The thread that has run through this essay has been the continuing enthusiasm for ‘black’ music on the part of ‘white’ audiences. The scare quotes are justified at this point, partly because this black/white distinction is much less than absolute. As I’ve argued, this is the case both in terms of the music itself, and in terms of the youth cultural ‘scenes’ that have grown up around it – even in places like the UK, which are a long way from its main point of origin. The history of popular music has increasingly been one of syncretism – of a mixing or hybridizing of cultures. Claims for purity or authenticity are key to the way musical cultures define and represent themselves, but they are difficult to sustain. The music I have been discussing is not exclusively or essentially ‘black’, any more than the people who follow it and use it are exclusively ‘white’. This is the case in many other areas beyond those I’ve considered here.
Having said this, the two ‘scenes’ I have mainly focused on have been regarded very differently by critics and historians. While it may have been an ‘underground’ scene in its early years, Northern Soul has now been exhaustively documented. By contrast, the southern scene I have described has attracted little wider attention, although it was of comparable scale, and has proven to be equally long-lasting. In a passionate blog post from 2012, the fashion consultant Jason Jules argues that what he calls this ‘Soul Boy’ scene has been ‘short-changed’ and neglected. He points to its lasting influence in the worlds of fashion and music; and argues that ‘the self-appointed arbiters of taste and youth culture history’ have belittled and ignored it. There’s some truth in this; but in making his claim, Jules paints himself into another corner, implying that the scene was predominantly black and working-class – which simply wasn’t the case.
However, the argument here reveals a wider problem. Styles like two-tone and (to a large extent) Northern Soul seem to fit well with the dominant story that is told about youth culture, both by academics or critics and by many ‘subculturalists’ themselves. This is a fairly simplified political story – a story of youth culture as a matter of resistance to class and racial oppression. More recent accounts of youth culture have tended to question this story: when we look more closely, everything looks a bit more complicated and ambivalent. Yet a phenomenon like ‘southern soul’ clearly doesn’t fit with this story at all: it crosses class and racial boundaries in ways that make it hard to accommodate in this rather vainglorious narrative of ‘resistance’.
There is a broader conclusion that could be drawn from all this. The ‘phantom history of race relations’ to which Dick Hebdige referred in 1979 is certainly apparent in the examples I’ve described; but the claim itself needs to be adjusted. As I’ve shown, this is not just a ‘phantom’ history, but also a highly material one, which is about economic processes as well as cultural ones. Perhaps more crucially, it is not best seen as a history of ‘race relations’ – a term that has passed from popular use, not least because it seems to rest on making absolute or exclusive distinctions on the grounds of ‘race’. The diverse and changing relations between ‘white’ youth and ‘black’ music in this period do indeed reflect the increasing multiculturalism of modern Britain – although they don’t always sit easily with narratives of multicultural harmony, or with optimistic claims that racism is gradually evaporating. However, this history also suggests that ‘race’ is by no means a fixed or natural category – a recognition that is not just a theoretical assertion, but something that is lived out and experienced in bodily form, not least on the dance floor.