While it might seem rather maudlin to start a new year by writing about death, the loss of favourite musicians, actors, and athletes reminds us of the pleasure they’ve given us. Some losses are especially important for working-class people, for whom entertainment is not just a source of pleasure but also of inspiration. While many notable celebrities died in 2022, a few stand out.
Football fans recently enjoyed the World Cup, a tournament that finished with a wonderful final, full of tension and glorious play. But the tournament was also mired in controversy due to its location in Qatar. Due to the extreme heat in Qatar, it had to be played in November rather than during the usual middle of the year, disrupting northern hemisphere local leagues. There were also concerns about the human rights record of Qatar and whether LGBTQI+ fans would be safe there. The event also highlighted the terrible treatment of the mostly immigrant workers employed to construct the stadiums, often in unsafe and exploitative conditions. None of this stopped the tournament, despite calls from some activists to boycott the Cup. Football fans from around the world cheered on their teams and joined in with the highs and lows of wins and defeats.
If this seems like a lack of solidarity with the ill-treated workers, it ignores the incredible power of football in working-class communities. The game is very important to many working-class people, and players can take on legendary status. This is definitely the case with Brazilian player Pelé who delighted world fans with his incredible play in the 1960s and 1970s. Pelé’s death was not only mourned in Brazil, but across the world. Football is a truly global game and often played in some of the most impoverished communities (yes, it does also attract huge amounts of money in the professional leagues which is a tension understood well by fans). Like many star footballers, Pelé grew up poor, but he didn’t forget his origins and spent much of his post-football career involved in charity and advocacy work. During his career, he was also held up as an example of Black success – an important status particularly at a time when Afro-Brazilians were fighting for racial justice. Obituaries of Pelé suggest that he remained humble and unassuming and was not tainted by his fame. Pelé may have played football a long time ago, but he continues to inspire and influence young players and fans.
Popular music has fans of all classes, but some acts have been associated with working-class fans. the UK ska band The Specials is one such band. The death of lead singer Terry Hall touched many working-class Brits. Hall grew up in the working-class town of Coventry in the west midlands of England and joined the band in the late 1970s.The Specials’ career took off in the 1980s and their music spoke to many working-class kids in the UK. One of their hit songs, ‘Ghost Town’, released in 1981, summed up perfectly the mood in Thatcher’s Britain with its references to youth being ignored by the government, the decline in places for young people to let off steam, and unemployment as well as its sinister musical tone. Hall’s dour expression when performing fit the mood of the time perfectly. As the song was released, riots were breaking out across the country as young people vented their frustration at the many injustices they faced. Many of the band’s other songs were aimed at young working-class people, those who spent all their money on booze or have kids too young, or young men heading towards a life of crime. The multi-racial band spoke to Black and white kids alike. ‘Ghost Town’ takes me back immediately to the early 1980s in Britain and the grim reality of working-class life for many under an uncaring Tory government. It still gives me shivers.
We lost other notable entertainers, as well, including American country star Loretta Lynn, the daughter of a coal miner who advocated for working-class people. Her politics may have been a mixed bag – she was a Trump supporter – but her music was loved by millions of working-class fans.
Sidney Poitier also died last year. He came from humble beginnings and had to fight to gain a place in the theatre and movie industries. The characters he played often wrestled with issues around class and race, and most of his films are now considered exemplary cinema exploring social issues of the times they were made.
In Australia, the much-loved Aboriginal singer songwriter Archie Roach died. Roach was of the Stolen Generations who were taken from their Aboriginal families at a young age and sent to live in white institutions or fostered by white families. Roach battled with addiction and homelessness, and his songs tell the stories of hardship, struggle, and survival. These are just a few of the many I could mention – too many, unfortunately.
I’ve left some out intentionally, like Queen Elizabeth II. I’ve written about the royals before, and I generally have little time for them. To me they represent the great inequalities that exist in the UK. But I know that many British working-class people were sad about her passing, and I don’t wish to disparage their genuine feelings of grief. But those I have mentioned have had more on an impact on the everyday lives of working-class people than the Queen or the royal family in general.
My intention isn’t to focus on mourning. The deaths of these working-class icons remind us of the importance of music, film, and sport in the lives of working-class people. We enjoy listening to and watching people we can relate to in some way, whether through the lyrics they sang, a character they played, or their skill on the pitch. We appreciate them even more when we know that we share a working-class background. They speak for us, but they also remind us of how talented working-class people are — and how powerful they can be when given the opportunity.
Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney