Steven Hughes

Steven Hughes

Steven Hughes is an independent scholar who is currently based in West London.

Hue and Cry, and Labour's Lost Loves
Friday, 29 March 2024 10:17

Hue and Cry, and Labour's Lost Loves

Published in Music

‘Gonna withdraw my labour of love
Gonna strike for the right to get into your heart, yeah
Withdraw my labour of love
Gonna strike for the right to get into your cold heart
Ain't gonna work for you no more
Ain't gonna work, for you no more’

– Hue and Cry ‘Labour of Love’ (1987)

Whether we’re sowing its seeds or offering it to the alien, love is the pop industry’s primary all-consuming ur-commodity. You can’t buy me it even though there’s a whole lot of it. It’s all you need, but what does it have to do with anything? And what is it anyway? Perhaps our mistake was to love it all a little too much?

And withdrawing it as an act of strike? Hue and Cry’s Labour of Love (1987) proclaimed such a strategy. A strange episode in pop (are there anything other than strange episodes in pop music from 1961 to 1998?) it entered the charts at 37, around 37 years ago. The political climate of the mid-late 80s, with recent industrial action of the miners at hand, ensured the political demands of the era seeped into popular music and song lyrics. Some, like The Style Council and The Communards went all out with ‘Red Wedge’. Tracy Ullman made Labour leader Neil Kinnock a video star. Even Mancunian refuseniks The Smiths got involved, with 80s punk troubadour Billy Bragg declaring their Heaven Knows, I’m Miserable Now the most political song of the decade. In the 80s, a love struggle became a labour struggle, and it made sense. It was in the air. An air we no longer breathed, but instead consumed.

In the classic Marxist notion of alienation, labour as the ‘life of the species,’ and potential for human fulfilment has become, under capital, stifled, fragmented, and man has become a mere appendage to the machine, technology, and such analogies. Human play and charm turn to toil and trouble. The desire to reciprocate within the material world finds itself reduced to the necessity to extract and make a living. In Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), the worker exists outside their work, while at work feeling outside themselves. Estranged, uncanny, out-of-joint, displaced, alienated: this is the human worker under the capitalist mode of production.

More recently, we see the standardisation of a new form of alienation characterised not by the omission of human qualities from the processes of labour, but by the very opposite: that is the use and exploitation of these qualities. In The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1979) Arlie Russell Hochschild discusses the obligation placed on us all to function as integrated members of a consumer society, whereby we are routinely required to manage and market our emotions to sell, persuade, convince, produce. Workers in the service industry most notably, but also everywhere elsewhere, are required to ‘induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.’ That is, new workers must learn to smile and chirp, ‘Hi! How are you?’ as they smooth the flows of capital and consumption and bureaucracy. In such a way capital burrows into the nervous system, cognitive capacities and into our emotions. In a feedback loop, workers internalise capital.

The stressful and psychologically numbing effects of emotional labour is no less than the daily demand to separate internal feelings from external social performances and thus maintain an atmosphere conducive to the advantages of business. From Head Office down to Area Manager, from Professor to Associate Lecturer, from bar manager to barmaid, and onwards from branch worker to customer, the micro-managing of emotional behaviour ensures even the most routine of tasks must be enacted as a labour of positivity, as a labour of love. As today’s high-street retail workers will testify, they have received training in the simulation of friendliness, something Hochschild would call ‘deep acting’. Sex workers have been doing it down the ages. We are all selling ourselves in some way or another. Capital pays you to look happy. Capital teaches you to sell with a gypsum smile stuccoed to your face.

In the 1987 promotional video for Labour of Love a quintet of sales assistants, apparently from Next, successfully resist plastination through their rigorous jittery dancing, persistent piano rhythms, hi-NRG soul, and the repeated protest: ‘Gonna withdraw my labour of love…’ Not for them the petrification of pop idolatry. Sidestepping all references to bigger cages and longer chains, this mob shakes their hips and shimmies so emphatically that the mortar never quite gets a chance to dry on them. They’re going to strike for the right to get into your heart.

In the video we watch our quintet break free from the social cement that threatens to consume them, and by proxy us. For isn't it up to us, on hearing this hue and cry, to take up arms against the 'pseudo-satisfaction' of this pre-digested commercial product? The boys in the band are showing us what's to be done. Move quick before their plaster of Paris sets and standardises you. Adorno warned us: the culture industry would fix in social cement all that threatened the dominant codes of production.

In this cemented sense, popular music is rendered a non-authentic commercial product. It becomes undifferentiated and promotes passivity. The more of it you create, the more widespread the passivity becomes. The entertainment industry, like the expanding information industry with which it is mutually associated, presents consumption as a hit parade of 'false needs' – or needs falsified. And chief among them is Love. Love. Where would we be without love?

The entertainment industry promotes love as the one thing none of us can live without even if, or especially if, we're not quite sure what it is. Didn't those poets of four-to-the-floor ‘danceteria’ madness Haddaway, their name itself a reference to being sold out, pose the all-consuming question, 'What is love?', before pleading with some nameless baby to hurt them no more? Ah, the price of love.

Pop reminds us that love greets us hand in hand with pain. Love presented as pop novelty would be the love child of techniques of manipulation whose creative potential conditions the actions not only of the masses of pop devotees, but also the operators themselves, the presumed creatives who are nonetheless consumed by the seductiveness of their own goods, and the message of love they convey.

Well, not so Hue and Cry. The trick, it seems, is to break the spell and resist all treats on offer. As they put it: 'The romance goes when the promises break. My mistake was to love you a little too much.' So don't. Withdraw. And then, when perspective is gained, strike, right back into that 'cold heart'. Love’s labour suspended:

I don't want you, I don't need you
I don't need your tricks and treats
I don't need your ministration, your bad determination
I've had enough of you, and your super-bad crew
I don't need your, I don't need your
Pseudo-satisfaction baby

– Hue and Cry, ‘Labour of Love’ (1987)

So why no revolution? Hue and Cry were far from alone in their exhortation to audiences that they should lose their bonds, throw off their shackles and break free. Be free from capital, but crucially be free from revolution also, be free from emotional entanglement with the age? After 'love', the appeal to 'revolution' stands amongst pop music's most oft-repeated commands to its children. In T-Rex's Children of the Revolution (1972) the pop revolutionaries remained one step ahead of the music industry’s ‘bump and grind’ and were more than willing to toy with its symbols of success, just so long as you didn’t truly believe that a Rolls Royce was good for your voice. And onwards through a decade or more of various anarchies, the right to work, new Englands, and forwards to Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution (1988), by which time the Thatcher and Reaganite right-wing had deftly incorporated the language of radicalism - much as the right has adopted the language of anti-elitism today.

And to Sir Keir Starmer: where’s his pop video cameo? Nowhere, it seems. When the decision is made to strike – to strike back or withdraw – it helps to know what you’re striking for and why you’re labouring in the first place. Could it be the latest generation of pop artists can find no affiliation with any Westminster party or politician of late, least of all Starmer’s Tory-lite vision for the Labour Party? We can’t call it the ‘New Labour Party’ because that’s been done. So how about the ‘No Labour Party’ after the early-80s ‘No Wave’, a New York-based avant-rock movement associated with Lydia Lunch and James Chance, largely undefinable with no consistent features, and now widely forgotten. Who knows, we might be saying the same of Starmer soon.

This article was written by Steven Hughes and edited by Brett Gregory, with header image by Steev Burgess