Only a fool would mess with James Blunt. As his Twitter followers know, he has a sharp wit, and, as befits a former officer in the Life Guards, he is always ready for a fight. Indeed, the grievous suffering around the world caused by his greatest hit, ‘You’re Beautiful’, has been offset to some extent by his snappy tweets, several widely disseminated photographs of him looking a prawn, and a general sense that he can take a joke. Not long ago someone else tweeted as follows: ‘If you receive an email with a link to the new James Blunt single, don’t click on it. It’s a link to the new James Blunt single!’ The singer promptly retweeted it.
Even so, he may have overreached himself with his open letter to Chris Bryant the other day. The shadow culture minister, as you will remember, dared to namecheck the winsome balladeer when complaining, in a very mild way, that the arts were increasingly dominated by people from privileged backgrounds. It’s true: they are. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. But Blunt objected forceably when mentioned in the same breath as Eddie Redmayne and all the other OE actors, journalists, novelists and artists, not to mention Mumford & Sons. ‘Dear Chris Bryant,’ he wrote. ‘You classist gimp. I happened to go to a boarding school. No one at boarding school helped me to get into the music business.’ And so it went on, the type of letter you tap in late at night after a few glasses of something, and then try to persuade yourself not to send before you can have another look at it in the morning. Blunty detailed his struggle against public indifference and state school-bred hostility with a sense of entitlement so palpable you could wear it as a hat.
Bryant’s response to this was characteristically bland and desperate not to offend, and may have gone through several focus groups before it was sent. But I’m not sure I’d vote for Blunt either. His great psychic wound was laid bare in that letter for us all to see. People like that can be dangerous. Although it’s true that if he were a full-time politician, he would no longer have time to write or record any more of his so-called songs.
I have long believed, though, that pop stardom is a form of lunacy. People seek it for all sorts of complex psychological reasons but few of them emerge from the experience wholly intact. In any other walk of life, Blunt would have had someone to tell him, Do Not Send That Letter Because It Will Make You Look Daft. Ten years into a career, most pop stars have sacked those people by now. One could argue that to function as any kind of artist, it’s absolutely necessary to acknowledge your own vulnerabilities and insecurities and to use them to best effect. Everything is copy, as Nora Ephron’s mother used to say. But the pop star has two problems the rest of us do not share. He can do pretty much anything he likes without anyone calling him on it: freedom without responsibility, if you like. And he knows — in a way that actors and writers and painters never have to — that a huge number of people in the world truly hate what he does. I don’t have to see Keira Knightley’s films, I don’t have to read Dan Brown’s books or watch anything on TV featuring Piers Morgan. But the music we hate follows us around like a stray dog. If we stand still for long enough, it’ll cock its leg and piss on our trousers. There’s no escaping it.
Blunt’s story, then, is of a man who fought against adversity to get where he is, and is now rich and adored by his faithful fans. But he also has to live with the knowledge that even more people regard his music with visceral loathing, in some cases to the point of physical distress. How horrible that must be. It’s a Faustian pact, if ever there was one. When we look in Madonna’s eyes and see only derangement, we have to remember that she has been doing this for 30 years. There can be no way back for her now. You wouldn’t wish such a life on your worst enemy, whether he went to a good school or not.