In The New Yorker, Adam Kirsch has an interesting review of Anthony Gottlieb’s book The Dream of Enlightenment, which is the second volume in a history of Western philosophy. I was struck by this passage in Kirsch’s review:
Modernity cannot be identified with any particular technological or social breakthrough. Rather, it is a subjective condition, a feeling or an intuition that we are in some profound sense different from the people who lived before us. Modern life, which we tend to think of as an accelerating series of gains in knowledge, wealth, and power of nature, is predicated on a loss: the loss of contact with the past. Depending on your point of view, this can be seen as either a disinheritance or an emancipation; much of modern politics is determined by which side you take on this question. But it is always disorienting.
This statement reminded me of Peaky Blinders for a number of reasons. First, Kirsch begins with a conceit that involves someone from 1816 being transported to 1916, which is the time of the Great War, the historical event that sets the stage for Peaky Blinders. Second, it made me think about the show’s use of music, which places contemporary sounds in a (fictional) historical past. And Peaky Blinders is modern in the truest sense of the word: Modernism was ascendant during this time.
One of the wider issues that I wanted to point out was that all of these men had returned from the First World War where they had been instructed to carry out mass murder every day on an unprecedented industrial scale. They’ve returned very damaged and they are violent as a result of their experiences so you have that very interesting dynamic of men returning from the front line and finding they cannot live an ordinary life.
So the historical setting plays a central role in terms of shaping the characters. These are men whose personal histories, driven by world history, no longer allow them to fit neatly into the world. In other words, their loss is acute.
Now, consider Knight’s remarks on the use of music:
Knight: “For me it was never an option to use music from the period because if you do that, you’re putting another barrier between the audience and the characters. . . . Nick Cave and the White Stripes establish in a subliminal way that these are contemporary emotions. We kept the music to a very limited number of artists because otherwise your soundtrack starts to sound like a juke box.”
Knight: “We’d all completely decided on it before we even began shooting, I think, that we couldn’t go with a contemporary soundtrack. It’s just another barrier between the audience and the story. The music, the way it’s written, the way it’s acted – it’s all to make you feel these are modern people. They do the things we would do, they just happen to live in a different time. There’s not meant to be anything different about these characters and I think the music reinforces that fact. You take music that’s evocative and emotional and apply it to a story about common people and that’s what brings it alive.”
Knight’s notion of using contemporary music to destroy barriers is interesting as is his use of the term “modern.” And, indeed, music does set Peaky Blinders apart. There are many examples. When Arthur, newly introduced to cocaine, strides to The Garrison with Arctic Monkeys’ “If You Were There Beware” pounding in his head, the emotional connection is clear. Who hasn’t experienced that same moment of artificial confidence? Yes, it’s temporary, but while it lasts, the sense of personal power is intoxicating. Similarly, when Grace dresses to PJ Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love,” all the while lying to her husband about her evening plans, it connects to the subtle thrill anyone feels when planning a deception. Steven Knight is correct: The music breaks down emotional barriers.
But think again about Kirsch’s comments. First, consider this statement: “Rather, it is a subjective condition, a feeling or an intuition that we are in some profound sense different from the people who lived before us.” Using rock music in Peaky Blinders is absolutely successful in terms of replicating that subjective condition. Contemporary music removes emotional barriers from those historical characters. But the relationship is a bit more complicated.
Remember: Kirsch also writes, “Modern life, which we tend to think of as an accelerating series of gains in knowledge, wealth, and power of nature, is predicated on a loss: the loss of contact with the past.” Peaky Blinders, I would argue, has an uneasy relationship with the notion of loss. Tommy Shelby is an ever-forward kind of guy. He’s all about progress. He wants a more profitable business, a nicer car, a bigger house, a more affluent family, a marriage to Grace. And why wouldn’t he? The horrors of the war defy description. But the past is not so easily escaped. Think about the fight he has with Arthur in Series 2: “Shut the door on it! Shut the door on it like I did!” he commands. Arthur’s character has largely been defined by his inability to escape the past.
I would argue there’s a tension between the new music and the old that is thematically significant that illustrates the point Kirsch is making. Otto Bathurst, a rock-and-roll director if ever there was one, and Tom Harper slip some traditional music into Series 1: “Fascination” and jazz at the Worcester Races, the crowd songs at The Garrison, and Grace’s ballads. Those traditional songs, when juxtaposed against The White Stripes, show that these directors get the complex relationship between music and history: An omnipresent modernity can exist only in the shadow of unending loss.
This tension is largely missing from Series 2 and Series 3, at least in terms of the music. There’s the exaggerated jazz played in The Eden Club and Tommy’s “Ragtime!” command to the band at his wedding party, which results in good old rock and roll. But the traditional music, even brief moments of it, are gone. That’s too bad because the historical tension created in juxtaposing the old and the new is lost even as the characters live in a fraught world, struggling with the burden of modernity.
Publication Date: 24 September 2016
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