I watched some of Glastonbury on the BBC last weekend, and like many people one of my favourite acts was Rick Astley and the Blossoms doing a whole Smiths set. It’s difficult to explain to people who have grown up in an internet age, how important groups like the Smiths were in the brash, money obsessed 80s. But then Morrissey has become increasingly right wing and it just means there is a shadow hanging over any listening experience now. But it’s impossible not to love Rick Astley, and so you could enjoy this set guilt-free and marvel at just how good those sings were.
This is not a Smiths post however (you don’t need to tell me how you never liked them or that I should never have entertained them). Rather what it reinforced was the under-appreciated value of ‘niceness’. When I was young, there was no epithet more withering than ‘nice’. We wanted angry, radical, dangerous, challenging. Maybe it’s a sign of getting older, but I also think it’s a response to a society where performative cruelty is both a fast track to a sort of success, and is positively reinforced by the outrage engine of algorithms in social media.
Think of many of the celebrities now held in high esteem – Keanu Reeves, Dolly Parton, Brendan Fraser, for example. What these have in common (as well as being talented in their own fields), is a genuine humanity and sincerity that appeals to people who are tired of politicians, chat show hosts and popular newspapers continually trying to outdo each other in the callousness arms race.
Inevitably I think about this in terms of higher ed also. The stereotype of an academic we often see portrayed on TV and film is of an arrogant but brilliant individual (usually a man) – someone who is rude to all those around him, dismissive of students, disdainful of colleagues, but oh, so amazing in their discipline. While we can mock these portrayals, stereotypes have a way of seeping into the psyche, particularly for those starting out, who are still establishing an identity. Look at how many entrepreneurs think that behaving like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk is actually an essential ingredient of success.
I mentioned in a previous post that foregrounding care is actually quite radical, and similarly we need to develop cultures that encourage niceness. I may be naive but I feel that has happened to a degree of the past decade – certainly the sorts of behaviours we used to see in academics would not be tolerated now (at least at the Open University). The example of Rick Astley demonstrates though that niceness has longevity (if genuine), so nice guys don’t finish last. They finish with a rousing chorus of There is a Light That Never Goes Out instead: