At this time of year, it is customary to reflect on what the history books might make of 2013. So let’s start by noting that it has been a year of cultural plenty, even despite a serious decline in the number of public ceremonies featuring Emeli Sandé. However, I can reassure readers that I do not intend to use this Culture Column to simply do a round-up of events. I have nothing against such pieces, but it would simply require more research than my mid-festive party season brain can comprehend.
I will also attempt to avoid an extended dissection of a certain reality karaoke TV show final, which is convenient because I have absolutely no idea who is in it or what this year’s unique feel-good backstory is. Apparently the final is on Saturday, if you want to make plans or avoid Twitter.
In my first Culture Column of this year, I asked whether there were more similarities than may meet the eye between Nigel Farage and Justin Bieber. While I’m not aware of a tumblr page of meerkats that look like Justin Bieber, my conclusion was that they do have something in common:
“Diverting from what is popular now is risky. Short-term retail pressures are the driving force and, to keep ahead of your competitors, give them more of the same, with some cosmetic changes. Just hope nobody looks at the substance.”
Of course, 2013 was also the year of Miley Cyrus. Even if she did miss out on Time’s Person of the Year award to Pope Francis, she brought us the twerk and the wrecking ball, not to mention her fourth album.
I did consider exploring whether I could find any similarities between Cyrus and Ed Miliband, but frankly that seemed a bit too weird and Ed Miliband’s Desert Island Discs set didn’t feature anything remotely close to country music, perhaps the only way it could have been any worse. Equally, I’m not sure what the Daily Mail thinks of Billy Ray Cyrus, or if Sinead O’Connor has ever written an open letter warning him of pimping himself out to trade unions the music business.
And perhaps this is what is troubling me. The most iconic cultural moments of the year that spring to mind are more memorable because of their controversy, rather than their own artistic merit. I would have absolutely no idea who Robin Thicke is, were it not for a foam finger and a televised dance move, if you can call it that. I expect I wouldn’t have ever heard ‘Wrecking Ball’ were the video not so joyous to spoof.
Causing offence has been a part of the music and wider entertainment industries as long as they have existed. However, in the long run, Ozzy Osbourne didn’t sell 100 million records because he snorted ants and people don’t still buy The Who’s records as a way of showing their support for Keith Moon’s quite literally explosive passion for destroying toilets. The music lives on in its own right, the controversy merely adds some colour.
Even if Cliff Richard doesn’t decide that the only way to get his latest record (the 100th of his career) to the top of the charts is to ride a reindeer naked around one of his vineyards, it’s clear that the direction of travel in 2013 is to define artists by celebrity, and there is no better way to court celebrity than by courting controversy. Rather than being defined by your art, your art is defined by who it upsets. If it upsets a celebrity, even better, especially for the accountants at the heart of the large record labels, film studios and broadcasters.
My concern from that first piece rings truer than ever: “just hope nobody looks at the substance.”
So maybe Miley Cyrus and Ed Miliband do have something in common, after all.