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5th February 2023

Chris Brown, the BAFTAs and the Brits: Why cancel culture isn’t as powerful as you think

As we continue on with award season, cancel culture seemingly has little effect on the success of the rich and famous
Chris Brown, the BAFTAs and the Brits: Why cancel culture isn’t as powerful as you think
Photo: Alan Light @ Wikimedia Comms

It was around 2019 when the concept of ‘cancelling’ took hold of social media vocabulary, particularly on Twitter. Since then, it has developed into its own, distinct culture which, in the wake of social justice campaigns like #MeToo, is arguably the ruling force of pop culture and the entertainment industry today.

However, as we approach the back end of the 2023 awards season, the lack of substance behind the ever-invigorated claims that cancel culture is taking over a world that’s ‘gone mad’, has never been more evident to me.

Starting off with an example slightly removed from the world of show business, Chris Brown was met by hundreds of thousands of awaiting fans in sold-out shows across Britain, including Manchester’s AO Arena, despite various convictions of abusive behaviour towards women, including Rihanna and Karrueche. During the British leg of his ‘Under the Influence’ tour, Brown’s newest single with Chloe Bailey (previously dubbed Beyonce’s prodigy) was also announced.

As the timings of these events clashed with Rihanna’s highly anticipated Super Bowl Half-Time show, users on Twitter became rightfully embroiled in a controversial debate over the concept of working with, and supporting a previously convicted abuser.

Chris Brown’s presence in the music industry is a quiet but consistent reminder that, although more liberal swathes of society may kick up a fuss over his ability to garner the support of thousands of fans to fund a stadium tour, with the protection and funds of music industry peers, cancel culture as we know it is rendered useless.

The following Sunday, the 2023 BAFTAs also caused some controversy. Although much less discussed, raising questions over diversity and representation within the Academy, all 49 awards were received by white actors and actresses. This fired up conversations that echoed those leading up to the Brit Awards regarding the newly merged ‘Artist of the Year’ category (no longer two separate categories for male and female artists) which contained all-male nominations.

In an unprecedented move away from gendered categories, The Brits stated that they hoped the new award would promote, “celebrating artists solely for their music and work, rather than how they choose to identify”. Yet, the complete failure to accommodate female artists in the same breath subtly illustrated the power dichotomy between the grossly over-exaggerated influence of the social liberalisation brought on by ‘cancel culture’, and what our own Home Secretary likes to call the “wokerati”. This is in comparison to the far more real, far more influential limitations to equality and opportunity imposed by powerful players at the top.

Of course, there is always nuance to these conversations and that is never more significant than regarding the BAFTAs whitewash. While it is important to keep conversations of racial representation persistent and thus influential, other intersecting characteristics were certainly represented at this year’s BAFTAs. For instance, Barry Keoghan, an Irish actor of working-class origin who navigated the tribulations of early life in foster care, received the award for Best Supporting Actor in The Banshees of Inisherin.

This was unquestionably a welcome break from the Etonian characters we are used to seeing when award season rolls around, whose parents are likely Hollywood establishments and paid for their Zone One flat as they found their feet in the acting industry.

Moreover, there is perhaps a tendency of those who are watchdogs of privilege to be too quick to bite, applying their own context to the comments of those who grew up in countries marred by differing struggles. Harry Styles’ comments as he accepted his Grammy for Album of the Year, stating that “this doesn’t happen to people like me very often”, undoubtedly sounded much more in tune to English ears, aware of his very ‘ordinary’ upbringing, without powerful contacts or excess money.

Nonetheless, despite misunderstandings within the narratives of those using social media to attack entrenched and unequal privilege in the world of show business and the music industry, if there really is a virulent fear amongst social conservatives about traditional institutions and customs changing beyond recognition, perhaps this award season has showcased that there is still a long way to go.

Yes, Gen X undoubtedly hold those in the public eye to a much higher moral standard than any generation before, but there are still a few who slip under the radar unscathed. Much more significant than that, there remains networks of privilege, nepotism and exclusivity more evident than ever in the world of music, film and television.

The world has not ‘gone mad’ with ‘wokeisms’. To put it simply, there is a veneer of moralistic standards over industries that are largely unchanged.

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