Pop goes the Queen

The preferred form of national self-representation, pop music, is ephemeral. Everything it touches becomes weightless - including the monarchy.

Andrew Calcutt

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God save the Queen from the monarchy experience.

As a republican and former revolutionary communist, I do not readily sympathise with Her Majesty. But watching the excruciating performances of the royalty of rock during Monday night’s Jubilee concert, I felt her pain.

Surely the most cringe-making moment was Sir Paul’s McCartney’s promise to ‘make her mine’ – Her Majesty, that is. Yes, things have come a long way since John Lennon’s quip about rattling jewellery. The Queen responded to Macca’s ditty with the merest hint of a frown, the Royal equivalent of a grimace. We gotta get out of this place, her eyes seemed to say to Prince Philip.

But Sir Paul’s serenade to HM was not the biggest mistake of the evening; nor was his fluffed piano chord in While My Guitar Gently Weeps (a tribute, perhaps, to the musical accomplishment of his late wife, Linda?). More telling by far is the misreading of the concert, and the whole ensemble of Jubilee events, by so many pundits. They got it wrong over Princess Diana, and now they are doing it again with the Jubilee.

‘This has been a country united’, declared the Daily Mirror. Unity was the theme in the Sun, too, as it was in the Mail and the Express. The consensus is that a consensus has been created between Queen and Country. The monarchy is of the moment. Operation Rescue – the plan to update the Royal Family following the ‘annus horribilis’ of 1992 and the debacle of Diana – has been an unqualified success.

Republicanism is ruled out, even by self-proclaimed republican newspapers such as the Guardian; and the monarchy is deemed safe not only for the lifetime of the ‘People’s Queen’, but for two more generations. We’re all monarchists now, allegedly.

Yet if the leader writers had only stopped to read between the lines of the Golden Jubilee, they would have picked up on a very different story, namely: the unstable character of British society and all its institutions, including the monarchy. This is a level of instability exceeded only by the desire for stability on the part of politicians, pundits and public alike.

Assuming that the Jubilee celebrations were a genuine reflection of the British nation and its priorities, what are these priorities and what kind of nationhood do they describe? The answer is implicit in Raymond Whitaker’s Independent report on the final parade: ‘the theme of the afternoon seemed to be that there was no theme.’ Similarly, judging by the Jubilee, the definition of Britishness is that it has no definite character. All that was solid has melted into air.

Instability was the watchword both for the events themselves and for the manner in which people participated in them.

The preferred form of national self-representation, pop music, is noted for being ephemeral; and everything it touches becomes weightless, including the monarchy.

Regardless of the specific event, the architecture of the Jubilee celebrations – the big screens and the heavily amplified sound – was that of the rock festival. Fitting, then, that Brian May should open Monday night’s proceedings with a rendition of God Save The Queen (a poor imitation, 30 years on, of the Jimi Hendrix treatment of the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock). In the gig that followed, the boundaries between Queen (back catalogue and what remains of the band) and the Queen were irretrievably blurred: from now on, they are both here to make us feel good about ourselves and each other.

The following day, when David Dimbleby half-joked about merging Trooping the Colour with Carnival, he was musing on a convergence that has already occurred. As of last weekend, The Queen and Ozzy Osbourne are old stagers alike. The monarchy is now the monarchy experience, available from all usual outlets.

Even the circumstantial pomp of the procession through the City could not add ballast. Once tradition is relativised – the morning after the pop concert the Queen will climb back into the Gold State Coach – it too is destabilised. Thus the Kings and Queens of England have become ripe for those ‘I love…’ programmes: history-lite for the historically illiterate (Simon Schama, take note).

The Jubilee showed that public mood towards the monarchy is already lightweight. As described in the Mirror, the Dawkins family are indicative. They had been on their way to the airport on holiday. But having stopped off in the Mall, they enjoyed the party atmosphere so much they postponed their flight and stayed on. Patriarch Peter (38) confessed, ‘if anything, I’d have described myself as anti-Royal’. He came on a whim, stayed on a whim, and nothing about the Jubilee was stronger than whimsy.

The Dawkins family did not need to leave Britain to go on holiday. They experienced the celebrations in the Mall as tourists in their own country: that’s how connected they are to both Royalty and/or republicanism.

‘How does it happen that a national mood can appear to turn 180 degrees so stunningly?’, asked Janet Daley in the Daily Telegraph. She praised Operation Rescue, ‘beautifully accomplished’. But the real answer is that there is nothing to it. That is, there is as much substance behind the celebration of Elizabeth II as there was behind the mourning of Princess Diana: not a lot.

Yet even if these were outpourings of weightlessness, they were outpourings nonetheless. Just as Diana was subsequently recognised as a blank screen on to which we projected our concerns, so Operation Rescue has succeeded in erasing from the Queen any of the characteristics – imperious, emotionless authority, for example – which would have prevented her from playing the same role.

She is now bland enough to serve as an icon of commitment; but an icon of commitment for politicians, pundits and people who worship the idea of commitment while remaining unable to commit to anything in particular.

The conundrum was expressed, albeit unwittingly, by Tony Blair in his address to the Queen at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon in Guildhall: ‘You unify our nation, ma’am, because you symbolise powerfully, true patriotism, not the erupting emotion of an impulse, but the steady commitment of a faithful heart.’

What yearning is expressed in these words, a yearning for commitment from one famously described as a ‘surfer’, who sticks to nothing and to whom nothing sticks. Blair gazes upon the Queen as a thirtysomething record producer looks upon an old blues singer. He cannot get enough of the authenticity that she represents. He is the overcooked in search of the raw, safely sanitised.

The pundits’ enthusiasm for the Jubilee betrays a similar hunger for wholeness, which is no doubt shared by much of their readership. Peter Dawkins in the Mall, again: ‘It’s like being at a football match where everyone is supporting the same team. I can’t get enough of it.’

This punter is excited at the prospect of feeling united with those around him. He craves the Jubilee experience just like the younger generation relies on Ecstasy. Understandable, in an age noted for the corrosion of social cohesion. But equally unrealistic to think that any unity worth having can be derived from nothing more than the experience of feeling united. As if VE day would have meant much without the war that preceded it.

Of the popular response, one senior commentator, WF Deedes, wrote: ‘For the time being, and let’s say no more than that, this thing has sunk in. Deep.’ Deedes does not say what ‘this thing’ is, perhaps because he cannot. Furthermore, it can hardly have ‘sunk in’ so ‘deep’, if he dare not see it lasting beyond ‘the time being’.

Like many of his less distinguished colleagues, Deedes doth protest too much. By his very reference to ‘depth’, he points to the superficiality of the Jubilee celebrations and the national mood that they represent.

Andrew Calcutt is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA); and White Noise: An A-Z of the Contradictions in Cyberculture, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). He is also coauthor of Cult Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, Prion Books, 1998 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Royal revisionism, by Jennie Bristow

Golden Jubilee blues, by Jennie Bristow

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