Monday, 14 June 2010

The nefarious nature of football songs

Okay, so there's some football or other happening at the moment. No, don’t be silly, I’m not going to write about it. I know almost exactly nothing about the blasted sport (see last weekend's Doctor Who: ‘Football’s the one with the sticks, right?’), and there are already so many people writing clever things about formations and angles and positioning that it’s starting to look like a trigonometry exam out there. So instead of rambling on about the tactics, psychology and breeding habits of football teams, I’m going to become violently and wantonly offended by England football songs.

Apparently England has no official song this year, which is probably a good thing, for the sake of anyone who happens to pass a bus, or a radio, or a sports ground on a semi-regular basis. However, the downside of this is that we'll once again be plagued by the risen dead of songs that we thought we safely entombed more than a decade ago. The two in question, obviously, being 'Three Lions' and 'Vindaloo'. There have been some others, true, but 'World in Motion' was before my time, and nobody can remember that one by Embrace, because it sounded like all the other Embrace songs that nobody can remember.

Three Lions, I suppose, isn't so bad. The Lightning Seeds were basically lovely, and Dizzy Heights was the first album I bought, so I can almost handle this one being dragged from its crypt. However, hearing it again recently, I realised that actually it's a bit weird. For a start, it's packed with specific references to 1996 and 1998, and considering that England didn't exactly win in those years, singing along seems a bit masochistic - almost like singing Easter hymns during the second coming. 

But that's a fairly minor point compared to some grimmer lyrical oddities. This goes beyond the Billy Bragg 'And those three lions on his shirt, they never sprung from England's dirt' (from the excellent 'England Half English' - listen here - to the tune of 'John Barleycorn') issue. First, 'football's coming home'. This is doubly curious. For a start, this suggests that football isn't here already. It denies the validity of football as it stands in England at the moment. Not just the bloated premiership, but the enormous grass-roots following, the Sunday leagues; the amateur clubs; the gatherings in the park, barefoot, a bottle of beer in one hand, hoping nobody kicks the ball into the river. Shouldn't this be alienating fans, rather than encouraging them? It's a song supported by the England football team that denies the importance of the millions of fans who sing it and chant it. 

Equally, though, 'football's coming home' is an outrageous possessive claim not to a particular competition but to the whole of football itself. It's basically a denial of the internationalism that must be one of football's greatest cultural strengths. It's practically colonial: this isn't a sport, it's an invention, something we own, where we means not you funny foreign blighters. 

The 1998 version is particularly bad: 'heroes dressed in grey', 'Ince ready for war'. It doesn't take a literature prat to find this disturbingly militaristic. This simultaneously turns football into a violent conflict, encouraging the kind o hooliganism that England is trying to step away from, but it also glorifies war and lessens the horrors experienced by everyone involved in it. After all, football's something most people play for fun, which probably isn't a word many of the uniformed folks sweltering in Afghanistan would use to describe their experiences. Or at least, I hope it isn't. Maybe they're kept going by the hope that on their exhausted, psychologically scarred return to their families they'll be compared to football players. 

Again picking on the 1998 revival, there's one last thing I want to note out from 'Three Lions': 'No more need for dreaming'. This, I think, shows poverty of ambition and again a willingness to patronise loyal fans. This says that an England fan's dreams consist of nothing but that the team will win the World Cup. Aside from the presumptiveness of telling a listener what their dreams consist of (or should consist of), this is a pretty pathetic dream anyway. That a bunch of men with whom you share nothing but a nationality, and over whose performance you have no influence, will win a sporting competition - that's supposed to be a dream? Surely a real dreamer would imagine being part of that team, hoofing a winning penalty, or strategically fouling the other side's captain? After all, dreams are supposed to be beyond our grasp - otherwise they're ambitions, and we'd be out there striving for them, rather than hiding them in our subconscious, only permitted to haunt us in our sleep.

Equally, if to be sat on a sofa watching some people far away (geographically and socially) do something well really is your dream, then shame on you, because it's an absolute abdication of personal responsibility. To let someone else be responsible for whether or not your great hopes are realised is a bit feeble. It's not that it's wrong to want England to win the World Cup, it's that a life is being wasted wherever someone can think of nothing better. 

But 'Three Lions' is practically [insert favourite song here] compared to Fat Les's execrable 'Vindaloo'. I'm entirely aware that by discussing it here I'm making a mockery of the word 'song', but gosh, dang and blast it, something has to be said about this monstrosity. Not just it's complete abandonment of lyrics in favour of inane monosyllabic repetition, not just because it is, for want of a better term, cocking awful, but because it's openly racist and constructs an us/them duality that forces the listener into the position of either idiotic fan or evil foe.

The offending lyrics are: 
Where on earth are you from?
We're from England
Where you come from
Do you put the kettle on?

Argue that it's just cheeky anglocentricism if you like - ha, ha, don't we all like tea (I don't)? - but that 'we' and 'you' is troubling. The song itself is directed not at a jolly listener, singing along, applauding the sentiment, but at a defensive other. This is continued by 'we all like vindaloo' and 'we're going to score one more than you'. It constructs groups among listeners and defines which group everyone can belong to. It's song as weapon, designed to be pointed at someone from abroad and used to force them into a position of opposition. 

In a way, it's impressive that a song with so few lyrics can manage to do so much wrong. Suddenly I can see why an official 2010 anthem seemed like a bad idea. 

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