James Blunt is Funny, but He is Also Totally Wrong
Alright, we all know about this already, right? Labour MP Chris Bryant said something about not wanting an art world dominated by the (very posh) likes of Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt, and then in characteristic fashion James Blunt wrote an open letter (those fucking things seem to make up about 40% of the fucking internet these days, don’t they) calling him a “classist gimp” and accusing of fostering an atmosphere where success breeds only envy, and all the usual rich-person tropes about how people who resent their success and their wealth are, in the end, just jealous.
The problem is that Bryant was basically right about the huge problem of class privilege and diversity in the arts, Blunt pretty much entirely missed his point, and because of the way internet arguing works I fear that the good message will be lost in the witty slap-down, despite the argument Blunt thinks he is countering being a man made almost entirely of straw.
Blunt made some reasonable points about how he achieved his success and how little most of those breaks had to do with his upbringing or his class. Fair enough, but it is pretty much impossible to succeed in life without trying, or without working hard – particularly in the arts. That’s not really how privilege tends to work. Money can buy you exposure, but not talent, and whatever you want to say about James Blunt’s music, he clearly has talent in the sense that absolutely fucking millions of people want to listen to his music.
The thing is, if you look at the argument Bryant was making it was not the ‘I wish James Blunt would fuck off because he is posh’ argument. Class prejudice definitely exists in music – in both directions. You can see it in the attitude to the Gallagher brothers, and I have experienced it myself in that people have dismissed our label output and me personally as being ‘just posh cunts’. I’ve been called posh often enough that I have stopped really bothering to deny it, but it’s a meaningless accusation – as if my being middle class tells you anything about whether I am any good or not.
It’s the same sort of daft class prejudice as Chris Bryant’s weird suggestion that working class people would produce more ‘gritty’ drama, as if they were incapable of light-hearted whimsy due to their everso hard upbringing. The question is not about the validity of the contribution of posh people to the arts, or the merit or otherwise of their position. That’s a red herring. The big problem is not who IS participating, it is who is NOT participating.
He may have worked hard, but I think James Blunt is talking utter, utter shit when he denies the favours his class and wealth have done him in his career, and how much harder it would have been – talent or otherwise – to achieve what he has had he come from a different background. Just for the sake of not offending anyone else or encouraging any other open fucking letters, however, I will use myself as a case study and try and list the ways in which my white, middle class, male privilege has helped me at Song, by Toad Records.
I am not going to get everything, because of course awareness of your own privilege is a very tricky thing to manage, and I am not minimising my achievements or anyone else’s by saying this, because I have worked my fucking arse off to make this label what it is and fuck you, I and everyone else involved deserves their success. But we still had it easier than we might have.
1. Almost everyone I interact with is a lot like me. Middle class. White. Mostly male, although that one’s less obvious as I do interact with a lot of women in the music industry, but it’s still not representative of society at large. This means something quite simple: I know how to speak to these people and they know how to speak to me. I am not going to use weird slang which will make them snigger at me, nor am I likely to admit to some lifestyle quirk which leads them to make jokes about me at the pub. Every time I send a letter to the BBC or a reviewer I can be broadly confident I have some idea what they will find amusing and what they will find annoyingly twee.
This breeds total confidence. I never feel woefully out of place. Imagine if I was from the exact same privileged background as I am, but black – despite class privilege, male privilege and all that stuff, I would almost always be the only black person in the room, probably the only non-white one. I can’t imagine what it feels like to not have this confidence of course, but I know how reassured I have felt to meet someone whose title and position intimidated me a little and to find their ways and their mannerisms to be pretty much just like mine, whether that’s Tom Robinson at the BBC or Simon Raymonde at Bella Union.
2. I have never been expected to represent anyone other than myself. No-one has ever asked me about what it’s like being white in the music industry, or how healthy the scene for ‘white music’ is in Edinburgh. How many times do you think Young Fathers get similar questions? Or women involved in either bands or running labels? And no-one has ever remarked on my looks or my clothing. The result of this is that I tend to worry only about what I am doing and how well I am doing it, and I never ever think that my background or characteristics I was born or my haircut will affect our success at all. And I am not forever being subtly undermined by constantly being reminded of being different, no matter how well-intentioned the questions.
3. My education has absolutely always encouraged me to be involved in the arts. Private education is fucking great, to be honest. There are some properly good state schools as well, but there are some absolutely awful ones too. My school was actively proud of its arts programs, and the syllabus it taught mandated participation. That means, if I had any aptitude for or interest in the ballet, the cello, cinema, painting or more or less anything else, then I would have found that out and been encouraged to pursue it. If you’re in a good state school that would probably be the same too, but if you’re in an underfunded one under pressure to meet unrealistic academic goals, getting bashed by league tables and with parents who don’t really give a shit then that wouldn’t be the case, would it. If kids at our school wouldn’t work or adhere to discipline, and the parents didn’t give a fuck (unlikely anyway, given the costs of going there in the first place) then the kid ended up getting expelled.
4. Financial comfort allows you time to explore and develop yourself. If you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it’s pretty obvious that a family on the breadline is far less likely to have time or energy to devote to the arts, or sports, or basically anything which is primarily for personal development. If food on the table and heating bills are a problem they take precedence over absolutely everything. Yes, unhappy people can make great art, but if your family are hungry you aren’t going to take an evening off to play an open mic night for fuck all money, are you?
5. Money makes absolutely everything easier. Man, this one is painfully obvious, but I have seen so many people, including myself, benefit so much based on access to more cash than others that is maybe needs explaining quite how significant an thing this is.
i. You can seize opportunities and take risks. If you have no money and you release something in January which doesn’t do that well, and you plan to release something great in November and have that planned out, then you find someone AMAZING in April, you’re fucked, aren’t you. Jonnie Common dropped into our lap late on and with little time to really plan the finance for the release, but as I can afford to not pay myself because Mrs. Toad has a good job then it wasn’t a big problem for us to adjust. And that album did very well for us.
Alternatively, if you’re a musician, then the number of times someone will ask you to play a show ‘for the exposure’ stops being funny very quickly. And the big problem with it is not that it’s a hollow promise, it’s that it usually is, and you never know when that one worthwhile time might be. I would never tell a band that playing GoNorth was essential to their development, but that was the show where Paws were seen for the first time by the label they signed to. It’s pretty obvious, but if you can’t say ‘oh fuck it, let’s play it anyway’ then you miss out on a lot of these low-probability opportunities.
ii. The people doing you favours can do you bigger favours. We all have pals and they all try and help us out – this is neither class nor race-dependent. But the more resources your pals have then the bigger the favours they can do you. We have more resources than most so we can lend our bands our van for free to drive to gigs or move kit. I know people in London with bigger flats, more likely to be able to accommodate people for free when the gig doesn’t pay enough. I don’t have to pay for accommodation at SXSW, CMJ, NXNE or The Great Escape. Why? Because I know people there who I can stay with. None of this has ‘given me my break’ in music, but it has made it a hell of a lot easier for me to participate and let my natural-born skills sink or swim on their own merit.
iii. Everything we do looks professional. Or at least, as professional as we want it to. From the very start we’ve had the resources for Song, by Toad Records to look as professional or as DIY as we want it to. We spent a few years spending too much money on promos, and then dialled it back, but that was a decision we could make because we could afford to. We looked serious from the outset, even when we had no idea what we were doing.
iv. We have infrastructure. This is perhaps a bit less obvious, but Mrs. Toad and I have a car which always works, the fastest level of broadband we can get, a decent camera, space in the house to actually work and store things, room for visiting musicians to stay… all these things are small and perhaps in the background, but they make what I do ten times easier, and they are a function of my privilege.
That’s far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a big enough one to start with, and I am not saying that it is solely responsible for our relatively modest success so far any more than Bryant was saying Blunt’s poshness scored him a record deal or anything like that. It just makes everything an awful lot easier.
Where would I be, for example, if I was born to a poor family on a council estate in a crap town somewhere with no arts education and no music scene? Well I might still be doing this, I suppose, but it’s hugely unlikely I would be doing it as effectively, if at all. Or if I had to face a million questions about representing white music in Edinburgh it is not at all unlikely that I would have thought ‘fuck it’ and just gone on to do something else instead. That’s what privilege is about, James, it’s not the guarantees and the handouts, it’s the odds and the lack of friction.
People with less money simply can’t afford to work unpaid internships or do dozens of free gigs ‘for the exposure’ or appear in artsy but uncommercial theatre productions until they build a reputation, and people with money can, and this effectively acts as a massive brake on changing the status quo. It’s tough enough to succeed in these industries as it is. Women, people of colour, working and lower middle class people, immigrants… these are all people who will be discouraged from taking what already amounts to a huge risk by the fact that their odds of success are even steeper, just because of who they are. They will be discouraged by the sheer inertia of ultra-narrow demographic representation in the first place: the impenetrable wall of white, male faces.
Then add the massive financial moat which the culture of the unpaid internship (and the thousands of similar hurdles) has created and you have a serious problem.
Again, it comes back to the voices which are simply absent. It feels immoral and undemocratic to me that Britain’s massive Asian population, for example, one of our oldest, most numerous, and well-established non-white populations, are so underrepresented in British culture. What does that say to a British Asian kid, other than ‘this is not really your country’, even if their entire family has lived here for generations and they are more British than I am. There are indeed some great films and TV shows full of Asian faces on British TV, but even those are made by institutions dominated and run by middle class white men. And that’s fine in a sense, except that as a middle class white man, I don’t think that the Asian population of the UK should need our fucking permission to make a show the subtleties of which we may not properly understand due to our upbringing.
I don’t want Chris Bryant’s ‘gritty’ working class dramas. I want working class people participating in the culture of this country as much as I participate, so that I don’t have to resort to stereotypes and clichés like ‘gritty’. The White Van Man furore over Emily Thornberry’s Twitter pic last year showed the very worst of this. She just tweeted a single photo, so who knows exactly what she was trying to actually say, but everyone jumped on it as if she was slighting the working class.
The implication, I suppose, was that far from showing a house with two – fucking two! – English flags flying outside as a possible sign that someone’s patriotism had tipped over into mania, she was supposedly criticising men who drive white vans, anyone who reads The Sun, and in doing so, the entire English working class. In attacking Thornberry the middle classes in the press and other political parties were effectively saying that the entire English working class reads The Sun, does manual labour and is a bit racist. Simplistic, condescending stereotyping that seems to me to be rooted in a lack of working class participation in the national dialogue.
If there were more working class people, more people of colour, more people from the huge variety of immigrant populations in the UK represented in the arts then this problem becomes automatically mitigated. We don’t see one gay person being camp in one show on one particular evening, and we see more of the working class than just a stereotypical white van man. We see black men who can’t fucking dance and boring everyday lesbians who are neither stereotypically butch or impossibly glamorous. We see progressive, liberal Muslims in one part of the country and recalcitrant, conservative annoying ones down the road, and everything else in between.
A nation is basically defined by its culture and the fact that participation in culture is being made harder and harder for anyone other than those with the money to take part means our nation is being represented by an incredibly narrow set of voices. This is fundamentally undemocratic, as it says to everyone else that this is not their country, really, and that they don’t belong or merit a say.
And it’s also fucking boring, to be honest with you. I love working in the arts. I love being able to do this and to make a contribution, and I love the work that we do and think it is fucking awesome. But for all Scotland or the wider UK might appreciate and enjoy my output, it doesn’t really need it. The diversity within the music community in Scotland is frankly shocking, and there are far more important things for us to collectively encourage than another middle class white man talking about the music he likes. I already know what people like me think. I see it all the time, everywhere, all around me.
We need different voices, particularly if we want to avoid sliding into this awful UKIP-inspired demonisation of ‘other people’. Because if we don’t hear from them, if we don’t listen to their stories, watch their movies, hear their music or just listen to them taking the piss out of life in the same way we do then how will we really know that Farage is wrong?More: chris bryant, class privilege, james blunt