Ed Sheeran, the Brit Awards and the politics of ‘authentic’ performance

What is ‘authenticity’ in musical performance; and what does a hegemonically-determined authentic musical performance look like?

Last week’s Brit Awards were defined by two wildly contrasting performances: on the one hand a celebration of white middle class domination of the arts in the UK; on the other, the biggest name in American hip-hop playing Trojan horse for the British grime scene.

The former saw Ed Sheeran showcase ‘Bloodstream’ to hushed reverence, while the latter saw Kanye West try in vain to sneak his new track ‘All Day’ past the apparently panic-stricken censors at ITV, accompanied by an inevitably controversial evocation of the 2011 London riots. 

Kanye’s performance is defined by his being an artist perpetually punching up against the glass ceiling halting his career trajectory, not least due to him crashing the stage flanked by a group of musicians too black, too working class, too avant garde to even dream of walking into the Brit Awards through front door. Sheeran’s performance, by contrast, showcased a performer wholly calm and at peace with the world: the kind of ‘keep calm and carry on’ cupcake fascism that so dominates British pop music right now. Society tells us that people like Ed Sheeran belong on that stage, while people like Kanye – and certainly people like Skepta, Meridian Dan et al – assuredly do not. As Emma Garland writes,

‘As the Brits show continued to reflect the white-washed, posh-washed landscape of British pop music we have come to be familiar with, it took Kanye West to remind the audience that the UK is actually popping off beneath the surface. And it footnoted the awards with one huge statement: “Wake up Britain! You’re ignoring your most talented peoples.”‘

Sheeran’s part in this is epitomised by the particular form his performance takes, the technology and techniques he utlilises, and the performative gestures towards an implied ‘authenticity’ of his artistry. Ultimately, the connotations and reception of this manner of performance are indicative of the power structures that dominate today’s culture industry.

Sheeran’s live shows are frequently noted for his insistence on performing not with backing musicians, but instead accompanying himself. In many ways this has become his USP, with everyone from professional critics to the dreaded YouTube commenter falling over themselves to commend him for this apparently laudable feat. This ‘niche’ is something that Sheeran himself is keenly aware of, telling Billboard that ‘Having a band as a singer-songwriter is a pretty standard thing, and I would lose my unique selling point once I’ve done that.’ If a musician adopting the language of the marketer when talking of his craft isn’t in itself a sad indictment of the artist today, it also hints at the crucial arbiter of the socioeconomic power structure in contemporary music – namely, the positioning of the white, middle class artist as free of all social inhibitors.

This issue manifested recently in the unlikely spat between Shadow Minister for the Arts Chris Bryant and one James Hillier ‘Paranoid Wazzock’ Blount. In discussing the apparent ‘dominance of performers…who come from privileged backgrounds’, Blunt refutes any such accusations against himself, claiming that he just so happened ‘to go to a boarding school. No one helped [him] at boarding school to get into the music business’, and that ‘No one at school had ANY [sic] knowledge or contacts in the music business’. But what Blunt remains happily (or willingly) oblivious to is that the entire fabric of society is constructed in such a way to enable people like him to move freely through society. The spawn of privilege moving from the British Army to the upper commercial echelons of the British music industry is far more imaginable than someone growing up on a council estate being afforded the opportunity to do the same thing. As Dorian Lynskey writes in speaking of the issue, ‘social mobility in Britain is getting worse all the time and the privately educated wield more power, in more fields of endeavour, than they have in decades’, and that:

‘…in any society factors other than individual graft and moxie come into play. For musicians with wealth behind them, that could mean access to instruments or a van to travel to gigs, the ability to pursue their dream for longer without pay, and a sense of financial security if that dream fails to materialize.’

To return to Sheeran, all of this privilege is bound up in the quite simple act of his utlising a loop peddle to enhance his performance, layering up his own guitar playing and signing voice to create a multitude of accompaniment to his basic performance. This allows Sheeran to embellish his performance while still retaining the ‘purity’ and sparsity of being a single performer accompanied by no one. Sheeran thus uses technology in a way that conceals its very use, freeing him from an ‘inauthentic’ reliance on machinery to express himself, as opposed to other artists who commit such awful musical crimes as lip synching or performing with a laptop. This fallacy of authentic performance lies at the heart of music’s relationship with technology. As Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson discuss in Discographies: Dance, Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound:

‘…many discourses around music consider the presence of certain technologies in negative terms; as a marker of the elimination of human agency from the production, the ‘murder’ of music as a living creature. Such musics, its critics argue, omit feeling, they are cold, mechanical, repetitive, lifeless. Other forms of music may be considered emotive, warm and authentic, and yet employ just as many technological components in their production. This contradiction is managed by means of the creation of a hierarchy within technology.’[1]

So despite still being wholly reliant on various technologies, the intended connotations of Sheeran’s performance style is that in constructing loops in real time from his own singing and guitar playing, he uses technology as a means of enhancing his performance while still retaining an apparent air of human agency and therefore authenticity in his artistry. His autonomy as a performer would be less apparent were he playing with a backing group; even less so were he accompanied by a pre-recorded backing track. This distinction between authentic and inauthentic artistic technologies is wholly artificial however, as Gilbert explains:

‘In relation to their degree of historical familiarity and the immediate context in which they are operated, some items are considered more technological in status than others. In this scheme, a drum machine is more technological than a drum, a synthesizer is more technological than an electric guitar. Such considerations are founded on an order of the real within which aesthetic preferences are transformed into ontological distinctions. In this manner, distinctions between the technological status of various musical instruments are frequently used within the discourses of popular music and criticism when parties make claims for the authenticity and aesthetic superiority of a particular form or practice. It is sometimes claimed by musicians, critics and fans alike that the presence of a synthesizer or computer in the arsenal of a band or producer downgrades the ontological status of the music they produce: it is artificial as opposed to musics which are real. Participants and contestants within musical genres frequently fetishize one set of technologies and dismiss others…Such distinctions almost always proceed by rendering the technological components utilized in their favoured forms invisible as technologies – they are more ‘real’ or ‘natural’, absorbed wholly into those that play them as expressive extensions of the performing body.’[2]

This purportedly authentic ‘expressive extensions of the performing body’ is essentially the role that the loop pedal plays in the artistry of the acoustic guitar-playing singer-songwriter, and so Sheeran is thus entered into a discourse that highlights the hierarchies of musical technologies. The sampler will always embody the spirit of hip-hop, while the acoustic guitar has its own cultural signifiers; and judging from the presentation and reception of the performances at The Brits, it is clear which one is afforded prominence in mainstream British music today. Thus while ‘aesthetic preferences are transformed into ontological distinctions’, so too are the gestures inherent to Sheeran’s performance transformed into ‘ontological distinctions’ between people; that is, the real political divisions that shape how different socioeconomic groups can access and engage with society and culture.

This privileging of certain performance traits and technologies also highlights Sheeran’s freedom to harvest useful elements from different musical cultures, transcending genres, tropes and performative gestures yet remaining unencumbered by that from which he takes. As Robin James writes in talking of Taylor Swift’s ability to achieve the same thing:

‘She can overcome the limitations of genre only because all genres are available for her to try and reject. Similarly, she can overcome the limitations of identity only because, as a white cis-girl, all these identities are available for her to sample.’

So whether it’s pseudo-MCing or effectively sampling himself with a loop peddle, a white middle class performer such as Sheeran is free to take the credibility of certain traits of hip-hop and grime while representing them in a way that does not harm his social standing and appear to alienating to his white middle class audience. Thus the originators and vanguard of once-underground music genres are prohibited from being accepted into mainstream society, already-privileged performers are free to assimilate and recuperate the innovation of others to solidify their own adulation.

Thus both on and off stage, The Brit Awards (and by proxy in British music, and wider still in British society) is the conduit through which privilege and structural inequality can express itself. It is clear from the event who the self-appointed gatekeepers of culture are, and how insidious and emblematic even something as simple as the tropes of a single performance can be. In talking of last year’s Brit Awards, Neil Kulkarni talks of how ‘The music the mainstream press features is almost universally retrograde, apolitical, as deliberately empty as you’d expect from many folk who don’t really have a stake in music beyond their individual careers and their progress towards comfort’; depressingly, it’s twelve months later and it would appear that absolutely nothing has changed.

[1] Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, Discographies: Dance, Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 111.

[2] Ibid.