Michael Hann

Releasing a charity single is a performance – but don’t mock attention-seeking superstars, pity them

Releasing a charity single is a performance – but don't mock attention-seeking superstars, pity them
Superstars doing what they have to
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You can’t move for them. At least, you wouldn’t be able to if you could leave your house. NHS charity singles as far as the eye can see – from Queen, from the collection of second division 90s musicians billed as the Indie Allstars, from the rather bigger names gathered together by Radio 1 to record Foo Fighters’ 'Times Like These'. From unknowns – The Singing Dentist, The Ideas. And from the charity hero du jour, Captain Tom Moore, accompanied by star of stage, screen and the Christmas CD market, Michael Ball.

Then there are the charity gigs that have been announced, to raise money for the NHS, or to give NHS staff a free night out – gigs by Liam Gallagher, Manic Street Preachers, Rick Astley, Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott. Theoretically, at least, our frontline heroes will have a rich seam of live entertainment this autumn.

I come not to bury any of these people. For a start, they’ve done more to raise money for the NHS than I ever have. Nor do I come to impugn their motives. I am absolutely certain all concerned genuinely want to raise money for charity. But I do wonder if, in addition to that noble impulse, there’s something more primal at work.

Some years ago I was having dinner in a Vietnamese next to one of the big London venues with the singer who was performing there later that evening. A string of people came up to the table to have a word, and I apologised for my choice of restaurant. 'That’s OK,' the singer replied. 'No one becomes the frontman of a rock'n'roll band because they don’t want to be recognised.'

Performers need to perform. It’s what they do. Anyone who has spoken to musicians has heard variants on the refrain: 'The two hours on stage make up for the 22 others.' And right now, of course, there is no two hours on stage in the beam of the spotlight, no cheers and adoration. There is only, like the rest of us, the long, boring days at home, in which a walk around semi-deserted streets is the highlight. So they seek performance, and the corresponding adoration, by other means.

Releasing a charity single is a performance. I very much doubt any of the people releasing them genuinely believe their songs will make much difference – you have to sell an awful lot of singles to make even the slightest swell in NHS spending (£140.4bn in 2019/20, according to the King’s Fund). But you do get the chance to be hailed for your public spiritedness; you do get the chance to get a little of the adoration you’ve been denied.

Ditto Gal Gadot and her Hollywood friends singing their much-mocked version of 'Imagine'. Not even the most deluded, pampered, up-their-own fundament movie A-lister could possibly believe their tuneless rendering of this most trite of songs could possibly raise the spirits of a pandemic-stricken world. I hope not, at any rate. But I bet it raised their own spirits, and good for them. No animal was hurt during the making of this risible clip, no child endangered, but some people who hadn’t been told how amazing they were for a few weeks got to feel amazing for a few minutes.

Even gig announcements are performances. Even as they told the world about their arena shows in honour of the NHS, those artists must have had some inkling that the chances of getting thousands of people in one place before the year’s end were, at best, debatable. You don't need to be following the news terribly closely to know that lots of medical people are suggesting large gatherings should be postponed indefinitely. But, by God, it must have felt great to announce those shows and see people lining up on social media to tell you what a hero you were, what an incredible gesture this was. If you can’t get the adrenaline hit of being on stage, get the adrenaline hit of telling people you’ll be on a stage.

I am not mocking these people. I understand the urge. One of the side-effects of the Covid crisis has been a drying up of freelance journalism work, and as much as I miss the income, I miss having the chance to foist my words constantly upon the world, no matter how little it cares. If I’m not being read, I feel as though I am not being seen. I don’t find it hard to imagine how much greater that sensation might be for those used to being seen by 20,000 people a night. Of course you would want some semblance, no matter how diluted, of that feeling. I know I would.

So should you see some film stars making some crass video in which they tell you to wash your hands while singing 'Over the Rainbow', or some superstar musicians dedicating their work to the NHS heroes they haven’t been anywhere near since they got rich enough to go private, don’t mock. Don’t be the frog to their scorpion. They are simply doing what they have to. And since what they usually do adds to the gaiety of nations, I’m happy to tolerate it, no matter how futile the gesture.