The wrong kind of limelight: conspiracy theorists claim that Taylor Swift’s love life is actually a secret plot to get Joe Biden re-elected. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

Is it really a privilege to be a pop star?

A British film from the 1960s prefigured many of the conspiracy theories—or are they?—that circle around famous singers today
March 5, 2024

Conspiracies have always shadowed pop music. The claims are wild and many: Elvis Presley is still alive; the Beatles were engineered by the Soviets to steal the hearts and minds of innocent American youths; heavy metal band Judas Priest recorded songs containing subliminal messages that urged teenagers to attempt suicide. Now there’s Taylor Swift. In recent times, she’s been charged with being a Democrat stooge, part of a Pentagon psy-op. Already suspected of not being a true patriot (having spoken in support of Black Lives Matter), her endorsement of Joe Biden would, to those on the American right, make her a heretic.

To my mind, no film is more pointed or prescient on the topic of pop music and conspiracy than Privilege, a 1967 drama directed by the English heretic Peter Watkins. Ninety next year, he’s best-known for The War Game (1965), a pseudo-documentary about the impact of a nuclear strike on Britain so terrifying that it was banned by the BBC at the behest of the Wilson government. Privilege also begins confrontationally: a handcuffed singer called Steven Shorter (ex-Manfred Mann vocalist Paul Jones) is led into a venue and dropped on the stage by leering guards who then shove him in a cage. “Set me free,” he roars. He is freed—only to be kicked and pounded.

The crowd sob, scream, boo. Are the fans being educated about the brutality of state power? Will they storm the stage and fight the power? The moment feels livid, insurrectionary. According to the voiceover, however, this is all an illusion. Shorter—“the most desperately loved entertainer in the world”—and the violence of his stage performance are a “necessary release from all the nervous tension caused by the state of the world outside”. This is, no matter how compelling the spectacle or how sincere the emotions of the young women in the aisles, just an elaborate pantomime.

Privilege is a caustic critique of pop music as a tool of freedom and liberation. It has no time for “Swinging London” or those dreams of a “youthquake” so dear to the countercultural left. Shorter is shown as an unhappy, if mostly compliant, puppet controlled by a circle of managers, PR reps and record company executives who are happy to do the bidding of a coalition government that runs the UK under the motto of “We All Must Conform”. His purpose, as they see it, is not just to sell records but the idea of a contented nation. Hundreds of Steve Dream Palaces and Steven Shorter discotheques are built “to spread happiness in Britain”.

A coalition government runs the UK under the motto ‘We All Must Conform’

The film, based on a story by Johnny Speight (best known for the sitcom Till Death Us Do Part), makes vivid use of near-futuristic scenarios, newsreel-style photography and characters who break the fourth wall. One of its most unforgettable scenes, a cross between Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and a televangelist rally, features Shorter singing a messianic God-rock number and a band playing a groovy Merseybeat cover of Jerusalem before a crowd of swooning invalids. Another, featuring hired actors dressed as red apples, takes place on the set of a commercial fronted by Shorter and intended to get the public to eat more apples in order to alleviate a seasonal surplus.

Both Paul Jones and Jean Shrimpton (playing a painter who becomes Shorter’s girlfriend and encourages him to shed his pop-propagandist role) were new to major acting roles. Their slightly stilted performances—he sullen, she sotto-voce meek—work to the film’s advantage: they are unnaturals in a branch of entertainment that, Watkins suggests, is itself unnatural and compromised, mere bread and circuses, a diversion from Cold War and anti-colonial realities.

Privilege was a commercial flop. The Rank Organisation failed to give it general distribution. Critics, weaned on cheerier pop cinema such as the Cliff Richard musicals or A Hard Day’s Night, condemned it for being hysterical and misanthropic. For decades it remained hard to see, attaining near-cult status in the process.

Like many of Watkins’ films, Privilege has a cold, prophetic quality that can still unsettle. Shorter’s eventual abandonment by his backers anticipates the vilification and demands for a public apology faced by the Dixie Chicks, in 2003, when they refused to support the invasion of Iraq. His PR’s assertion that “he does not belong to himself. He belongs to the world. Therefore, he has no rights to himself” pre-echoes the dismal fate of Britney Spears, who was placed under a conservatorship that ceded control of her assets to her father and an attorney.

Conspiracies? Sometimes, as Taylor Swift might agree, the bastards really are out to get you.