In 1997, after attending a Royal Gala evening, Geri Halliwell kissed Prince Charles on the cheek. According to royal protocol and etiquette, you’re only allowed to shake a royal’s hand, so the scandalous moment landed on the front pages of newspapers and went down in pop culture history. Now, instead of daring Ginger Spice to kiss Charles for a second time, The Spice Girls are avoiding him altogether.
The group is among a number of British pop artists who have turned down the opportunity to play at his coronation in May. Adele, Harry Styles, Robbie Williams, and Elton John were also reportedly asked to play and refused the offer. When Rolling Stone asked why, the teams for all those artists declined to comment, bar Elton John’s, who confirmed he was asked but couldn’t play due to scheduling issues. Musicians used to practically line up outside the palace to perform at any major royal event, but that has changed. The public is left wondering: Will any major star agree to play King Charles III’s coronation?
“The Nineties were so different in British pop culture. It was New Labour, everyone was playful and being a bit cheeky,” explains Michael Cragg, author of Reach For The Stars, a book about Nineties and ‘00s British pop. But, Cragg says, “that cheekiness absolutely isn’t here anymore. Now we really want to know who people are and the version of the Royal family that we’ve learned of recently through Prince Harry’s book and how the Prince Andrew scandal was handled: the reality is awful. You could not be the biggest band in the world now and walk up and plant a kiss on them and it still work.”
To perform at a royal event in 2023 would be to align yourself with blatant scandal. The recent allegations regarding Prince Andrew’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein and an alleged sexual relationship with one of Epstein’s victims are still fresh in people’s minds. And so is Andrew’s disastrous 2019 BBC Newsnight interview about said claims. But before people had a chance to reconcile their feelings about Andrew, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle publicly announced that they were stepping down from royal duties. In the years since, Harry and Markle have levied several accusations against the royal family and the UK press, claiming their respective treatment of Markle led to fears for her mental and physical health. The discourse and growing divide between the couple and the Institution has been well documented in Harry’s 2023 tell-all memoir Spare and the couple’s Netflix series Harry & Meghan.
“The royal family has faced a number of PR disasters in recent times, and anyone performing at the show would have to consider whether there would be a backlash from appearing amongst their fans,” says Simon Jones, PR to Little Mix, Niall Horan, and Louis Tomlinson.
On that same note, it would be a laughingly straightforward decision to decline an offer to perform for many artists. Kingsley Hall of political band Benefits, whose 2022 anti-monarchy single “Flag” was number one on the Official UK vinyl the week of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, explains of the British cultural temperature, “We’ve had so much exposure and negative exposure of the Royal family – jubilees, weddings, fallings out, accusations of racism, notable deaths, someone being accused of being a sexual predator – in what I would classify as a short space of time. People are sick of it and probably won’t be involved for that reason.”
For many millennial and Gen Z fans in the UK in particular, Royalism is a dirty idea. Meg, head of a leading British music PR company, notes that both Styles and Adele are at points in their careers where they need to define themselves beyond a successful decade in music. “For them right now, storytelling is really important,” says Meg, whose real/full name has been withheld by request. These big symbolic associations carry a lot of weight and literally go down in history books in bold and underlined. I can understand why there’d be a big PR discussion around artists doing it or not.”
Whereas the public had previously seen the Queen as a longstanding grandmother of the nation, Charles is not the country’s grandfather so much as a blank emblem of the royal family. “ I don’t know what there is to gain for artists by associating with him,” says Meg. “With the Queen, she was fab and glamorous to some people. Charles doesn’t add anything — there’s not a legacy of his that anyone would want to align with. It’s televised, so a lot of people will hear your songs, sure, but in terms of long-term PR strategy, I don’t know if performing would add positively to an artist’s narrative unless they were staunchly pro the monarchy.”
A spokesperson for Buckingham Palace did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment. Rolling Stone also reached out to the BBC, which is organizing the coronation.
Crucially, this coronation is happening in a year when the UK’s cost of living crisis has dangerously peaked. Ellie (whose real/full name has been withheld by request), founder of a British pop music PR company, says, “Strip back the gold and red cloak, and you have a country where parents are choosing between feeding their kids or keeping them warm. How much money is the coronation costing the taxpayer? It feels like a political statement to play.”
Each artist who declines will naturally have their own political motivations based on their Britishness. As Adele superfan Grace Martha from London notes, Adele is a proud champion of being working class from Tottenham, one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Britain. “The pomp and money this coronation is costing doesn’t represent her values at all,” says Martha. “This issue is so specific to our culture; Americans might think, ‘Oh, she’s from London and a cockney, why wouldn’t she do it?’ But they don’t understand the nuances of different areas, cultures, and identities here. She’s for the ‘everyday person,’ and the everyday younger person in London doesn’t rate the royal family anymore.”
The colonialism of the British empire has been a major discussion point over the past two years. That is behind the struggle to secure A-List British acts, says Hak Baker, a musician from London: “Any situation where I’d bow to an openly racist colonial imperial system that refuses to apologise for its past and eradication of my people’s history I’d rather avoid with a barge pole. We are more aware of the past now. They are not exempt from recognition. I think they’re going to have a hard time.”
Han Mee of Manchester band Hot Milk agrees emphatically, calling it an “outdated institution” that does not represent modern Britain. “Leave it in the past, it’s as old, aged, and expensive as the whiskey that props it up but without the strength and merriment,” she says. “I liked Liz, but it should have died with her – the coronation is a kick in the teeth when this country has never been more of a shit show.”
The real question is: Why do the royals need this entertainment value at all? “No one’s talking about the date or the guests,” considers Meg. “The big headlines around the coronation right now are which musicians are in and which musicians are out, which underlines the importance of music and what the symbolism is of an endorsement from one of these megastar artists.” It appears that in 2023 the royal family needs musicians more than musicians need them.
From Rolling Stone US