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Thus Sang The Manic Street Preachers
Leighton Evans takes a Nietzschean perspective on the Manic Street Preachers.
Welsh rock band the Manic Street Preachers have travelled a great distance in the years since the release of their first album Generation Terrorists in 1991. They’ve had a myriad of musical styles, huge mid-to-late-90s popularity, the still-unsolved disappearance of songwriter Richey Edwards, acclaim, and some derision, along the way. A band committed to their vision, the Manics’ work has always had an overt political and philosophical focus which has set them apart from contemporaries both in Welsh music and the wider British popular scene. The band’s third album, The Holy Bible, now widely regarded as one of the best British albums of the 1990s, is an education in nihilism and alienation.
One recurring influence for the lyrics has been the towering presence of Friedrich Nietzsche. Primary themes in Nietzsche’s work have informed the Manics’ biggest hits, and lesser-known songs. Nietzsche’s thoughts on slave morality, the nature of religious belief in modern society, and self-responsibility, have played key roles. Thus the Manics’ music has been invaluable for this student of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Understanding what the great man had to say has been made much easier by listening to the take on him by my favourite band. Let me give just a small selection of lyrics that have helped me understand some key Nietzschean concepts.
‘1985’ and Nietzsche on Religious Belief
“So God is dead, like Nietzsche said,
Superstition is all we have left.”
‘1985’, a song outlining influences on the band from their mid-80s formation in the deprived South Wales industrial valleys, gives a memorable line on Nietzsche’s view of the role of God in conventional morality. Our modern morality is still recognisably Christian in ethos; however, the role of God in our moral system has been irrevocably reduced. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche argued that a ladder of sacrifice in modern religious belief has led to the sacrifice of God for the needs of the modern Protestant work ethic. The time and need for worship has been stripped away to meet the needs of the industrial economy, and so belief in God was superseded by the need to work hard and die. This sacrifice of God for productivity left the Christian moral system anchorless: the morality becomes a series of superstitions with no foundation to give it authority. The Manics show they are aware of this in ‘1985’, a song about a time and place. The 1984-5 miners’ strike in the South Wales valleys involved industrial action on a scale unseen since 1926. It ended in failure, and the morality of the conflict fell with it. Thus the rootlessness of this moral system had been exposed.
A questioning of the nature of the morality of the area, and modern morality itself, infuses the song. The Manics recognise what Nietzsche had prophesied: that when the foundations for moral systems are exposed as contingent or even non-existent, then the moral system collapses, leaving the vacuum of nihilism. The communities that spawned the Manics were left in 1985 only with ‘superstition’ – a weak collection of rules and regulations with no authoritative character. A truly Nietzschean interpretation of the experience of growing up in Thatcher’s Britain.
‘Judge Yr’self’, Dionysus and the New Philosopher
“Blessed be the blades,
Blessed be the sighs,
Dionysus against the crucified.
Find your truth, and face your truth,
Speak your truth and be your truth.”
‘Judge Yr’self’ was originally penned for the soundtrack of the 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd, but did not make it onto the soundtrack – unsurprising, considering the deeply Nietzschean, Dionysian, anti-Christian tones of the lyrics – not the usual fare for Hollywood flotsam.
Nietzsche’s New Philosopher was his response to the need to avert what he perceived as the inevitable rise of nihilism in Europe. The New Philosopher, as outlined in Thus Spake Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, is a solitary and self-determined individual, free of the prejudices of past philosophers and their philosophies, and free to act upon his will-to-power to create his own, self-justified philosophy. Nietzsche’s prototype will also reject the moral consensus and create their own morality beyond such arbitrary terms as good and evil, through justifying to themselves alone the intentions behind and the consequences of their actions. If there is an essential property to such an individual, they will be Dionysian: a person who affirms the will to live at all times, does not deny life and the experiences it provides, and who rejects the constraints of any moral order to ascertain the truths of life. In ‘Judge Yr’self’, the Manics exemplify Nietzsche’s New Philosopher to a tee – a person who accepts life’s experiences, even the negative, with resilience and willingness, rejecting constraining Christianity and becoming a Dionysian free spirit. The Manics are telling us to take up personal responsibility in an age when responsibility is largely stripped from us as individuals; the state and the authorities will take responsibility for the moral behaviour of individuals much more readily than the people themselves. ‘Judge Yr’self’ offers up a Nietzschean wake-up call: to transcend the collapsed traditional moral order, individuals must take responsibility for their actions and intentions, not blame others, or appeal to normative assumptions or pragmatic considerations. Do what you will, and live with it – do not look to others. Nietzsche would approve wholeheartedly.
‘The Masses against the Classes’ and the Slave Revolt
“A slave begins by demanding justice, and ends by wanting to wear a crown”
This final line of the Manics’ 2000 number one single ‘The Masses Against the Classes’ is one of the most clearly Nietzschean expressionss in their work.
On one extremely basic level, the song offers a traditional Marxist-Socialist anthem, its title line evoking class war and the rise of the workers against the bourgeoisie. Nietzsche would treat this interpretation of history with distain; the masses are subjugated through their choice to accept slave morality, and through their characteristic weakness. The masters exploit because this is what they do. Nietzsche uses the analogy of birds of prey and lambs to illustrate this point in The Genealogy of Morals (1887): it is nonsensical to attach blame to a bird of prey when it kills a lamb – this is what it does! Similarly, the classes exploit because this is what they do, not because of vindictiveness or mean-spiritedness.
The song requires much closer analysis, upon which the clear influence of Nietzsche becomes apparent: the Manics are not calling for class war here – they are “tired of giving a reason, when the future is what we believe in.” The message is that there’s a future beyond the narrow parameters of what has been offered in the past, and the Manics are rejecting simplistic boundaries. Thus the song rejects the dichotomy of ‘masses’ and ‘classes’, just as Nietzsche calls for a rejection of other distinctions, such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’. It is not coincidental that Nietzsche called for this rejection in Beyond Good and Evil: the book is subtitled A Prelude to the Philosophy of the Future.
The final line of the song is devastating and enlightening; and could be taken directly from The Genealogy of Morals (despite being from Albert Camus). The masses – the ‘herd’ for Nietzsche – began their revolt against the noble morality of their masters by demanding justice for all. However, the true motivation of the herd is resentment of the inherent greater power of the masters. This resentment is finally resolved when the slave revolt is completed and the slaves demand not merely justice, but crowns and ruling status.
‘The Masses against the Classes’ is the Manics at their most antagonistic; criticising the very masses who bought their albums and made them popular in the late 90s for falling for catchy hooks and anthemic tracks instead of understanding the meaning of their work.The band turn from the audience and towards their own thoughts and feelings; away from the herd to their own truth. Audiences increasingly demand ownership of artistic entities, but the song strikes out against this and reclaims artistic ownership of the music. It’s a damning comment on pop culture – the Manics are having an elongated Nietzschean joke at the expense of an audience that does not understand, or does not want to engage with, their philosophy.
In potentially alienating their audience, the Manics are making a major Nietzschean statement: the herd are unworthy of their work, yet they will buy it anyway, as the essence of the herd is to be unquestioning and following, demanding more of the same. Thus, as the band turned away from their formula for success, it’s no surprise that subsequent albums were not well received in the popular press, and did not have the same sales. Nietzsche criticised Wagner for selling out; the Manics pre-empted their selling out by reversing their direction at the peak of their popularity. Contentious, but a move Nietzsche would applaud.
The Manics as Nietzschean Supermen
Are the Manic Street Preachers the musical embodiment of Nietzsche’s New Philosophers? In a word, no. The New Philosopher is a solitary and creative force, and while the Manics are clearly creative, they are not solitary in a Nietzschean sense. They are still a very popular band, with a dedicated fan base. This itself does not invalidate them as New Philosophers, as Nietzsche is clear that the New Philosopher must not just create but lead. Yet the band does not just lead; they include and nurture. The rapport with the fans is the issue: the New Philosopher must be apart from others, and seek guidance only from himself. To attend a Manic Street Preachers gig is to be intimate with your heroes, not in awe of them from afar. For this fan at least, a live show is a genuinely inclusive affair. This type of inclusiveness is not what Nietzsche would expect from his übermenschen. However, as purveyors of Nietzschean philosophy to a poor member of the herd, I am forever grateful to the band. They lifted my and thousands of others’ horizons with lyrics that allowed me a way of viewing the world beyond the one presented in my upbringing. New Philosophers? Maybe not. My heroes, definitely – thanks in no small part to the influence of a philosopher with the best moustache in the business.
© Leighton Evans 2010
Leighton is a Swansea University alumnus, like Richey and Nicky of the Manics. He is currently there studying for a PhD in the Philosophy of Technology.
• All lyrics © The Manic Street Preachers/Sony Music/ATV Publishing.