As Adele's album sweeps to the top of the charts, it becomes increasingly clear that in the future, all our pop-cultural decisions will be made not by us, but for us. There has been a depressing inevitability about Adele's success ever since the MySpace-driven lather of publicity started frothing over into more mainstream media about a year ago – just as there was when the exact same process fuelled the rise of Kate Nash last year.
Young blogging tastemakers may regard this as confirmation of their power, but in reality it merely demonstrates the enduring power of the entrenched music industry, which knows exactly where you congregate, exactly how to work up bogus "word of mouth" publicity about an act – and, in all probability, exactly what they'll be selling you next year, too.
The latter category is easy to divine, if you're that bothered: just check the graduation lists of the BRIT Performing Arts & Technology School, which the record industry set up in Croydon at the beginning of the 1990s. Adele and Kate Nash studied there, as did Amy Winehouse, Katie Melua, the frontmen of The Kooks and The Feeling, and the X Factor winner Leona Lewis – in other words, a substantial proportion of chart acts from the past few years.
All have undergone a process of auditioning and grooming comparable to that inflicted on Pop Idol/X Factor wannabes, the main difference being that BRIT hopefuls may be allowed to perform their own songs rather than the slim portfolio of Classic Schlock permitted on TV talent contests.
Many find nothing sinister or worrying in this process – after all, isn't entertainment just another occupation whose rules have to be learnt and applied to maximise productivity and profit? Well, yes, if you consider pop no more resonant nor rewarding than soap powder, hamburgers or any product for which homogeneity is an advantage. But this was exactly the position in which pop found itself at the start of the 1960s, when Svengalis such as Larry Parnes groomed stables of young men for success, giving them embarrassing names like Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Duffy Power and – saddest of the lot – Tommy Quickly, and fed them to valued contacts in the BBC and ITV, with a long-term career in cabaret regarded as the ultimate goal. It was simply a pop version of the Rank Charm School that effectively rendered the British postwar movie industry moribund and stultifying.
Just as it required a revolution in attitudes and methods by the "kitchen sink" generation of filmmakers to rescue the film industry, it took a group as creatively exceptional as The Beatles to break the chain of ignominy that bound pop in the early 1960s – and even then, only when backed up by a wave of writing and performing talent that included the Stones, Kinks, Who, Animals and Yardbirds, none of whom required establishment help.
But, almost 50 years on, we're virtually back at the pre-Beatles stage, with the charts dominated by a BRIT-sanctioned stable of artists, who will doubtless be treated with the same disdain and summary dismissal by their controllers once the public's brief flicker of interest in them has guttered out.
One might have imagined such an establishment would also be schooling their charges in how to handle the vertiginous effects of fame, but that doesn't seem to have had much effect in the case of Amy Winehouse, the school's most obviously gifted alumna, who staggers through the unforgiving world of celebrity with little apparent guidance or assistance. It is surely not mere coincidence that Britney Spears – who, with Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, attended America's equivalent of stage school, the Disney Mouseketeers – seems to be handling fame just as poorly as Amy: sucked dry and abandoned by an industry to whom she was never anything more than a commercial opportunity, the poor lass could hardly have sent out more obvious, and numerous, cries for help. Sadly, the business in which she works now doubtless sees its greatest potential profit in her passing.
Others may argue that the charm school process didn't damage the quality or impact of Motown artists, whose peerless music production-line was mirrored by its presentation production-line. But ask any of the performers, and they'll tell you that the worst part of their job was having to undergo grooming by this in-house team, and wearing the stiffly anachronistic costumes the company demanded they don: compare the image of, say, The Supremes, in their old-fashioned cocktail dresses, with that of The Ronettes who, despite working for pop's most sinister Svengali, were not forced to represent themselves as something other than they actually were.
I'm not claiming that the BRIT School imposes similarly constricting rules on its students; but I do believe that its mere existence signifies a desire to codify the pop process in much the same way that Cowellism does – albeit, if anything, more insidious for pretending that its charges have not been varnished with the same notions of "professionalism" prized by TV talent-shows. Because, as soon as pop becomes a profession, it loses the intrinsic power that fires its greatest exponents, from Beatles to Bowie, from Sex Pistols to Smiths.
So, while the likes of Kate and Adele might enjoy a modicum of success, only a fool would go searching for the next Lennon or Dylan in a pop finishing-school. If you need to be taught it, you just ain't got it.
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