Where have all the rebellious heroes of British music gone? If the Brit Awards are anything to go by, there is pretty much no such animal anymore, just a parade of no-marks who are too wary of upsetting Mastercard, the sponsors, and the TV executives to do anything interesting.
The fact that the inoffensive Welsh songstress Duffy, a fine singer if you like your music to hark back to a supposedly innocent era where everyone was happy and no one rocked the boat, has been crowned the overall winner of this year’s Brits merely reinforces the corporate sheen of the modern awards, and where no alcohol is served whilst the TV show is filmed in case of trouble. No trouble is allowed, of course, in case it interferes with the mundane business of rewarding money with more money.
As recently as a decade ago, there was an inevitability about some sort of mischievous prank being pulled at the Brits; the award ceremony could be relied upon to provide at least one instance of much-needed end-of-winter anarchy in the TV schedules, be it Chumbawamba dousing John Prescott in water and changing the lyrics of Tubthumping to support the Liverpool dockers, Jarvis Cocker waving his arse at Michael Jackson or the KLF firing blanks at the crowd from the stage before depositing a dead sheep outside the venue.
Even Mick Fleetwood and Sam Fox’s notoriously bad presentation style at the 1989 Brits seems like a paragon of rock ‘n’ roll anarchy now, in an era when all we get by way of mischief and outrage is the crawling skeleton that is Amy Winehouse abasing herself in the Caribbean.
Of course, it was Fleetwood and Fox’s reign of autocue terror on the show that stopped it from being broadcast live; the first step in a steady progression of limitations that saw the Brits become less a celebration of modern music and more of a corporate jolly at a seaside resort, shackling British rock music to the tedious format that spawned it simply by reacting violently against it: the 1950s variety show.
Watching the Brits now, it’s as if the Beatles never went to Hamburg or discovered acid, as if the Rolling Stones never scared the parents of the Baby Boomer generation. Everyone plays nicely and the nation’s passion for music dribbles away.
The Brits, and pop music in general, need adventure, excitement, mischief, stunts and anarchy. Someone needs to be rewarded for all of the above, not just for toeing the line and practising the art of appeasement with big business and the company bosses. Rock ‘n’ roll demands bad behaviour. It’s great that Iron Maiden were awarded Best Live Act – here was one band in the line up who have always pushed the boundaries of publicity, moved forward and never just caved in to industry pressure, thanks in great part to their excellent manager Rod Smallwood.
The same can’t be said for the other winners. Girls Aloud are, without doubt, a nice bunch of women who perform cheery, upbeat songs, but they have no serious agenda; they are part of a celebrity money machine that is dying on its feet as the world of high finance implodes and people discover that they want more serious, cerebral and inventive things in their lives.
Sales of broadsheets are up, The Economist is experiencing a surge in sales. In the face of coming hardship, people are bound to want their entertainment to mean something again, to have a story behind it that is more than a metaphor for the excesses of the banking world. Amy Winehouse drinking herself into oblivion is not rebellion; what the rock and pop scene needs is a good selection of agent provocateurs amongst their ranks, unsettling the stale corporate shindig that is the Brits with something a little more radical and exciting.
Good music PR cannot just rely on churning out the latest set of sound-a-likes and hoping they’ll do something stupid or crazy (within a certain set of limits) for the press. In a digital download age, where music is becoming as ubiquitous as breakfast cereal, acts that want to break through with credibility intact are going to have to think very hard about what they have to say, what their music has to say and how they want to go about promoting it.