Happy Mondays and Nirvana and rave culture and ends with Travis and Stereophonics and Coldplay, you know something went wrong somewhere).
Then they came to the awkward, miscellaneous bit – the section filled with people that didn’t fit the narrative.
The square pegs.
PJ Harvey featured, in riotous 50 Ft Queenie mode. In the studio, Danny Baker posed a question. Was the life of a maverick somehow easier than that of a mainstream artist, he asked. People leave you alone, he said. Let you get on with it.
One of his guests agreed: mavericks were more free to plough their own furrow. This was Louise Wener, who had sung in a band called Sleeper. Sleeper were not square pegs. They were anonymous and bland, and thanks to a surge in popularity elsewhere, that spilled over to them, they briefly enjoyed some otherwise inexplicable attention, from people who should know better.
You know, like when London families look at three bedroom houses in Hertford.
Wener admitted that Sleeper had previously been a grunge band. Two years later they had mod haircuts and skinny T-shirts. You get the feeling they’d have been happy to smooth all edges they might once have had to be sure of a place in whatever culture-shaped hole greeted them on arrival – ugly sisters trying to squeeze into the slinky glass slipper of Britpop. Never awake to their true selves, they would have sleepwalked into whatever style was popular. Hence their name.
PJ Harvey’s first album, on the other hand, was neither grunge or Britpop. It came out in 1992 but she cared about neither. She was only interested in doing her own thing.
Harvey wanted to be Captain Beefheart. Wener wanted to be Bananarama (her words, I promise). Selling records, checking the midweeks, being famous – she was made for Britpop.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
What I found problematic was the idea being floated in that brief exchange. The notion that people like PJ Harvey somehow had it easier. That she’d somehow felt less pressure to fit in. That the music business had acknowledged what sort of person she was and chosen simply to leave her alone.
I’m not so sure about that.
Some people, and perhaps Polly Harvey is one of them, I don’t know, find it easy to be a maverick. They’re hardwired to plough their own furrow. They have a distaste for the obvious or for received opinion that is innate rather than cultivated.
It’s hard with 20 years’ hindsight to imagine that anyone would have tried to stop PJ Harvey being PJ Harvey. But people like her are black swans precisely because nobody predicts their long-term success. Going against the grain requires a grain in the first place.
For most of us that’s really hard work. Believing in your own ideas enough that they withstand the pressure of conformity, however unconsciously it’s applied, is tough.
In real time people only tire of getting you to fit in once they’ve realised they can’t persuade you.
If you show them it won’t work. If you stick to your guns.
Now, we don’t make art. We make advertising. But our world is filled with these choices.
Where an artist starts with what they want to say, we start with people. We can only assert what a brand stands for if we’re sure we have an audience for it. We work out what people want and try to please them. We combine novelty and familiarity in pursuit of something singular and engaging.
But we also know that fitting in, doing what’s expected of us – by the client, by consumers – yields only a short-term win. The long-term win, the epic win, isn’t achieved by doing only what’s expected of you.
We have to plough the furrow we know is right, not the one that’s easiest.
To resolve the tension between integrity and commerciality.
That takes a fight. Something different is scarier than something that’s familiar. Something that’s tried and tested feels easier than something haven’t done before. What’s fashionable can be more acceptable than what you believe to be right.
We confront those choices every day, as individuals, agencies, organisations and brands. Selfishly protecting your vision isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. Anyone looking at PJ Harvey today would envy her artistic freedom. Her musical journey has outlasted many of her contemporaries. She can boast of a devoted audience and an unalloyed critical reputation. Perhaps when she sees PJ Harvey Louise Wener is wondering if she gave up too much too cheaply.
Integrity is a long-term game. But the longer you play it, the more everyone else wishes they had too.
You just have to be good.