The single is dead, so why is the charity single still going? There are so many other ways of soliciting donations to charity; by text, by paypal, by cash point. It seems anachronistic to return to the charity single model, where musicians donate their labour in exchange for a financial donation from consumers . Yet time and again it is the default response that marks the significance of an event.
Each time a new charity single comes out it makes me think about what is at stake – what problems are being responded to? what solutions are being offered? Who is helping whom and why?
Since I first started working on charity singles in around 2010 a series of incarnations have ‘changed the ending’ of the charity singles story. Each time I have thought about how the model changes, and what it might tell us. We have seen the X Factor generation of charity singles, the filmic extravaganzas, followed by a spate of community choirs and a return to the original model for BandAid 2014.
The song released today in response to the Grenfell Tower disaster maintains and updates the formula
Live Aid + X Factor + grassroots community x location
Simon Cowell: Everyone of them has given something
Jessie J: Its so important to use your voice in times like this
Gareth Malone: I said its got to have local people involved in the record
Roger Daltry: For me, this area, was my past.
The Grenfell single and video seem to know their history. The original formula from the 80s largely holds true. The participants cross generations – bringing together Brian May (Queen) Carl Barat (The Libertines), Louis and Liam from One Direction alongside Matt Goss from Bros. The traditional barriers are also broken down, Cowell from ITV working alongside BBC’s Gareth Malone for example. The later generations of charity single are also incorporated. It is also populated with X Factor stars (Leona Lewis, James Arthur, Matt Terry and of course Cowell himself), and also incorporates the chorus of amateur’s coming together by including a Gareth Malone community choir from the affected community. The combination of elements is a classic disaster relief charity video – last minute, thrown together, egos at the door, microphones in shot. Because this is without doubt an urgent and immediate disaster.
In many ways Bridge over Troubled Water is a local response to a local disaster. That struck me as the most significant difference from earlier successful versions of the charity singles. The song was recorded nearby, many of the singers had already been spotted volunteering at the relief centres, Stormzy’s rapped introduction makes the closeness of this identity clear. He identifies with the residents as if they were his family. Roger Daltry described the area as ‘his past’. Pete Townsend told the BBC that he knew families who lived in the building. There is a rooted locality in the story of the making of the song. As well as an established community choir, around 300 members of the local community were rehearsed and recorded in a local school. The inclusion of Grenfell residents allows potential recipients of the donations to ‘speak’ or sing for themselves. This might change the dynamic of who the imagined donors are (either in terms of money or musical talent and time) and who the imagined recipients are. This matters, because the earlier refusal to listen to the Grenfell residents led directly to the inferno.
This is not the first time that Bridge Over Troubled Water has been used as a charity single. But it will be the most successful. In 1987 ‘The Session’ recorded the song to raise funds for the victims of the Hungerford Shootings . Sham 69’s Jimmy Pursey (who had appeared at Rock Against Racism’s 1978 concert at Victoria Park), appeared alongside Coronation Street’s Chris Quinten. The song choice was an explicit act of commemoration. It was the favourite song of one of the victims, Marcus Barnard, and had been played at his funeral. Whilst Artists for Grenfell hit number one in the itunes chart of the day of its release, the Hungerford single failed to chart.
The Session – Alan Barson, Peter Becket, Madeline Bell, Irene Chanter, Anthea Ferrell, Shelaagh Ferrell, Leonard Fenton, Gary Forde, Lee Fothergille, Jonathon Gregg, Jimmy Pursey, Chris Quienten, Sinitta, Michaela Straachan, Marti Webb
In 2016 Bridge over Troubled Water was again recorded as a charity single in reaction to violence. After 49 people were shot dead at Pulse nightclub Orlando, a vigil was held in London’s ‘gay village’ on Old Compton Street in Soho, which was the scene of a violent hate crime in 1999 when 39 people were injured by a politically motivated nail bombing. The London Gay Men’s Chorus performed at the Orlando vigil, singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the live performance captured a feeling of shared vulnerability and collective resilience. Their recording of a charity single marks the arrival of a transatlantic LGBTQ community. It raised funds for both the Pulse Victims Fund and a British-based charity fighting hate crime. It also signalled a community singing for their own visibility.
Artists for Grenfell, London Gay Men’s Chorus and the Hungerford singles all give testimony, witness, commemorate, and demonstrate what Emile Sande, who sings on the latest version, describes as the ‘power of community’. If we compare Artists for Grenfell to any of the traditional charity singles then we see a more diverse community. There are definitely more women, with individually recognisable voices, and more black voices. So despite Cowell’s rather traditional role at the man with the contacts, there are echoes here of Ariane Grande’s role, at centre stage, and behind the scenes at the One Love Manchester concert. In her duet with Miley Cyrus for example, there was a sense of young women organising events involving young women, for young women.
But more than that. Whilst the charity single traditionally sits outside or above politics, the Grenfell single is explicitly political. Grenfell Towers was a disaster built at local government and national government level. This was a disaster forged by gentrification. This was a disaster funded by profit for the few over safe homes for the many. We all know that the Grenfell disaster was about money. So when we are asked to ‘donate what we can’, there is a clear statement here that the system does not deliver. And that we will have to deliver instead.
Yeah, I don’t know where to begin so I’ll start by saying I refuse to forget you
I refuse to be silenced
I refuse to neglect you
That’s for every last soul up in Grenfell even though I’ve never even met you
That could have been my mum’s house, or that could have been my nephew
Now that could have been me up there
Waving my white plain T up there
All my friends on the ground trying a see up there
I just hope that you rest and you’re free up there
I can’t feel your pain but it’s still what it is
Went to the block just to chill with the kids
Troubled waters come running past
I’mma be right there just to build you a bridge yo – Stormzy
This single is not a solution. But it is a collective response for those downloading and donating as much as for those performing. It is a statement of collective recognition, and signals that money is the problem. It is a demand to recognise Grenfell Hall residents, friends and family as a community in themselves at a time when the temporary re homing solutions have tried to separate them. Despite itself, Bridge Over Troubled Water recognises that the government at local and national level are not only responsible for the disaster, they have not been part of the solution either. The community have been the disaster response. But it would sit a bit easier for me if we knew that all those involved were happy to pay their taxes. Craig David, and Robbie Williams were both implicated in the , £68 million controversial fund accused of tax avoidance. It would sit easier with me if this statement of collective recognition pointed the blame where it should be – at the policies, politicians and profits. It would sit easier with me if the same press that is full of positive reporting of the single had not been so quick to discredit and challenge other responses on the streets and parasitically feed of the misery of those affected. The video interspersed the musicians in black and white with colour images of those effected. These images focus on grief and mourning. But there should also be anger. It is also not clear that ‘our’ desire to donate matches the needs of those in receipt of charitable donations.
I should know better though, charity singles never do the politics, and they never solve the problem, but they do show the power of imagining a community and as Stormzy made clear they can stand as witness.