By royal disappointment: Why the coronation will present British pop at its most anaemic

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The following op/ed comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press. 

In the famous Derek & Clive sketch, the worst job either of them ever had to do was deemed to be the one that involved Jayne Mansfield and lobsters (warning: it is absolutely filthy).

On a par with the sheer indignity of that job, the worst job in music in 2023 has to be head booker for musical artists performing as part of King Charles’s coronation weekend in May.

Some musical elements are already in place, including the dismal inevitability of a new composition by the royally ubiquitous Andrew Lloyd Webber.

A number of classical artists are also confirmed, including Bryn Terfel, Pretty Yende and Roderick Williams. Classical and royal events are an easy match, with the booker often pushing on an open door. But the pop world is not racing forward to offer its services. As yet.

The enduring problem for the coronation’s music booker is that only a certain type of artist will be elbowing their way to the front of the queue to perform. This is in part, one cynically suspects, because they believe it will get them fast-tracked onto the King’s Honours list.

There are certain pop acts the booker can rely on, but trying to get anything outside of that most self-satisfied, self-serving and self-selecting of talent pools is going to involve an awful lot of unreturned phone calls and ignored emails.

Witness the fact that a number of major acts across the generations – from Elton John and the Spice Girls to Adele, Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles – were reportedly approached but were “inconveniently” double-booked.

Maybe it is genuinely down to diary clashes. Musicians are busy people and tour scheduling is a complex science, after all.

Even so, one is put in mind of the hoarfrost emanating from Oscar Wilde’s haughty line: “I must decline your invitation owing to a subsequent engagement.”

Perhaps the rumoured appearance of Olly Murs will make up for it and it will be a splendid musical jamboree for the ages. Perhaps.

This mass unavailability of many pop stars is possibly down to King Charles himself and the fact that few feel even a fraction of the affectation they may have had for his late mother. Indeed, her Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012 attracted several major and credible acts from the pop world, including Madness, Elton John, Grace Jones, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. And Gary Barlow.

Because it’s a royal event, the bookers will be under strict instructions to play it safe. It’s a mainstream event. It’s the Brit Awards without the jeopardy of the KLF. Hell, it’s the Brit Awards without the jeopardy of David Guetta.

No one wants to risk booking an act that might swear, that might use the platform for a political cause, that might even sabotage the whole thing by skirting close to sedition.

They are, therefore, drastically kettled by the nature of the event. Yet within those tight parameters, there are plenty of British artist to pick from. Picking them and them actually wanting to be involved are, of course, two very different things.

Talking of which, it seems an incredible oversight that a solo Gary Barlow, singing all his songs in the key of beige, has not yet been confirmed for the coronation weekend.

Take That are rumoured to be playing and so maybe, to help pad out the threadbare bill, a bonus Barlow solo set will be the “big surprise” on the day. A “big surprise” akin to opening a birthday present and finding it’s a box stuffed with hair and one tooth.

It all feeds into a wider problem that these types of global events are almost always poor reflections of the true depth of musical talent in the UK. Anyone who is good or has even a scintilla of an edge to them will not go near it; and the kind of acts who so eagerly and hungrily shoot their hands up to play are precisely the kind of banal acts you would expect to play.

“One imagines the booker for the coronation looking at the acts involved in the Olympics and weeping so much they end up desiccated.”

This will be a moment for the UK to dominate the global stage and for the Royal Family to have people talking about it that has nothing to do with scandal.

But just like a Richard Curtis film, it will ultimately project a certain and highly conditional notion (i.e. narrow, mythical, priggish) of what British culture is to the world.

Britain is not the centre of the pop world like it once was. North America, South America, South Korea and Taiwan held eight of the places in IFPI’s global top 10 last year, with Harry Styles and Ed Sheeran hunted towards the bottom of that chart.

In a time of British pop decline, however, the fear is that the acts booked for the coronation will only hasten the plummet into irrelevance.

No one is really expecting anything on a par with the London 2012 opening ceremony for the Olympics that used music so brilliantly and so forcefully to reflect back on the nation and the world a true notion of Britishness – where the new stood alongside the old and the niche stood alongside the mainstream.

One imagines the booker for the coronation looking at the acts involved in the Olympics and weeping so much they end up desiccated.

At this critical time, the very worst and the blandest of British music (or acts long past their sell-by date) a given a leg up on the international stage. It’s self-defeating and artistically destructive.

Are we going to be left with Brian May in his clogs scrambling onto the roof of Buckingham Palace and playing an instrumental version of ‘God Save The King’? Will that be, in the year of the coronation, Britain’s musical message to the world?

Perhaps they – and us – would be better off not having any music rather than amplifying the sapless and démodé turns they can book. Must Britain throw this mediocre filth at the pop kids around the world?

The Royal Family are the last vestiges of a crumbling British empire, a gaudy and overcooked anachronism in the modern age.

Is the same fate to befall British pop music, something that once ruled the world with vibrancy and wit but that now risks being reduced by the coronation bookers to the same relevancy as mead, ruffs and penny-farthings?

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