Tony Blair awarded the BRIT Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music to David Bowie seventeen years ago today (19th February). Blair’s youth is an obvious observation; what’s more interesting is how what at the time seemed like sincere (if awkward) fandom now seems horribly cynical and rehearsed. I’m not sure if that’s because Blair is so tarnished, politics itself is in such disrepair or I am more world-weary (read: cynical). Probably all three.
This award came over a year before the 1997 General Election but it already seemed certain that Labour would win – I think that’s conveyed in the audience response to Blair, one which conveys dazzling optimism and hope. Having been born in 1980 I only knew a Tory government – one that was much hated in Scotland. So I bought into the excitement over Blair as much as anyone else did and though I was too young to vote in 1997, I wrote to my MP afterwards telling him how thrilled I was at the result. In this so-called ‘honeymoon period’ after Labour formed the government many of the people in that audience would be caught up in the branding exercise of ‘Cool Britannia’, something which even at the time seemed slightly naff. From Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress to Liam & Patsy on the cover of Vanity Fair, what was meant to represent a confident, cosmopolitan modernism instead was a narcissistic, empty celebration of an era where (as Pulp so brilliantly put it) “socialism gave way to socialising”. It was barely 6 months after the election that Labour moved to cut benefits for single-parent families, a statement of intent which now of course seems instructive regarding their time in office. It saw the first real opposition to Blair’s premiership at the time, but few of its celebrity admirers spoke out. Instead it would be the Iraq war which many of them would later cite as their reason for falling out of love with Labour. Domestic concerns such as deadening poverty have rarely seemed to offer glamour or import enough for mainstream celebrities (and few pretend that these issues aren’t complex, in stark opposition to the treatment of, say, poverty in Africa.) Myself, I held my nose to vote Labour for the very first time in 2010 in the vain hope of preventing what we now have (perhaps also a naive one in terms of whether another Labour government would have been any better?)
I want to say that it would be difficult to imagine such a collection of celebrities coming together to publically endorse a politican and a party these days but I would be hopelessly, demonstrably wrong. People like Gary Barlow and Tracey Emin supported the Tories with little fall-out; an enormous (and inoffensive) act like One Direction can even this week be associated with a hugely divisive Prime Minister (albeit under the protection of charity) and nothing will come of it. Political commentary from the kind of people who were in that room in 1996 and who will be in the room for the BRIT Awards tomorrow is almost non-existent. Any hint of despair over the coalition seems to result only in a complete disengagement from British politics and instead manifests itself in an insipid transatlantic fawning over Barack Obama (one which is largely divorced from anything he actually does.) I think it’s in Bowling For Columbine where Marilyn Manson says that he almost prefers Republican governments in America as it’s the only time ‘progressive’ artists actually speak out against authority. Well, if Obama’s leadership certainly demonstrates that these voices fall largely silent when faced with betrayals, the current situation in the UK doesn’t offer much support for the converse belief. The charts are silent –with one recent notable exception. When I saw Plan B a couple of weeks ago the oddity of politics (and politics concerned with poverty, drugs, prostitution, deprivation) in an arena was unavoidable. It was notable that the crowd responded with far more enthusiasm to the ostensibly apolitical material from ‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’. Certainly, those songs are more traditional and melodic; certainly the issues tackled in ‘Ill Manors’ (the film and album) are difficult, sometimes grim and not exactly conducive to a Saturday night on the lash. Still, it’s impossible to ignore that the drumbeat of ‘politics and pop music don’t mix’ has rarely been louder. It’s an idiotic and ignorant belief given the history of almost all pop music as we know it today, traceable back to slavery and instrumental in the civil rights movement. It’s shameful given the current crisis in capitalism and the assault on the living standards and rights of ordinary people across the world.
In this respect the BRIT Awards couldn’t seem more irrelevant, a bloated homage to an industry which seems hopelessly out of touch – not only politically but in terms of how people are actually consuming and relating to music. It may be difficult to envisage one of the main party leaders giving out an award in 2013 but it’s nigh impossible to believe that we could ever see a repeat of Chumbawamba’s 1998 protest at the government’s failure to support the dockers’ strike. If at the time this was widely ridiculed (the government being still relatively new and very popular) it would seem hopelessly anachronistic now. Our mainstream pop music is moribund in its concerns, gazing lovingly at its own reflection and having nothing of any profundity to say – not only in terms of explicitly political concerns but also with regards to society and ourselves.
This, at least, is not something which can be said of Bowie’s music and his 1996 appearance (and subsequent performance, also on Youtube) seems as out of place now as Chumbawamba’s actions would. He was promoting his then-current album ‘1.Outside’, a bleak and brilliant Millennial piece which paints a dystopian picture of the 20th Century’s dying days. Given the optimistic attitude embodied by Blair, it was remarkably out-of-step with Britain at the time yet, in retrospect, it seems almost prescient. Bowie’s recent return fully cemented his status as one of the all-time greats in popular music, up there at the top with a handful of other artists. His own dalliances with politics have obviously been troublesome to say the least, with well-quoted flirtations with fascist leaders in the 70s and tax-avoiding emigrations. Crucially, however, his best work has been intense, penetrating and shot through with an outsider stance which at its best causes us to think in new ways about both ourselves and the world around us (clearly, unfortunately, much of the facile hysteria demonstrated upon his return demonstrates that this isn’t a prerequisite for professing to like him). His brand of pop music seems positively antiquated and it’s almost too apposite that the BRITS have done away with the Outstanding Contribution Award entirely this time around.
Much of this can be, maybe should be, dismissed as the personal ramblings of someone who is getting older. Nonetheless, 1996 at the BRIT Awards seems truly to be another country, in every sense.