Nu-what?

15 January 2008

I think I was about 13 or 14 when I really started noticing all the different social groups that youth culture inflicts on society. There were of course the spides (what you in England call chavs) who were noticeable about a mile off for their tracksuits, cheap cigarettes and monotonous dance music. There was a goth gang with all the trimmings; trench coats, black eyeliner and Cradle Of Filth t-shirts. In town on a Saturday there were even punks, actual punks. People with coloured mohican haircuts, green bomber jackets and boots that looked like they could smash your skull in with one kick.

However, the one group I wanted to belong to, and I say this with a heavy heart, was the nu-metal crowd. You remember the type; about 15, with spiky hair, wallet chains that scraped the floor, jeans so baggy they could hide bottles of cider, wearing hoodies before hoodies were deemed the number one menace to society, sometimes holding a skate board without actually ever using it, and always hanging around shopping centres.

I’m not sure why exactly I wanted to join these ranks. After all I was never that into the music they all enjoyed; there was only so much whining from Fred Durst I could take before I wanted to go home and raid my dad’s record collection for more Neil Young albums. I always thought it ironic that every nu-metaller I knew used to go on and on about how much they hated crappy manufactured hip-hop but would then pop their headphones in to listen to rapping over heavy guitar by a band like Linkin Park.

So as I say, I’m not quite able to say why I wanted to be one of them since I hated their music. Maybe it was because they all looked cool, or because other people liked them, or because a lot of them seemed to know older people who could buy us cheap booze. Whatever the reason I think this adolescent torment has led me to decry any use of the prefix ‘nu’ when applied to music.

In the past few years we have had nu-rave, which was nothing more than some guys (or girls in the case of New Young Pony Club) playing some reasonable sounding rock music which you happened to be able to dance to. Although some of it was alright – Klaxons won the Mercury – you can’t help but feel that they would have done a lot better had people like the NME not tried to whip it up into some new ‘movement’.

We have nu-jazz, which is nothing more than slow jazz with some electronic interventions. There is also nu rock (or post-grunge, another abhorrent term): more whinging Americans, but without the rapping this time; bands like Nickelback and 3 Doors Down are the worst offenders.

However, my favourite of all of these is the label nu-folk. Now I happen to be quite a fan of folk music and reckon the festival here in Cambridge is one of the best around. The idiom is one usually applied to people who come from a folk background but are that little bit braver and venture outside the sometimes confining box of folk music. People like Devendra Banhart, who comes across as what Marc Bolan would have been like had he grown up with Ewan MacColl rather than Chuck Berry. Or Jim Moray, whose modern take on the folk song saw him awarded Album of the Year at the 2004 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. I always thought that this was what folk music ought to be; adapting, changing to meet the new challenges of today and responding to them in song, chronicling life in the here and now for future generations while at the same time passing down the old stories and songs. At its best the label nu-folk seems to recognise an attempt to bring all the best things about folk music into the 21st century. At worst it seems like a condescending and sneering remark from the old guard who feel threatened at the young blood breathing new life into the genre.

So the next time something new comes along, something that you can’t quite work out or categorise, let’s not rush and label it the ‘nu’ something. Let’s instead realise that it either belongs to an already existing genre or genuinely is something entirely new, rather than tagging it onto some existing fashion and thus not letting the music speak for itself. In a way I’m glad that I never really became a nu-metaller in my early teens, because now I’d probably be listening to nothing but nu-rave and nu-jazz and waiting for the next nu thing to come along.