Never has an award ceremony so accurately reflected its industry as this year’s Brit Awards, the annual music business back-slapping convention at Earl’s Court.
I wasn’t there - didn’t get an invite - but I’m glad, because, had I attended, I would probably have slipped into a coma after about five minutes, such was the level of excitement as Dido won Best Album for a two and a half year old record, and Blue were named as the cream of young, up-and-coming British talent.
Perhaps it was the television coverage which made The Brits 2002 seem so dull, but I doubt it.
The truth is far simpler: Mainstream UK pop is dead in the water. It is as stagnant and rancid as it’s ever been. Pop music - that which is ‘popular’ - has now become so bad that Enrique Iglesias can spend a decade at the top of the charts, cover versions of old Bucks Fizz tunes are considered credible, and people who really should know better find themselves pining for the ‘good old days’ of Steps and Five.
We live in a world where the most famous man in British music is Simon Cowell, a slightly rude record company svengali. Our biggest pop star is Robbie Williams - a Butlin’s redcoat with a Sinatra fixation -, and the impending chart face-off between Kylie and Posh is a topic of vital national importance.
Somewhere, something has gone badly wrong.
The charts themselves have been ridiculed ever since they were first introduced, with most of the music in them labelled as ‘throwaway’ or ‘plastic’ – because usually that’s exactly what it is. This will probably never change, and we must learn to accept it. But what bothers me more than anything is the type of person who can these days pass for a pop ‘star’.
To make it big in the current climate it would seem you have to be as bland as possible. You must be all things to all people, you must not offend, alienate or exclude anybody. You must appear hip enough to be played on Radio 1, safe enough to be snapped up by Radio 2 and kids TV, and sound sufficiently homogenised to be put on heavy rotation by the commercial stations. With the right look, the appropriate sound, and savvy marketing, anybody can do it.
And that’s exactly the problem.
One of the main reasons for the rubbish state of pop music is this idea that “anyone can become a star if they want it enough”. No they can’t. True star quality and talent are not things that can be acquired through graft. A few are born with them, most without. That’s the whole point. Do people reckon Jimi Hendrix learned to play guitar like that just by practising really hard each day?
So-called ‘Manufactured Pop’ has been around for an eternity, but the stakes have been raised recently, and never more so than in the last twelve months. ‘Popstars’ and ‘Pop Idol’ have taken the process to its logical conclusion, letting the public in on the secret, and shattering the illusion of made-to-order teen acts.
The result has been a deluge of overnight sensations, each one as boring as the last. The notion that, by plucking ordinary people off the street and giving them a record deal, they will suddenly become interesting, is just plain wrong. Apparently, Danny from Hear’Say was a cleaner when opportunity knocked – the only thing that makes him different from the millions of other people stuck in dead-end jobs is that he did well in a TV talent show.
Like most of today’s pop stars, he is an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. Good luck to all of them. They are probably acutely aware they will be chewed up and spat out in a matter of months, but who can blame any of them for grabbing the chance to make a fast buck?
Far more astonishing is the masses’ insatiable appetite for these artists. Even when record buyers can clearly see they are being taken for a ride, they still fall over themselves to feed the industry machine, rushing out in their millions to purchase a piece of the latest muppet off the conveyor belt. And now, with the voting system for ‘Pop Idol’, the public are even content to do the industry’s market research as well! Are people blind as well as stupid?!
All of this means we breed stars who have nothing to say, but we seem to like it that way. What happened to the days when pop had a social conscience, when bands like The Specials could top the charts with ‘Ghost Town’, a song which articulated the grim mood of the times so effectively? Where are the artists who have a serious point to make? Nowhere near the mainstream, that’s for sure. They are sifted out and left tucked away in the margins of our culture. Every so often, one might slip through the net, but they are the exceptions.
Some say pop music should forget about making revolutionary statements and concentrate solely on entertaining, but the stage school kids who currently rule our airwaves are so uninteresting they cannot even do that properly. It’s got to the stage where even Elton John - bless him - feels the need to launch a verbal attack on the industry (again). The other day he said distinguishing between today’s pop acts was like choosing between “packets of cereal”. He might have added the only difference is there’s more charisma in a bowl of Weetabix than in the whole of A1 put together
So what’s the answer? Well, Guy Fawkes had the right idea. When he and his cronies got fed up with the people in charge, they plotted to blow up the Houses Of Parliament, dealing swiftly with the root of their particular problem, presumably with a view to starting afresh. OK, so it didn’t quite work out but, hey, it was a commendable attempt.
Therefore, I propose a similar treatment for the current pop establishment. We just need to wait until everybody involved in stifling our mainstream is conveniently under one roof, and then deal with them accordingly.
February 2003. Earls Court. You know what to do.