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.

In retrospect I’m not entirely sure why I so anticipated a new album from an artist hardly renowned for churning out good albums…the only Cher album most people would even be able to name is Believe and part of that would be guesswork. So I was disappointed but never mind. I’ll still go and see her in concert and no doubt love it.

Cher – Closer To The Truth

‘X Factor’, Britney Spears and ‘The Voice’

When ‘X-Factor’ first arose from the ashes of ‘Pop Idol’ in 2004, it was intended to be different. Michelle McManus had won the second ‘Pop Idol’ and, while undoubtedly a nice person and able to carry a tune, she was by no means a pop star. As its name suggests, then, ‘’X-Factor’ was intended to be about more than singing. It explicitly aimed to recognise that there was something almost indefinable which made a truly great pop star – something which made a mediocre singer like Madonna infinitely more interesting than ten thousand big-voiced pub singers.

It was certainly an interesting concept but one which (whether by design or by necessity) was quickly jettisoned. “It’s a singing competition!” became a mantra for the judges and audience alike, though even that became less true as the series progressed. In the endless chase for ratings it became very much a modern reality show, emphasising the personalities of the ‘contestants’ and ramping up the cruelty and contrived conflict at every opportunity. In the 2011 series Misha B was arguably the only contestant who had ‘it’, yet she was mercilessly undermined for dramatic effect and we ended up with three bland acts in the final (though certainly Little Mix are enough of a blank canvas to facilitate some decent pop singles). In short, ‘X-Factor’ these days shows nothing but contempt for pop music. ‘Talent’ is defined as being a) likeable and b) being able to hold a tune, and little else. Acts with a sense of their own artistic identity are maligned. ‘Versatility’ is fetishised but in a very narrow sense equated with the willingness to sing anything that sells records. The biggest crime of all is a desire to be creatively involved – if you want to do well from ‘X-Factor’, do not under any circumstances say that you wish to write your own material or, God forbid, aren’t particularly interested in ‘pop music’ (in its most narrowest sense  – taken to mean dance-pop).

It is perhaps naive to believe that it was ever different yet the show’s progression/degeneration can be easily traced in the lineage of its judging panel. It initially began with three industry people who could ostensibly spot ‘talent’. From there we have overwhelmingly moved to more ratings-driven choices, with each judge playing a set ‘role’. You could conceivably argue that people like Cheryl Cole or Tulisa are meant to illustrate the original concept of being pop stars despite rather modest talents, yet this is nonsensical given the decisive shift away from that idea. Indeed, when Cheryl launched her solo career on the show she mimed her performance, a quite staggering display of contempt for both contestants and audience of the ‘singing competition’. It both highlighted and undermined the charade – Cheryl is a pop star who began life as a tv personality and, despite the frequent brilliance of Girls Aloud, the latter has remained her most prominent role. This meant that she could perform as a tv personality – the singing (and even the song) were incidental. We are encouraged to buy into the person as an individual brand. This is the idea of a pop star being pushed by ‘X-Factor’ – a personality first, a singer second, an ‘artist’ a very distant afterthought. In this sense Olly Murrs is the archetypal contestant – someone who is able to present tv shows while churning out catchy, undemanding singles – while Leona Lewis’ swift decline could be attributed to her failure as a ‘personality’.

What ‘X Factor’ has become has reached its apotheosis with the appointment of Britney Spears as a judge on ‘X Factor USA’. She is in many ways the perfect ‘X-Factor’ pop star – Britney as a brand & persona long ago eclipsed Britney as a person. It’s almost irrelevant to ponder Britney as an artist because she is the ultimate blank canvas, reflecting everything and nothing, at once devoid of personality and containing everyone’s personalities. She may still put out albums but really, at this stage, no-one would bat an eyelid if she was used to advertise hedge funds.

It is a dead-eyed idea of pop as something which, at its best, sells. That becomes its primary purpose and, to this aim, it must not be demanding, difficult, too interesting or have aspirations towards being an art form (other than as, perhaps, a Warholian commentary on the cultural void at the heart of pop which has been replaced by the marketplace).

The launch of ‘The Voice’ in deliberate contrast to ‘X-Factor’ has been interesting. It already seems clear that it cannot hope to even begin to challenge the notions of pop disseminated by the latter. Yet in some ways it seems like a sincere effort. The instant admission that the contestants have all been pre-vetted is a hugely positive move, moving away from the deliberate cruelty and humiliation of the audition stages of ‘X-Factor’. It does try to avoid the traps of modern reality tv with its emphasis on the contest rather than the contestant. We aren’t led to believe that the contestants all mess around in a house together; there are no ‘profiles’ of each individual every week and no ironic ‘quizzes’ wherein we are encouraged to ‘get to know’ the individuals. It displays a very self-conscious interest in ‘talent’, from its judges performing live to contestants who play instruments and speak about song-writing.

All of this is much mocked, usually with an appeal to the oft-derided notion of ‘authenticity’. This criticism works in two ways – firstly to suggest that the show is obsessed with the sneering notion of ‘real music’, secondly by highlighting that it’s a tv show and involves manipulation and so isn’t actually ‘authentic’. I think the first is unfair – I don’t think the show is overly concerned with ‘real music’ in the sense of any specific genre or even the idea that artists write songs – indeed, the two favourites to win, Ruth Brown and Jaz, are simply singers. However they are singers who seem to be treated with respect, guided to improve and grow in confidence without artificial hoops to jump through such as singing ‘big band’ or whatever. The ‘authenticity’ being pursued is one that is in opposition to the ’X-Factor’ ideal of blankness. Yet it almost goes back to ‘Pop Idol’ and its idea that a good voice is enough. Madonna certainly wouldn’t make it past the pre-audition stage of ‘The Voice’.

The second criticism, though largely facile, does inadvertently highlight another big problem with ‘The Voice’ – it doesn’t quite work as a tv show. In avoiding the contrivances which make ‘X-Factor’ entertaining and aiming for an ostentatious sincerity, it ultimately misses both the entertainment of a trashy reality show and the honesty which it aims for. How could it not? The American version is far more astute regarding this and is based almost entirely around the relationship between the superstar judges.

Ultimately, I do prefer ‘The Voice’ to ‘X Factor’. The latter feels exploitative and unpleasant; I feel grubby when I watch it. The greatest crime of the former to date is that it’s a bit dull. I suppose if there’s a ‘lesson’ here it’s that pop music can never be reduced to a magic formula which works on television. ‘X Factor’ is explicitly aimed at a television audience while ‘The Voice’ naively aims itself at an audience who will appreciate ‘good singing’, assuming that this is enough. Both, perhaps, contribute to the reduction of pop music to a talent show and the increasing emphasis on pop stars as next-door ‘personalities’. To coin a phrase, the next pop revolution will not be televised.