This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
How can you explain Jimmy Savile to someone who wasn’t there? Watching the Netflix documentary about him with my 15-year-old daughter, I felt a lot of things: queasy, appalled, furious. But most of all I felt embarrassed. Look at this grotesque, with his butchered fringe and his frazzled peroxide bob. Not even handsome. Not even charming. An assemblage of grating tics and obvious depravity.
On footage of a 1975 discussion show about his autobiography (called Love is an Uphill Thing, which is, again, obviously revolting), a female panellist calls him out on the lack of personality in the book. What are you really like, she asks him. What are you doing this evening, he answers. She tells him off for deflecting, but in retrospect, deflection isn’t the right word. This was the real him. Predatory. Opportunistic. Empty. He called women “it”. Of course, we made him into a children’s TV institution.
Any position of power and trust is a gift to the Saviles of the world
Mark Lawson points out that Savile’s success was largely because he understood (unlike many of his fellow radio personalities) how to transition into a visual medium. But he always understood how to grab at and exploit any opportunity available to him. It was how he became a DJ to start with. He understood that for someone like him — someone who craved status and celebrity, but above all craved the ability to access and abuse girls and young women — pop music was an exceptionally effective vehicle.
Savile admitted as much in an interview with Lynn Barber in 1990. At first, it sounds like he’s denying the rumours which, even then, were circulating. “What the tabloids don’t realise is that the young girls in question don’t gather round me because of me — it’s because I know the people they love, the stars, because they know I saw Bros last week or Wet Wet Wet … I am of no interest to them.”
But then he passes almost unnoticeably into an admission: “I always realised that I was a service industry. Like, because I knew Cliff [Richard] before he’d even made a record, all the Cliff fans would bust a gut to meet me, so that I could tell them stories about their idol.” So pop music did make him interesting to “young girls” after all. By attaching himself, lamprey-wise, to that world, he was able to acquire a charisma and glamour that was never his own.
Any position of power and trust is a gift to the Saviles of the world. Teaching. Sports coaching. Harvey Weinstein turned his movie company into a sexual malfeasance factory. Bill Cosby put his avuncular personality as a stand-up in the service of a long campaign of raping women. But pop music has a particular edge for predators. Its constituency is young. Its norms are sexually tolerant, with groupies treated as a perk. And its product can function as not merely cover, but propaganda.
That was true of Phil Spector, who abused women privately, and produced music in which teenage girls played the perfect desiring subject, singing out in pure voices their desperate longing for that one boy (one of those girls was Ronnie Spector, who he married and then bullied brutally; when she left, she was barefoot, she wrote in her autobiography).
And it was true, even more so, of R Kelly — he wrote a whole album called Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number for then-14-year-old Aaliyah to sing. On one track, she swooned that “No one knows how to love me quite the way you do,” while he responded “’Liyah, you’re the only one for me.” He was 12 years older than her.
Pop is an art form that has made an easy home for the vilest of people
Critics tended to simultaneously praise Aaliyah’s “maturity” while downplaying direct suggestions of inappropriateness — despite the fact that a marriage certificate with both their names on had surfaced following the album. When the Chicago Sun-Times broke the story of Kelly’s extensive sexual abuse of girls in 2002, the immediate response, recalls journalist Jim De Rogatis, was one of indifference.
Institutions lend credibility to these men, of course. Perhaps it’s understandable that the public imagined the worthy old BBC would have guards against harbouring a nonce like Savile: every time he joked about being a creep, the punchline was that the presenter of Top of the Pops never could be. Perhaps people thought the same about Kelly: there was a label behind him and Aaliyah, entourages around them. Surely all those eyes wouldn’t let impropriety slide.
That label was Jive, also the home of Backstreet Boys, managed by boy band impressario Lou Pearlman who, Vanity Fair reported in 2007, used his power to make careers to sexually coerce the boys in his bands. (It was the label of Britney Spears too, whose exploitation has now been thoroughly documented.) Jive was not an exemplar of safeguarding. It was also one of the most successful, and certainly the most influential, labels in pop music through the noughties.
Pop music is an art form of power without responsibility. It’s what I love it for: the libidinous strut of it, the three-minute riot. But it’s an art form that has made an easy home for the vilest of people, and an art form that has sometimes done the work of grooming for them. Savile, Spector, Kelly and Pearlman might be hard to explain; it’s harder, though, to explain why more like them will always find their way.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe