Public-school pop stars have a hard time being taken seriously
There was a time when it was Genesis, and that was it. Now the domination of the pop charts by bands and singers who attended public schools has reached epidemic proportions. Mumford & Sons, who picked up “best group” at the Brit Awards on Wednesday, are the latest in a line of public-school Brit winners that includes Lily Allen, Florence Welch, Coldplay, Radiohead, Keane, Will Young, Pixie Lott, Dido, Kula Shaker and James Blunt.
The Left-wing protest singer Billy Bragg has been complaining on Radio 4 about these “smug” acts “clogging up the charts”. When it was pointed out to him that because the charts are market-driven, former public-school pupils have as much a right to be there as state-sector pupils, he said “six per cent have a right”, because that is the percentage of the population that is privately educated. So much for democracy, eh.
When James Corden was interviewing Alt-J, a band nominated for best album at the Brits, there was one member who declined to speak. Hello, I thought. Bet he’s public school. Sure enough, a little Googling revealed he was. As Chris Martin of Coldplay (Sherborne) advised James Blunt (Harrow) when they met in the corridors of EMI in 2002: “If you want to survive in this industry, make sure, for the first year at least, that no one hears you speak.”
The alternative is to adopt a mockney accent, as Lily Allen does. But even she was soon outed. In the days before Google it was easier for public-school pop stars to cover up their tracks: Joe Strummer, the diplomat’s son who was the frontman of the Clash, and Jim Morrison, the admiral’s son who was frontman for the Doors, got away with it for years. Morrison was even able to claim (falsely) that his parents were dead, thus closing down any further inquiries about them in interviews.
But now the poor things can be exposed within minutes and, in our brave new public-school-excellence-hating country, their credibility plunges. What can be done to help them?
Perhaps like those public-school products who dominate the acting world (Damian Lewis, Dominic West, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch) as well as the comedy world (Jack Whitehall, Miles Jupp, Armando Iannucci, Marcus Brigstocke, David Mitchell and so on) they can just soldier on and ignore the jeers. But I wonder if, as a quid pro quo for all the public schools that are setting up academies and offering bursaries to help state-school pupils, certain comprehensives could be persuaded to offer summer courses to aspiring public-school pop stars, to teach them to talk improper. An exchange programme, perhaps.
Meanwhile it might help if, through positive discrimination and means testing, some state-school pupils could be given places in these Brit Award winning bands. They wouldn’t necessarily need to have reached grade eight cello, just be able to show potential and hold a guitar in a convincing way. Auto-tune and studio overdubbing could iron out the rest.
When I heard that the National Archives has put historical criminal records online, so that you can find out if you have a black sheep in your family’s past, I typed my surname into the website in some excitement, expecting to find out more about one of my ancestors, a William Farndale, who was a gin smuggler during the Napoleonic wars. By happy coincidence, you see, my father had just told me about him, having come across a reference to him in a local history he was reading. I knew we weren’t all boring stiffs, I thought. Just knew it. Alas, this villainous Farndale doesn’t show in the records, because although he was implicated as a gin runner he was never prosecuted. How quickly family pride turns to disappointment.
As our train pulled into Clapham Junction, the guard drily announced over the public address system: “Please remember to take all your luggage, and any small children.” Must be half term.