January 21, 2015
by Richard Foster
Groningen’s Eurosonic / Noorderslag is a multitasking slog; what with all of the diverse gigs, panels, workshops, speak-ins, presentations, pop up shops, meetings and well… wandering about. It can be overwhelming and you could quite easily spend your days there not watching any bands at all. (I wonder if anyone’s ever done that.)
Anyway, one of the diverse events was the Soup N Knowledge day at Galerie Sign, run by Jan-Pier Brands from Minerva Academie voor Popcultuur/Hanze Hogeschool, Leeuwaarden (and now newly ensconced as directeur at stichting Harmoniekwartier). I got invited by Jan-Pier to talk about some ideas I had recently talked about in an interview I did for Gonzo Circus magazine (Number 124). In it I warbled on about a whole host of things, but for Soup N Knowledge I tried to stick to the idea that many within the Dutch media and entertainment industries sometimes seem to have an uneasy relationship with promoting music that is at odds with, or doesn’t wholly fit in with, or is different from, their settled way of working.
Now, I’m going to paraphrase some elements of that speech into two articles, based mostly round an idea I also mentioned in Gonzo; that of ‘on-Nederlands goed’; and (in the second article) a symptom (entirely my own invention) that stems from a ‘physical manifestation’ of this phrase, which I naughtily called ‘reverse apartheid’. Now, before you think I’m just here to have a pop at the Netherlands’ expense, you should know one thing. I’ve been involved with elements of the Dutch underground/alternative/fringe scenes since 2004 mainly through the magazine I edit, Incendiary. Further, I do it out of pure enjoyment; sometimes love or a misplaced fanaticism. I don’t get paid to review or promote and what tiny amounts of cash have come my way in following this path have been swallowed up in bloody crippling costs I’ve already paid out to get shit happening; however ineptly. I’ve written a thesis on elements of Dutch music history and hope to further research Dutch underground music history. I gave up a very well-paid and secure job to do it. I’ve been on ridiculously futile, argument-strewn tours with Dutch bands I loved. My British American and German friends are sick to the back teeth of me promoting some of these acts. Dutch bands have slept on my (bemused and aged) parents’ floor, on my floor, eaten my food (FOC) and been sick in my jakes. Some even borrowed my ties.
OK, so I hope I’ve established this isn’t a pop at the Dutch. Let’s begin.
In covering Dutch acts for Incendiary, I have seen some things that completely baffled me – an Englishman used to a different (more bombastic, patriotic) way of promoting rock music. One of the big Eureka moments came with the performance of De Nieuwe Vrolijkheid at Rotterdam’s Metropolis festival in July 2006. The band played on a special stage for Dutch talent; tucked away in a corner of the festival site, next to the bouncy castle for the kids. I think the audience was in single figures, outside of the grazers, who wandered around the stage, looking out for their children. Throw in a young, patronisingly over-enthusiastic pretty girl presenter announcing the band (with the usual “and now; another toffe Dutch band!”) and you had this bizarre, futile scene being played out. Now, De Nieuwe Vrolijkheid were an intense and very committed underground rock band, and not really something that could fit into a scene that was there to create a happy family day out. Why couldn’t the festival programming look to present the band in a way that suited their music? And why weren’t audiences questioning this kind of presentation of Dutch acts?
With that brilliant July day and the burning racket of DNV still rattling around somewhere in my cranium, here’s the first article – exploring a specific mindset or convention – which will be followed by another about how this mindset can be put into action. This first article is specifically based round the phrase, ‘on-Nederlands goed’. For non-Dutch speakers this broadly means (something Dutch) so good, it’s ‘not’ Dutch. Forgive me if I quote in Dutch, and forgive me if I go back in time now and again, to embroider my case.
In his book Banal Nationalism, Michael Billig gave an analysis of nationalism as ‘an ideology of the first person plural’.* If we are to take this analysis as our ‘nationalist’ start point in deconstructing the idea of on-Nederlands goed (given the country’s name is in the phrase) we should therefore assume that it’s in nationwide use; commonly used over time, and accepted** as something that can be used by an individual to describe elements of the state they are from. And it should be easy to find lots of examples of it in use. Even when narrowing our investigations down to cultural matters in the Netherlands, and in particular music (courtesy of a ‘simple trawl of the internet’) we can see many instances of the phrase cropping up; as can a quick flick through old Dutch rock magazines from the 1970s and 1980s. All the examples reveal a number of conventions round the phrase, bundled under some pithy headers, which we can run through now.
Firstly, and not surprisingly, there’s a convention about objecting to it. We can find a constant stream of heartfelt objections to the term by those working in the Dutch popular music world or objections that extend to its use apropos Dutch socio-cultural achievements on a world stage (here’s a job agency think piece – of all things – kicking off about the term in relation to an on-Nederlands goed tweet during the Winter Olympics). But even that usage seems to be part of a wider game that just entrenches the status quo. As this kind of reaction to on-Nederlands goed is, in effect a convention that maybe recognises its own lack of punch. It is – in other words – perfectly acceptable to say on-Nederlands goed’s a shitty term and why can’t the Dutch stop using it, and leave it at that. An implicit acceptance in other words, which does make you wonder what kind of campaign will actually get this phrase laughed out of court.
It’s been going on for years. While I write, I am staring at an old copy of Vinyl magazine on my desk. The edition from July 1982, number 15, with a Chris and Cosey flexidisc. Lovely. Now, for those who don’t know, Vinyl was a magazine that (initially) looked to promote the Dutch underground scenes of the 1980s. A magazine that often prided itself on a transnational outlook, moreover and had no time for mainstream concerns. Still, they had to get money somehow, so in edition 15 there’s an invasion of another culture in the form of a full page ad for a Dutch band called The Frog. Their label Polydor NL near as damn it makes The Frog beg for your attention despite their Dutchness (and with the aid of a long-legged lady kissing a frog.)
You could also argue that such an ad highlights the Dutch mainstream industry’s own difficulties in competing in the international pop music market; relying on an admittance of their own lack of reach.
In fact, its power may stem from its contradictory nature; as you can often see it being (unwittingly / automatically) used as an introduction to something that is about to be praised. Even when the writer looks to take issue with the phrase. Here’s an article over Dutch band Moke from 2010, for example.
You would think this type of beginning (‘look out! Here comes that horrible cliché!’), would lead to a destruction of the term in some form somewhere, but this type of article often leads to another way of reinforcing the stereotype; through that of a favourable international comparison. Namely, Moke were good in the writer’s opinion because it suddenly reminded him, and by extension us, of something that is not Dutch.
Sometimes promoting success by using the term is deliberately linked in: this is a docu on 3fm that is about to come out at time of writing (21st Jan 2015 CE) and some of the opening text is schizophrenic to say the least.
To paraphrase; ‘Michiel investigates in the ‘So good it’s not Dutch’ documentary the reasons behind the international success of Dutch bands and acts.’ In terms of at once revelling in the underdog role and wanting the biggest slice of the pie, it’s almost worthy of the paranoid bombast that accompanied the launch of a new ship for Kaiser Wilhelm’s Kaiserliche Marine. This idea that success is at once un-Dutch but bloody enjoyable and worth boasting about (especially when foreigners recognise, and talk about that success) is also employed as a passport to a rarefied higher critical acclaim. Here’s the NRC talking in September 2013 about a Dutch wildlife film which has been praised SO widely from ALL quarters, that its qualities have been elevated to ‘not Dutch’.
This purpose of the phrase, to promote using contrast, or a sort of ‘pretend’ ironic self-depreciating humour brings me to my fourth point; that of the Christian idea of the ‘humble meek’. The idea of getting just rewards for good behaviour or actions is, with on-Nederlands goed, given a passive/aggressive edge; especially as it’s tagged onto something more volatile and likely to arouse passions; in this case the idea of the nation and socio-cultural elements that shaped a nation. Namely, Billig’s ‘ideology of the first person plural’. A number of people I have interviewed – namely Wally van Middendorp and Dirk Polak – point to a strong strain Calvinism in the Dutch national point of view when it comes to appreciation of the arts. Whilst this idea can never be an all-encompassing theory (especially south of the rivers) the behavioural ideal that stems from a wider Christian set of conventions and practises can be seen in the manner that Dutch musicians go about their business. Gratitude, decency, modesty and care when dealing with the order of things are de rigeur; an unspoken contract for bands looking to get on. For sure you can be wild, but wild within an echte Nederlands, or on-Nederlands goed set of conventions. Related to this, bands’ images are often guided, or initiated by those describing them; by use of careful and safe auto-positive words like ‘toffe’, ‘mooie’ and ‘leuk’; or the bizarre ‘minder leuk/toff’, after all there can’t be anything utterly shit, that would be rude. These are used at the same time as the derogatory ‘bandje’ and on-Nederlands goed. A construct like ‘toffe, on-Nederlands goed bandje’ doesn’t quite have the same ring when translated to English ‘a smashing wee little band, so good it’s not Dutch’. Hmmm.
Of course, the meaning is not, and should not be exactly transferrable, but the basic understanding is that whilst the band is great, it’s small; and not really looking to blow its own trumpet too hard outside of its patch. When one does, toes get stood on. Remember the stink when Rats on Rafts’ David Fagan dared to say he wasn’t in music to collect prizes when asked about being nominated for the 3fm prize on De Wereld Draait Door? Fagan was rounded on, live on air, by true denizens of the NL pop establishment; the likes of Di-rect’s Spike and Caro Emerald. *** I remember one ticking him off for being ungrateful. I also remember the Twitter storm afterwards, how dare he say that! Imagine similarly independent-minded, outspoken singers like Ian Brown or Noel Gallagher (ok, ok, maybe a bit of a stretch, better, imagine a young British or American band saying the same about a Dutch prize) on the same programme in front of the same audience. What would the reaction be? For Dutch bands in these situations, it seems that showing the correct behaviour comes before telling the truth; however mildly expressed or of little consequence. Let’s leave this section with another classic example of the binary, quasi-Christian thinking using on-Nederlands goed; this time using another contrast – from obscurity to recognition, and through that, redemption. Brought to us by a national paper, the AD (June 2008).
From our own backyard, but so good it’s not Dutch!
And, given this ‘good behaviour’ element, maybe it’s an extremely useful phrase to have in the locker for those looking to get things going in their own backyard. Firstly – as we have seen – it reinforces the idea that those making the work that is being praised should be damned lucky to take praise when they can. So be thankful; but in not too immodest a manner. And if the praise is handed out and effectively regulated – top down – by Dutch organisations or media outlets like AD, NRC and 3fm (as we have seen in the examples above), then that’s an additional reason to be thankful and humble; TO those organisations. It follows then that this promotion can also be geographically applied, from the Randstad outwards towards the borders of the Netherlands. This is where a two-way interaction between those at the provincial coalfaces and the official echelons of the music industry in the Netherlands can be seen. The phrase can explain, or promote a must see local act; a sort of top down approval rating from those in the Randstad for those in the sticks to check something out; back by actors in the sticks who are happy to grab at any manner of keeping going.
So: We’ve been told by the professional media that they are so good they’re not Dutch AND an excellent live act. Saints preserve us; we must leave our quiet provincial homes and witness this.
The phrase, coupled with Randstad ‘praise’ can bring prominence to a region that’s either on the periphery of the country or is so small and provincial it’s often overlooked. So it has a real use for some, but the fact it’s not really being questioned by those exploiting it may just reinforce a subservient role that ultimately keeps eyes inward, or towards the Randstad. Maybe that’s how people like it.
I honestly don’t know. Until people stop using it, or really start ripping the piss out of it, this kind of contradictory, sometimes questionable usage will continue. I actually think the passive aggressive strain inherent in the phrase will mutate into an even more insular usage, seen in this last, very recent example. The article is about a TV series, ‘Hollands Hoop’. Here’s the strap line. ‘Onnederlands goed = Gronings goud. Televisie als gebiedsmarketing tool.’ Here’s the text.
So, in effect: an admission in the article that the phrase – whilst in this context is praising the TV show – is not something that shows the Dutch worldview of themselves as wholly positive, or assured. But hey, sod that; we’ll take it in mutated form for our own city (here Groningen) and celebrate the phrase’s true meaning, because it shows how great Groningen is!
Does your head hurt yet?