For more than two years we have been publishing the Creative Sensemaker each Thursday – Tortoise’s weekly guide to all that’s best in culture and the arts. We’re changing how we approach culture with the launch of the Weekend Sensemaker. It’s a newsletter that tries to make sense of who and what is shaping culture now – although it still includes the kind of reviews you’re used to seeing here in the Creative Sensemaker. You should have received the first edition of the Weekend Sensemaker last Saturday at 7am – if you didn’t, make sure you’re signed up to receive it here. And if you know people who might enjoy it, please invite them to sign up.
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Booking artists to appear at a concert or festival is a thankless task. The world (i.e. Twitter) is quick to offer a verdict on who you booked, who you didn’t and who turned you down. The Coronation Concert for King Charles in May is no different.
The organisers have come under scrutiny as some of the biggest acts of the last 30 years, including Adele, Ed Sheeran and Kylie Minogue have reportedly “snubbed” the palace by turning down invitations to perform. With the concert barely eight weeks away, the team are scrambling to secure a line-up of “music icons and contemporary stars” to make a show.
The original “Party at the Palace” for the Golden Jubilee in 2002 set the royal concert template. Radio 2 favourites (The Corrs, Bryan Adams) shared the bill with wholesome pop stars (S Club 7, Will Young) and a heavy dose of still-rocking-after-all-these-years industry legends (Cliff Richard, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney). Vanilla, recognisable and safe are the watchwords for programming a royal concert, with Cliff, Rod, Paul and Elton seeming to be on a retainer to make sure at least two of them make the line-up.
A royal concert is a place where Tony Bennett can share the bill with Ozzy Osbourne (2002), or Kylie Minogue with Madness (2012). This eccentricity is part of the charm, but it’s also driven by necessity, and the Coronation Concert organisers are in a race against time. As yet, no artists have been announced. But the headline-grabbing angle that pop stars are snubbing the concert to also snub the monarchy isn’t necessarily the full story.
The reasons why an artist would turn down the chance to perform at an event like the Coronation Concert fall broadly into four categories: logistics, schedules, expectations and suitability.
“Some artists just aren’t touring,” says Ciro Romano, Managing Director of Neapolitan Music who produces the Love Supreme and Kite festivals, “and the practicalities of putting a band together at short notice is difficult”. Other artists are in the middle of tours in the US, Australia “or anywhere else in the world”.
High-profile artists also have high production expectations. Adele postponed her 2022 Las Vegas residency at the last minute because the production didn’t meet her standards, but a complex production like a royal concert can’t give artists the control they expect. “Artists today are meticulous,” says Romano. “They’re used to having much more control. They’re not going to just pop up in something that will be watched by millions of people.”
If the Diamond Jubilee concert is anything to go by, the artists would also be playing for free. In 2012, the BBC met the staging and production costs – but did sell the event to 140 countries. A tricky deal to make without a big headliner.
It’s not all bad news. The big-name artists being unable, or choosing not to, appear could present an exciting opportunity for the organisers. Is this an opportunity for celebrating new British music?
The 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth was full of creative innovation: at the time it was the largest live broadcast ever attempted, and it kickstarted a new age of television. Seventy years later, could Charles’s coronation have a similar effect?
Pop music is a British export success story. Around one in ten of all tracks streamed globally are by a British artist and Britain is the second largest exporter of music after the US. Music contributes around £4 billion to the economy annually – so it would make sense to use every opportunity to consolidate that success at a high-profile event like a Coronation Concert.
There’s also the issue of older music squeezing out new music, as the sector’s biggest investors seem more interested in buying the rights to the back catalogues of long-established artists. Last year, Sony Music bought Bob Dylan’s back catalogue for $200 million, while Bruce Springsteen took home $500 million. New music needs all the help it can get – and it’s in everyone’s interests financially to ensure there’s a pipeline of quality artists. The Coronation Concert organisers can do what regular ticket-selling festivals like Glastonbury can’t: give high-profile stage spots to up-and-coming artists.
Showcasing new British musical talent at the Coronation Concert could help to inspire the next generation of musicians and artists. It would also signal the new monarch’s commitment to the future of the arts. Breakthrough artists like Flo, the sassy girl group who set TikTok alight last summer with their hit ‘Cardboard Box’ or Humour, the Glaswegian post-punk band with a knack for raucous, catchy tunes… or Venna, the producer and rapper who is shaking up British hip-hop, could all showcase the future of British music, and win legions of new fans into the bargain.
Unfortunately, terms like post-punk, sassy or hip-hop don’t fit with the “vanilla, recognisable and safe” requirements of a royal show. The mass market nature of the concert means a more populist approach is likely to win out. “The audience will have a desire for comfort,” says Romano.
Whoever ends up playing it, the Coronation Concert is on Sunday 7 May will be produced by BBC Studios, broadcast live on BBC One, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio 2 and BBC Sounds.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Luther: The Fallen Sun (Netflix, March 10)
Idris Elba returns as DCI John Luther for the big-screen follow-up to the hit BBC TV series. Picking up where the fifth season ended, the cop who cuts corners has finally cut too many and is behind bars. Until – spoiler alert – he isn’t, breaking out to track down a serial killer (Andy Serkis), who operates a network of people blackmailed into doing his bidding.
The horror-influenced thrills of the original series are on full display in Fallen Sun, along with Luther’s old ally DSU Martin Schenk, but this feels far more like a feature film than a long TV episode. And Fallen Sun ventures beyond the classic tortured police detective genre of the original series into something more worthy of a movie franchise. Elba may have ruled out being Bond, but in Luther he’s already the next best thing.
MH370: The Plane That Disappeared (Netflix)
In 2014 two Malaysian Airlines flights were struck by disaster. MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists in July, in a brazen and early example of a rogue power getting away with murder. The other, MH370, well … we don’t know. MH370 disappeared on 8 March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, vanishing from the radar 40 minutes into its trip. Nine years on, there’s still no explanation.
In this new series from Netflix, three different possibilities are explored over three episodes. The most plausible is that the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, had plotted to down the plane, taking a different route and crashing into the Southern Indian ocean, where the last signals were detected. But the other two theories lean into the idea of conspiracy – that Russian agents hijacked the plane and flew it to Kazakhstan to distract the world from its annexation of Crimea; or that US forces jammed the radar before downing the flight to prevent a secretive cargo from reaching Beijing.
The presentation of such theories as plausible, but in a format that’s designed to confuse and keep the audience hooked, is classic Netflix but isn’t helpful for those trying to ascertain what really happened. The participation of the families of those who were onboard MH370, still clearly searching for answers, is heart-wrenching.
Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman – Charles Dunst (Hodder and Stoughton)
The rise of autocracy has been one of the most disturbing trends of the 21st Century. Strongmen like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán have run roughshod over democratic norms and institutions. Dubai, Shanghai and Singapore, with their low crime rates and shiny exteriors, all make authoritarianism seem far sexier than the Soviet Union ever did. Immune to polarisation and electoral upsets, they can, in theory, plan better for the long-term than democracies, and their top-down, command-and-control approach meant that they were able to deal with Covid better.
Or so the narrative goes. But in this new book, Charles Dunst, Deputy Director of Research and Analytics at The Asia Group and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, makes the case for why democracy can and should win. As a means of stopping the rot of distrust in government, he points to the cradle-to-grave welfare states of Scandinavian countries. He disputes the idea that democracies cannot plan long-term, using Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal as an example of an elected leader who invested in and planned for the future. And he advocates more liberal stances on immigration as a way of boosting GDP and increasing the level of dynamism and innovation in the economy – which in turn reduces the allure of strongmen. A practical and hopeful blueprint at a time when democracy’s prospects seem gloomy.
The Silence Project – Carole Hailey (Atlantic Books)
Written as if it was the fictional memoir of protagonist Emilia Morris, Carole Hailey’s debut novel is a gripping and thought-provoking tale of cults and grief. On Emilia’s 13th birthday her mother, Rachel, moves into a tent in their garden, and refuses to say another word. She inspires others to follow her, building “The Community”, which believes that in order to solve the world’s biggest problems: “First, we must fall silent. Then we must listen to others. Only when we hear others, will we ourselves be heard.”
Eight years later, Rachel and 21,000 of her followers burn themselves to death. “The Event”, as it becomes known, inspires a polarised response from around the world, with The Community’s influence snowballing into something very different to the initial vision.
The Songs of Bacharach & Costello – Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello
Last month, the world lost a titan of American pop music. Burt Bacharach, who wrote a seemingly endless list of hit songs including “Say A Little Prayer” and “Walk On By”, died aged 94 on February 8. There are many ways you could remember his work. But the new box set, “The Songs of Bacharach & Costello”, a streamable showcase of the unlikely, but brilliant, decades-long pairing of Bacharach and Elvis Costello is a great start. Although Costello’s crooning sometimes feels strained, there is something delightful at the heart of their partnership. A must-listen is “Lie Back and Think of England”, a demo sung solo by Bacharach for a never-made Austin Powers musical. Despite the context, it’s tender and powerful.
Ugly – Slowthai
Slowthai opens his third album with “Yum”, which details his imminent self-destruction and his frustrations with his therapist. It sets the tone for what turns out to be a gloomily introspective album, at least lyrically. But the title “Ugly” is actually an acronym of “U gotta love yourself”, which Slowthai has tattooed on his face as a reminder to do just that. And for indie aficionados it’s a treat, having been produced by Dan Carey, the force behind albums by Wet Leg and Franz Ferdinand. Slowthai (real name Tyrone Kaymone) said that the album was his attempt to “emulate the spirit of the brotherhood ethos that bands have.”
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Have a lovely weekend.
Mark St Andrew
With recommendations from James Wilson and Phoebe Davis.
Photographs Getty Images, BBC, Netflix