James Blunt performing at the Invictus Games in 2014. Photo: Getty
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I care deeply about diversity in the arts, but I can’t help sympathising with James Blunt

The UK has a serious problem with a lack of diversity in the arts. But I can understand James Blunt’s anger – it hurts when you are lazily used as the metaphor for a social class where you often feel left out.

Chris Bryant, Labour’s shadow culture minister, has made some important comments about the lack of diversity in the arts. He recently stated that:

“I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for best actor], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk,” he said.

Where are the Albert Finneys and the Glenda Jacksons? They came through a meritocratic system. But it wasn’t just that. It was also that the writers were writing stuff for them. So is the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, doing that kind of gritty drama, which reflects [the country] more? We can’t just have Downton programming ad infinitum and think that just because we’ve got some people in the servants’ hall, somehow or other we’ve done our duty by gritty drama.” (My italics.)

James Blunt, feeling that Bryant was trying to say that his success was unearned, gave a punchy rejoinder in the Guardian, in which he referred to Bryant as “a classist gimp”.  I read Blunt’s letter, and instinctively applauded him for his rebuttal. But then I took a step back.

Bryant was essentially right. There is a severe problem with diversity in the arts, and the media, right across the board. It’s so obvious that you don’t even need statistics to see it. And it’s getting worse, now that the cost of living in many large cities plus, for example, the falling revenues in the music industry – means that it is much, much harder to make it. Those who do make it will typically have somewhere to crash during those lean years, and those who do are disproportionately well-off.

So why, then, did I applaud Blunt? Well, here’s where we need to separate the personal from the political. Bryant clearly triggered something in Blunt. Blunt has spent many years being the only boy from a visibly posh background in most rooms he has entered, and being called out for it clearly still stings him now. Blunt sounds like he was something of an outlier at boarding school, and so now to be seen as representative of that world, as the mere beneficiary of a ready and complacent nepotism, is infuriating.

I think I first applauded Blunt because I partly understood, as someone who also attended boarding school, where he was coming from.  No one likes being told that they don’t deserve whatever position they have reached, particularly when they have worked hard to get there. But Bryant wasn’t trying to be offensive. He didn’t mean that. And, though it was difficult for Blunt to step back from his rage, it’s something that he could usefully do.

Because the playing field in the arts isn’t level. It just isn’t, and if James Blunt had really wanted to, if he really needed to call goodnight on his dream, then all of those other careers that he mentioned in his open letter were still open to him. And that is the one thing that people with boarding school educations very often have: the ability to do something completely different with their lives. Very often, for those who do not have degrees or networks that they can tap into when seeking jobs, the artistic dream is all they have. There is no safety net, and if we don’t fund the arts we are consigning them to a pretty bitter future. In fact, screw the future – that is the present we are sitting in, right now.

Yes, it hurt James Blunt when he was called too posh to make it in the music industry, just as it hurts to be called an Uncle Tom because I am a black person who went to boarding school, even though I sometimes got the shit kicked out of me for being black while I was there. It hurts when you are lazily branded as the metaphor for a social class where you often felt like the odd one out, particularly when that class is scorned.

But you know what’s far worse? The fact that there is a generation of outstanding artists out there who, due to their lack of opportunity, will not achieve their potential if our funding bodies do not help them as best they can. That was Bryant’s point, and it was vital, and I hope that it is not lost in the ensuing to-and-fro between him and Blunt.

This article first appeared on okwonga.com and is crossposted here with permission

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How the charts were won

For decades, white male critics have championed white male rock. Can a new school of writing re-evaluate the history of pop music?

Since the early 1970s and the first Best Albums Ever lists, most histories of popular music have followed the same course. A steady ascension via Elvis Presley reaches the birth of rock with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, followed by a gradual decline, briefly interrupted by punk. For 40-odd years after that, white male music writers posited the superiority of white, male, writerly music and took it as read that pop or dance music “didn’t count”. Then, finally, a few began to rebel until, in 2013, Bob Stanley’s invigorating Yeah Yeah Yeah went for a full rewriting of the annals, declaring outright its intention “to argue that the separation of rock and pop is false, and that disco and large swaths of black and electronic music have been virtually ignored by traditional pop histories”. Others have joined in, embracing the relativism born of popular music’s long assimilation into the mainstream and the end of the old mods v Teds or punk v disco tribalism. Most of these writers have been British, but now it seems the Americans are on board.

Love for Sale is of this new school, though its author, David Hajdu, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York and a former writer for the conservative US rock magazine Rolling Stone. His take begins by dividing the music into eras, either by technology (sheet music to digital) or movements (jazz to hip-hop), into which he folds his own experience: small-town childhood obsession, entry into punk music’s orbit in 1970s Manhattan, becoming a professional critic, watching his children develop their own tastes. He is pacy, conversational and unshowily perceptive, and his greatest virtue is his ability to see the wood for the trees. There’s something David Attenborough-like about the way he carries the reader along: for instance, tracing the journey of the song “Whispering” from composition in 1920, through instrumentals, crooners, country and bebop, to George Harrison’s rendition on an out-take from “Let It Be”.

Hajdu also has a good thesis or two, one of which he calls “the trope of the jungle”, running from the decor of the jazz-era nightspot the Cotton Club through the rock’n’roll breakout movie Blackboard Jungle and on to Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” and hip-hop’s African motifs. Listeners’ desire for the “primitive and savage”, he says, connects Duke Ellington to punk and rap. It’s certainly bold. From this, he extrapolates a social purpose for popular music: as “the sound of teen kinship” and “a for-profit laboratory of both social and aesthetic experimentation”, lightening the load along the way with the insights and discoveries vital to any history. Who knew that the “S curl” plastered to Bill Haley’s forehead was an effort to increase his resemblance to Superman? Who else has fully considered music video’s effect on live shows, with performers “costumed, choreographed and lit for the benefit of video cameras” fed to those giant screens?

Much of the rock snobbery of past histories has resided in an obsession with authenticity, but Hajdu echoes Hugh Barker’s and Yuval Taylor’s groundbreaking Faking It (2007) in dealing with commercialism head on. The US music trade magazine Billboard, he points out, began as a mouthpiece of the outdoor advertising industry; he claims that country music was invented by Tin Pan Alley to capitalise on the popularity of another fabrication, the cowboy – and reminds us that even folk’s bastions of purity, the Carter Family, were “unapologetic professionals”. He also pays proper respect to the influence of musical theatre, both through the theatricality of Ziggy Stardust and in the enduring concept of the Great American Songbook, evident in the huge success of Adele.

His efforts to distance himself from the established view may even go a little too far. He takes aim at 1970s writers and “their mission to elevate rock and perhaps, in the process, themselves”, before turning the gun on “music critics like me”. Really, his only fault seems to be that he hasn’t come to terms with his enduring passion for the music of his teens.

Marc Myers, by contrast, declares on page one of Anatomy of a Song that “at its heart, this book is a love story”, though mercifully it’s more level-headed and substantial than that suggests. Based on a column he began for the Wall Street Journal in 2011, it takes 45 songs, from Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952 to REM’s “Losing My Religion” in 1991 (25 years being the time needed to assess “iconic” status), puts each in context and then interviews its makers to form a history in snapshots. Stuart Maconie did something similar for British tastes with The People’s Songs, and in both books the chief value is in the focus being placed on song rather than singer.

Much of the music Myers writes about comes from pop, soul, or that strange place where Tin Pan Alley hack-songwriting crossed over with rock’n’roll – the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”, Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” – which rock history can’t usually compute and so pretends didn’t exist. Here, facing off against the compact power of the Four Tops’ unashamedly populist “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, the rare rock figures who appear, such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page talking about leaving behind singles to “develop our songs emotionally”, just sound silly.

It isn’t quite a history, though. Myers wants to cover the “larger story of the music’s development”, so he uses each track to represent a stage or turning point; but you are always conscious that he is limited by whom he can interview. That said, the random element throws up interesting angles. He prefaces a Loretta Lynn tune, “Fist City”, with a summary of the evolution of country and western up to the rise of the tough female singer-songwriter, while the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” inspires an essay on gospel’s infiltration, from Bridge Over Troubled Water to Godspell.

Another side effect is a reminder that popular music is always everything happening at once. That Loretta Lynn song, for example, was competing for attention in 1968 not only with Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” but also with the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”. It’s the same impression given, rather less gracefully, by Ed Ward’s History of Rock’n’Roll, Volume 1, a comparatively traditional tome that trots along year by year. Ward, another Rolling Stone veteran, makes a strong start on 19th-century string bands and the arrival of the medicine shows and ragtime, but as the record industry picks up the pace so does he, relaying with tireless and eventually tiring enthusiasm the hits and misses of each month. Though he sets out in his introduction (worryingly titled “How to Use This Book”) his intention to steer away from “the Great Performer approach”, the barrage is so unrelenting that all that remains in the mind after 400 pages are his diversions from this rule, primarily into the story of Elvis or the Beatles.

If Ward has a theme, it’s the crossover of black and white music. Elijah Wald’s excellent How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll did this in 2009 with more verve, but the subject does at least inspire Ward to step out of almanac mode into opinion. Hank Williams’s significance, he argues, came from having “internalised the blues”, allowing him to “change the rules” of country; Ray Charles “dropped a bombshell on the American popular music world” with his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music album; and long before either, those string bands sounded much the same whether the musicians were black or white.

Many shifts in popular music he attributes to technology – the move into recording; to singles and then albums; the conversion to digital. It’s a view shared by David Hajdu, who attributes the appearance of more “ruminative” songs in the 1960s (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”) to the arrival of the transistor radio, which moved teenagers out of the family space and increased music’s role as a “symbol of the cult of teen alienation”. This is now a preoccupation of music writing, highlighted in Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever: the Story of Recorded Music (2009), but also in journalism. While it’s significant that, say, both Phil Spector and Motown’s Berry Gordy designed their productions to work on tinny radios, it is hard not to wonder if this retroactive emphasis is down to music writers’ current preoccupation with downloads and streaming and their knock-on effects.

While that obsession may well pass, what will surely be more lasting – and what binds all of these books – is nostalgia. Popular music is still thriving and even developing in 2016, but it is no longer at the centre of the culture, here or in America, even for young people. Unlike those Best Album Ever lists, compiled with the triumphalism of the now, these three books are written with that most valuable critical advantage: hindsight.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge