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The Low Spark Of Well-Heeled Boys (published in The Word, Dec 2010)

How pop has become the preserve of the posh, and why music shouldn't just be a gap year

You couldn’t make it up. Even a year ago, if some sly satirist had written up a fictional starlet to epitomise the dispiriting Toff Takeover of pop and
included the biographical detail “granddaughter of Sylvia Young”, it would have seemed a little too on-the-nose to be believed.

Then along came Eliza Doolittle. Prompted by her fiendish ragtime/ska earworm Pack Up, I investigated her on Wikipedia, and there it was: the actual granddaughter of stage school empress Sylvia Young, a pop star.

This isn’t the only way in which the 22-year-old had an uncommonly favourable start in life. Eliza Sophie Caird – that’s her real name – went to Bedales, the exclusive Hampshire pile whose list of alumni reads like a who’s who of politics and the arts including, fittingly enough, My Fair Lady lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. Ms. Caird is taking precisely the opposite social trajectory to that of the Eliza Doolittle character: an upper-class debutante slumming it in the ‘low’ arts. If anything, it’s The X Factor – the only remaining window for working class aspirants– which represents pop’s equivalent of Shaw’s scenario, with Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh as Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, surveying a parade of cap-in-hand proles and whispering “I’ll wager we can turn this checkout girl into a diva…”

The perception that poshos are colonising the charts isn’t an illusion. It’s demonstrable fact. The Official UK Top 40 of the week ending 20 October 1990 contained 21 British acts. Of these, 16 and a half – ranging from PiL to Paul McCartney – went to their local state school as children. Another four could not be verified by forensic Googling, but its safe to assume they did too. Just half of one act was educated privately: the Pet Shop Boys Chris Lowe, who attended Blackpools independent Arnold School.

Two decades later a very different picture emerges. Of 17 British acts in the corresponding weeks chart in 2010, two attended top private schools (Battle Abbey boy Taio Cruz and the aforementioned Ms Doolittle) and three went to fee-paying stage schools (BRIT* alumni Adele and Katy B, and Italia Conti pupil Pixie Lott). A further two were groups with mixed educational backgrounds: The Saturdays (two from stage school, one from Surbiton High), and The Wanted (at least one of whom attended Sylvia Young). Three were TV talent show creations, and one unverifiable. Only seven were ordinary comp kids, unassisted by privilege or patronage, and even that figure includes Syco-signed producer Labrinth, who is Simon Cowells nephew.

An inconclusive snapshot? Perhaps, but consider the countless current acts who don’t happen to have a single out. There’s Lily Allen who, despite her Estuary vowels and classless informality, is another Old Bedelian, and also attended Hill House (where Prince Charles studied) and Millfield (alma mater to countless royals and aristocrats). There’s Florence Welch, an alumnus of Alleyns, the 4,332-a-term private school in Dulwich which also spawned Jack Penate and one of the Maccabees. There’s Johnny Borrell, who met fellow Razorlight founder Christian Smith-Pancorvo of Razorlight at Highgate School. Then there’s Chris Martin (Sherborne), Jamie T (The Hall School and Reed’s), Mumford And Sons (King’s College)… the list goes on. Pick any young British band or singer, and the chances are they’re scions of the 7% of society wealthy enough to send their offspring to elite schools.

Of course, rock history is dotted with privately-educated performers, from Pink Floyd and Genesis through to Radiohead, the Chemical Brothers and Elastica in the Nineties. But these were still relatively rare. Early interviews with Spacemen 3 were filled with curious fascination at the fact that Sonic Boom and Jason Pierce went to Rugby. The reason everyone knows Joe Strummer was a boarding school boy is that it was sufficiently anomalous to be considered comment-worthy.

What’s happening now is a wholly new phenomenon. Once upon a time the rich, by and large, weren’t interested in the populist arts. If they dabbled in performing arts at all, it would be within the highbrow ghettos: opera, ballet, classical, theatre. In the last ten years the well-heeled young have decided it would be a jolly hoot to annex pop culture en masse, so that the music scene, especially at the indie end, increasingly resembles the braying Footlights College team in the University Challenge episode of The Young Ones.

The route to fame of entertainers like Eric Morecambe or Sandie Shaw now seems to belong to a different universe to that of Michael McIntyre and Laura Marling. There are times now, switching on your TV, when it feels as though Dizzee Rascal is the only star who didn’t sit the Common Entrance exam.

Does it matter? After all, even with the nanoscopically tiny needle’s eye that I apply, one or two classy camels sneak through: Pack Up is a cracking single, and Amy Winehouse is undeniable. (Then again, she – famously – is the daughter of a cabbie.) I would argue that it does, and for two reasons. The first is that it’s a regressive step for social democracy if the 93% of us who didn’t go to a private school are no longer getting a fair shot at success. The second is that it’s bad for pop. If music – along with sport, the traditional ‘escape route’ for the talented poor – is shut off, where is the next Johnny Rotten or Jarvis Cocker going to come from?

Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers – one of the last truly working class bands to break through – said it best: “Music shouldn’t be a gap year”. Right now, that’s precisely what it’s become. At this rate, it won’t be long before a repeat of the infamous Bullingdon Club photo doesn’t reveal future cabinet ministers but imminent indie rock stars.


*Footnote: I was wrong about this. The BRIT School, while an independent school and by its very nature a selective and elite institution, is not a fee-paying school.

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