Rocking and Royaling: The Buckingham Palace Diamond Jubilee Concert 4-6-12

Featuring over twenty artists, the Buckingham Palace Diamond Jubilee Concert took place last night in aid of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 year reign as the nation’s monarch. Back in 2004, in an article for Popular Music and Society (called A Strange Blooding in the Ways of Popular Culture), I argued that for the Golden Jubilee celebrations, the Royals had strategically co-opted and deployed popular music  in June 2002 as a way to extend and consolidate their hegemony. Party at the Palace, which saw Brian May play his guitar on the roof of the Queen’s London residence, drew together a broad range of artists and used their powers of affect in aid of the House of Windsor. Beyond any basic of Royal privilege and the way it upholds ingrained systems of social inequality, a quick rewind of history shows all sorts of potential skeletons in the Royal closet from Northern Irish separatism to the tragic story of Diana. Back in 1977, those pop rebels the Sex Pistols stuck a symbolic safety pin through the Queen’s nose. In 2012, with the next generation of Royalty coming through (and a new princess in the shape of Kate Middleton), things seem very different. However, the issue of Royal privilege is still at stake for some. One Daily Mail commentator who signed themselves BPH from Glasgow posted:
“I’m now absolutely convinced after the last three days of excess that the best course this country can follow is to get rid of the Royal family and all it stands for and become a full blown republic.”
In reply, Ian Mac of Buckingham argued:
“And I’m absolutely convinced after the last three days that the tiny minority of people who hold views like yours will never live to see that happen.”
As the debate continues, my question here is: What cultural work did the Diamond Jubilee Concert do? How does it compare to the 2002 celebrations and July 2007 Concert For Diana?

The Buckingham Palace concert significantly advanced the Royal use of popular music in several ways…

Let me entertain you. Robbie Williams singing with the Cold Stream Guards? A predictably eccentrically-dressed Grace Jones gyrating with a hula-hoop, rebroadcast on giant video screens to flag-waving masses in the Mall? Comedians lambasting the monarchy? Madness on the roof of Buckingham Palace? What happened – was this some kind of outrageous and badly behaved coup?? Had the social revolution heralded by the painful 2011 riots finally come to pass? With the world of entertainment leading a final charge of the People? As Tom Jones noted, ten years ago the Party had been at the back of the palace: now it was at the front. Indeed, Alfie Boe and Renee Fleming sang from the Royal Balcony, while the Royal family sat in a Phantom of the Opera-style viewing box. Then, at the climax, Charles and the Queen stood shoulder to shoulder with the upper echelons of British rock royalty: Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Elton Hercules John. It was as if, through the magic of mutual endorsement and a totemic exchange of audiences, music aura and monarchic power had almost become interchangeable.
From Cliff Richard to JLS, the Diamond Jubilee’s musical roster featured acts that reached out to all ages, sexualities, ethnicities and class positions. There were even some entertainers, like the magnificent Stevie Wonder, who appealed right across the board. If Gary Barlow, who organized the event and got a mention from Charles, came out best, one of the most interesting things about the day was the way that a traditional hegemonic strategy – finding something for everyone – also extended to the presenters. Australian migrant Rolf Harris implied a kind of exuberant optimism for the Commonwealth. The wonderfully affable Lenny Henry was on hand to represent the Midlands, Black Britain and the lower middle brow. Peter Kay injected some Northern wit. As Charles’ tone of voice when thanking the comedians “that made such jolly good jokes” implied, any tinges of cheeky, borderline-disrespectful subversion now came from the presenters, not than the music performers.

Ten years ago the Golden Jubilee concert had been much more rockist. This time there were fewer guitar-based acts or performers who represented any sense of alternative or non-conformist Englishness (I’m thinking here of Ozzy Osbourne and Ray Davies of the Kinks). One of the most interesting present-absences was the subtle use of U2’s song, Beautiful Day, to act as the soundtrack bed for a montage of footage from the Queen’s reign. The choice to include it as an instrumental rather than a live performance by the band may have indicated lingering fears over the Irish question. Meanwhile, encouraging the conservative (small “c”) nutty-boys of Madness to do their thing on top of the roof of the palace (rather than another guitar hero) seemed to be a carnivalesque inversion (a class-based gusture): rather than risk punk or hip-hop, who better to get to represent that kind of benign, affable, everyday strand of lower middlebrow populism than Suggs and his deferential crew? 

Television and Hollywood films can be a bit unruly for conveying messages as they tend to trivialize, dramatize and satirize for the sake of entertainment. Popular music, on the other hand, is a more malleable commodity form. In essence, a pop hegemony means taking those performers that no one can disagree with, and using their charms to marginalize anyone who isn’t in step with the main project. There may be a sense, however, in which the Royal family have sold something down the river to achieve their place in the nation’s hearts. Pleasing the people has meant relegating the cultural needs of the Royals themselves. Commercial music has now become a regular fixture in the celebration of a monarch who, most likely, does not overly care for this it. Pop concerts have become little more than a extension of the handshaking duties that the Royals pursue all year round to retain their position as a national asset. Across the years they will now have to suffer the injustice of sitting through more poor jokes and boybands – but better the odd night of cultural concessions than a full blown revolution.