Comic Relief, Charity and the Elision of Politics

Comic Relief is in the news today due to the imminent transmission of a long-delayed Panorama exposing some of its more dubious activities. Investing in the arms, alcohol and tobacco trades does indeed run so counter to CR’s stated aim of creating “a just world free from poverty” that it beggars belief; in a wider sense though, it’s fairly typical of the rarely-discussed contradictions found in the charity world. Panorama apparently touches on some of these, looking at the activities of other charities including Save the Children and Amnesty International. This particular section about the former organisation struck me:

The programme will also criticise Save the Children, alleging the charity has “self-censored” its criticism of the energy industry so as not to upset potential and existing corporate partners – something the charity denies. “The quest for money is beginning to destroy the mission,” Dominic Nutt, former head of news at Save the Children, told the programme. “Every year I would prepare a line, to go to the media, to criticise British Gas. Every year it would be quashed.”

The relationship between charities, corporate partners and major donors (wealthy individuals) is a complex and, to my mind, deeply problematic one. Much of the time of any charity fundraising department is taken up in wooing these companies and individuals. They are invited to special events, intimate meetings, wined and dined and generally treated as a class apart from the members of the public whose main contact with some of these charities is likely to be having tins or clipboards waved at them in the street. It may be strictly true to say, as the CEO of Save the Children does, that “It is simply wrong and misleading to suggest our silence can be bought.” That’s not, however, because there’s absolutely nothing in the claims that the mission is ‘compromised’ but rather because positioning your charity to be ‘acceptable’ to big money is seen as perfectly ‘natural’. An organisation like British Gas generally wouldn’t have to demand that a charity dropped unfavourable references to them because very few of them would ever venture there in the first place.

In this way the CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility – programmes of big companies and the charitable activities of wealthy individuals serve a far more insidious purpose than just making them ‘look good’. They actively discourage criticism from some of the organisations which should be at the forefront of scrutinising their actions. We may for example read about the activities of the ‘Big 4’ accountancy firms in aiding and abetting tax avoidance and other corporate misdemeanors but you’ll struggle to find a charity which links this to the issues they ostensibly work in – poverty, cuts to services, healthcare and research, international development and so on. This self-censorship is so internalised that it’s not even seen as a guilty secret – rather it’s viewed as ‘grown-up’ campaigning, the Realpolitik of charity work.

A perfect example (and one which has started to be picked up on in the past year) is the involvement of Gary Barlow with Children in Need (and indeed with other charities such as MENCAP.) The former “awards grants each year to organisations supporting disadvantaged children and young people in the UK” while the latter offers support ” to people with a learning disability and their families and carers”. It simply seems impossible for both organisations to separate their missions and values from Barlow’s tax avoidance and support for the Tories at the 2010 election. Both charities have found themselves more necessary than ever due to government cuts to services in recent years; MENCAP has even actively campaigned against government policies. It seems not only mendacious in the extreme but actually harmful to then present Barlow as an apolitical ‘good bloke’ doing his bit for charity. Doing his bit would be paying his taxes and being made to face the consequences of his political decisions.

We saw this too on last weekend’s X Factor where the judge’s panel, including Barlow, got misty-eyed watching a video about the work of Great Ormond Street and Together For Short Lives, both of which will benefit from the winner’s single. X Factor is incredibly calculated in the charities it selects each year, with children and/or the military tending to dominate because both ‘causes’ have the powerful effect of nullifying critical thought. This is particularly strange in the case of Great Ormond Street, where we’re encouraged to ‘dig deep’ to help the sick kiddies. The fact that GOSH is an NHS hospital and as such funded largely by taxes is completely elided. To do otherwise would be to face the unavoidable truth that government cuts and NHS policy have a direct impact on the care of the children we’re invited to coo over; more than that, it would make it seem utterly perverse that we could possibly think buying an X Factor single was the way to help the most vulnerable in society.

Everywhere, then, we find charity actively removing politics from the equation and instead presenting issues as solvable with more money and some polite e-petitions. This is perhaps most striking in the international aid sector where, as the brilliant The End of Poverty documentary makes clear, the role of global capitalism in perpetuating poverty and hunger is hidden from view and we’re instead presented with a continent which is just innately ‘broken’ and only fixable by following Western policies. So we had last Summer’s If campaign presenting e-petitions aimed at the G8 as the ‘solution’ to these issues while the governments in question continue to push neoliberal policies which ultimately harm the cause and maximise the positive publicity resulting from the ‘charitable’ shutting down of criticism.

We have to inject the politics back into charity and be far, far more critical. It’s simply too easy for people and organisations to cloak themselves in the warm blanket of ‘charity’, whether that be Ben Cohen or some naked rowers clearly gaining personally from their vague ‘charitable activities’ or multinationals and governments masking their misdeeds behind banal campaigns. Charities are not and could never be separate from politics – they are politics and we need to understand that the issues they address require political solutions rather than celebrity calendars, talent show singles and scraps from the tables of enormously wealthy financial organisations. If the Comic Relief revelations can open the door to this discussion, they couldn’t have come along soon enough.

Zombie Pop

I’ve written quite a bit about the current contempt for pop music which bubbles away beneath the surface even of much ‘pop fandom’, not least in my recent Lily Allen piece. As I noted there, pop isn’t taken seriously as an art form yet a trite populism means that it’s instinctively defended against any and all criticism. When the banal output of One Direction is celebrated as a joyful cultural force, the pressure to do something great is pretty much non-existent. Add to this the fact that record sales are in decline, resulting in labels increasingly relying on their star artists for revenue (which itself comes more and more from advertising and endorsement deals) and you have a recipe for conservatism. The results of this have been unavoidable this year in most of the big pop releases: Prism’s dry self-denial; Gaga and Justin’s need to smother their music in tortured conceits to lend it ‘worth’; Miley’s ‘will this do?’ singles-and-filler effort. There’s been a singular lack of vision and, more to the point, a lack of daring. If Thriller was the music industry’s Star Wars, it feels like we’re at the stage where the results are market-driven dreck akin to Pearl Harbour.

Britney Spears’ Britney Jean is the last big pop release of the year and (quite remarkably) it’s possibly the worst. Talked up in advance as being her “strongest album ever” and comparable to Madonna’s classic Ray of Light, in actuality it’s completely wretched. This shouldn’t be surprising: no artist has better personified the lack of respect afforded to pop music than Britney. Yet there have been moments, most notably Blackout, where Britney’s blankness has been put to brilliant use; for the most part however, she has cruised on her celebrity and the indulgence of beguiled fans who project themselves into the void. The lead single from Britney Jean, Work Bitch, was depressingly generic fare which very firmly fell into the latter camp. Interestingly enough, though, the single bombed.

If being a hyper-famous void wasn’t enough to sell that song, Britney Jean as an album is very clearly fucked. It’s a quite extraordinary listen – decay and decline seep from its every second. The opener Alien, a William Orbit variation on the existential angst of fame, is actually a decent song but Britney’s vocal is breathtakingly terrible. To say it’s processed would be an understatement – it sounds like some bizarre other-worldly approximation of what a human sounds like, sterile and vacuum-packed. It offers no warmth and no trace of emotion, only a cold technological dejection. As noted, Blackout had great fun with this – here it’s clear that we’re supposed to buy into these vocals being ‘heartfelt’ and ‘real’. It’s such a miserable black hole that the English impersonation of Work Bitch sounds positively sparkling in comparison.

If the album is hobbled by this from the off it’s mortally wounded by a succession of similarly dead-eyed conveyor belt contributions from will.i.am, David Guetta, Sia and a host of others. The ‘personal’ lyrics consist of little more than sweeping allusions to everyday emotions which allow chasms of ambiguity. Passenger is a prime example, seeming certain to be interpreted as being about Britney’s conservatorship yet being a standard love song with lyrics which just seem sinister if taken in a personal context (if you’re in your 30s and deemed to be incapable of managing your own affairs, singing “this is living, yeah!” about the situation is more than a little twisted.)

Britney is a zombie popstar, staggering on long past the point when blood last pumped through her veins and feasting on the low expectations of a catatonic audience. The cracks, however, are bursting wide open. It’s simply astonishing that, throughout the album, other voices crop up to paper over Britney’s contribution; at one point (on Body Ache) it actually sounds like someone else takes an entire verse. The fact that the people behind the record either think no-one will notice or (perhaps more likely) that no-one will care is remarkable. I suppose it’s a fair enough expectation when you have an artist who never actually sings during her ‘live’ shows but you surely need to have a semblance of respect for your audience?! Yet respect is entirely absent here. Britney Jean is one of the most depressing albums I have ever heard. The glimmer of hope lies in the failure of Work Bitch, offering the possibility that even Britney’s own fanbase are tiring of an act that is increasingly less about illusion and more about derangement. It’s ironic, after all, that in the end it’s the listener who has to work to maintain some pretence that this is a functional record.

Maybe, just maybe, this will indeed be pop’s Pearl Harbour (movie). There has to come some point where we say ‘enough now’, quit making excuses for the phoned in crud and start expecting again. Perhaps it’s already happening, with artists like Lorde enjoying the kind of swift and enormous success which testifies to a malnourished audience craving sustenance. On the other hand, One Direction sold over 100,000 copies of their album in one day this week and will be joined by Gary Barlow at the top of Sunday’s album chart. The battle lines are drawn: what do you want your pop to be?