There has been a lot of chitter lately about the type of chart stars we’re churning out. There is a pudginess to their faces, like they’ve been scoffing suckling piglets at one too many summer banquets. Their hands are all milky soft from never having done a day’s work. They think about their touring schedules in terms of “town” and “country”. Yes, “posh” is back. And with it, the debate about how much posh is too much.
Wading into it this week, “James Cucking Funt” as he signed himself, delivered a spleneticaletter to Labour’s culture spokesman. The former British Army Captain and mid-noughties hate figure piled into Chris Bryant MP, who’d said that there were too many Blunt-style poshos at the top of the arts world.
No one, he pointed out, at Harrow, or indeed at Sandhurst, had any contacts in the music biz. Everyone had warned him off of singing and tried to sink him into sensible careers - i.e. the Army and merchant banking. That’s the true face of posh. It’s up a boardroom table at Coutt’s, not backstage at the Brixton Academy.
"The only head-start my school gave me in the music business, where the VAST majority of people are NOT from boarding school, is to tell me that I should aim high. Perhaps it protected me from your kind of narrow-minded, self-defeating, lead-us-to-a-dead-end, remove-the-‘G’-from-‘GB’ thinking, which is to look at others’ success and say, 'it’s not fair'."
Blunt-o’s clarion call against the politics of envy was very entertaining. By the end of it you could easily feel like kicking the rump of sanctimonious ex-vicar Bryant. Except that the comments Bryant made didn’t seem to warrant that level of spleen. He’d simply said that the arts need opening up. That the stonking fees for RADA, the long lines of unpaid arts internships that need daddy’s London pied-à-terre to be economically doable, all contributed to a society in which the Eddie Redmaynes and Blunt-os could thrive, at the expense of others.
No one claims that Blunt is not entitled to his squillions. They are the just rewards for being good at looking pretty and emoting trite sentiments heavily. But there’s also no denying that we are living in an age where a certain kind of lozenge-folk have come to dominate. It’s no longer just the children of lawyers and architects. It’s the kids of the balls-out elite. Sam Smith’s £500k-a-year banker mother. The Mumfords - Winston Marshall’s dad being the chairman of one of the country’s largest hedge-funds. It can feel like we’ve entered an age in which an ubermensch class of arsehole has been allowed to buy up pop music itself as efficiently as they bought up NW1.
In part, this is our own fault. Us tightfisted consumers have spent much of the past decade sawing off the branch we were sitting on. Once upon a whenever, you could get signed, go on tour, release two albums of tedious indie bum-wibble, get dropped, and still walk away at the end of it with enough for a small house in Crawley. That model no longer holds. The system has become more all or nothing. You either make more money than God selling a global product to a global audience, or you make almost nothing and end up in hock to the people who own the means of distribution.
Authors, actors, singers, all find themselves having to treat their craft as a hobby. They hang on to the day job, unless they become U2. Even Richard Flanagan, who won the Booker Prize this year, was contemplating going to work on the mines in Australia for a few months to get the money to sustain him through writing The Narrow Road To The Deep North.
Then, at the demand side of the equation, the consumer profile is changing. An entertainment company’s safe bet is no longer simply where you make your biggest profit, it’s your only profit. Gone are the days when one huge Mariah album could help bankroll indie pop bands like BiS being signed to a major label for half a decade. Now you’ve got your fingers crossed that Mariah will break even herself.
This is what the post-Napster world actually looks like. Not a non-existent music biz, but one in which the mums who still buy the CDs (and thus are the biggest block-vote left in the game), have ended up as the chart monarchs. They say who lives and who dies. They like Sam Smith. They love Ellie Goulding. They like nice tasteful well-packaged bits of non-rough. George Ezra, Ben Howard, and The Asda Guitar Boy are their default settings: fashionable undercut; alabaster skin; heavy worker-boots chosen by stylist; twee vlog. And so long as they are the ones paying the piper, the mums will call the tune.
A generation of arts middle-managers have gotten better at anticipating the public taste before the public itself. So you get the blandest box-tickers making their way to the top: boys and girls whose manners are those of haunted pastry, cuddly and inoffensive, a display table in Oliver Bonas, unsullied by much beyond the gates of the Montessori pre-school, the after-school amdram, the chalet weekenders in Val d’Isere.
Of course, as Blunt points out, we should never resort to classism. The hours Sam Smith has spent toiling over boring songs about imaginary relationships were as valid as any. He has worked as hard as anyone to nail inoffensiveness, and he has perfected it. That is his gift. Likewise, just because Years & Years are pretty much Yahs & Yahs doesn’t mean they didn’t spend ages in their bedrooms thinking about how blandly melodic ditties could be fashioned out of recent trends in radio-friendly dance. If we attack these people for being themselves, then we’re snipey gits who should be allowed to drown in our own vinegary piss. Everyone from Ellie Goulding to Lily Allen and The Vaccines to The Maccabees has faced our tedious British obsession with trying to invalidate the achievements of our betters. They can’t help their status any more than anyone else can, and none of them should have to mentor a Brixton estate kid to atone for it.But look to the other side of the ocean and America’s charts suddenly seem to be much more perky than our own insufferable heap of wet blankets. They still throw up plenty of Chief Keefs and Dominique Young Uniques. For all the corporate homogenising, they aren’t the ones presently making a Rorke’s Drift-style last-stand with just the acoustic guitar and some soul-lite croons.
Could that be because they’d never see social justice as clipping the wings of the elite - they’d see it as joining them? The US is far from the classless society it pretends to be. But it is one in which success itself always has a positive moral residue. No one sells out their social status by becoming rich and famous. They only enhance it. To start from the bottom and be here; to wear all of your gold chains around the house to remind you where you came from. That is the dream we don’t tell ourselves enough of in Britain.
Perversely then, perhaps we should learn to love Sam Smith’s cuboid head, as the living representation of success in Britain. He started from the top and now he’s here. But the important point is not in measuring the distance travelled. It’s only in the making-it.
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