COVID 19 and the rise (and fall?) of grassroots creativity

Over the last few weeks, corona disruption has fuelled DIY ingenuity and led many to rediscover their creative sides. But is that shift already coming to an end?

There was this moment around three weeks ago, when my lockdown experience transformed. It had been an odd few weeks adapting to not seeing loved ones and frantically trying to get a food delivery slot, before pausing every few moments to mutter “WTF is HAPPENING??!”. News of this killer virus made it seem like we were living the intro scenes of a disaster movie. I wasn’t sleeping. None of us were.

Until one lockdown Tuesday, when I received a Facebook invitation to a ‘Zoom Madonna Party’ from my friend Iona. Not a usual occurrence, to be sure. But some confused, community-hungry part of me said a massive YES, and that night, I joined about 20 other people to dance like Madonna.

Housed in small video conferencing rectangles, we tapped in the Zoom weblink, opened up our our living rooms/bedrooms/kitchens to a bunch of strangers, and got into the GROOVE. Inhibitions evaporated in minutes. In no time, every single one of us was absolutely losing ourselves to ‘Like a Prayer’ and grabbing long-neglected guitars to ‘air-play’ La Isla Bonita. There were quick changes into fancy dress outfits and hasty gathering of props. We sang. We laughed. We vogued.

And that night, I slept easy.

It’s hard to put into words what that experience did for me. It was more than just re-sparking the joy of connection, or the relief that we could still hang out with each other even though we were stuck miles apart. It was that there was something so PURE about this gathering. It was grassroots, DIY fun. It was making up dance routines with your mates when you were seven years old. It was that amateur cabaret tent at a festival, belly-laughing while everyone else is bored by the main stage. It was shameless, no rules silliness. It was triumph over adversity. It was ‘fuck you coronovirus, don’t you see how ALIVE we are?’.

Since that night, the tragedy of coronavirus has spread exponentially, bringing grief, graft, stasis and shock to the lives of many millions. And at the same time, in the sidelines of that crisis, there has also been another microstory unfolding in many people’s lives. The story of a grassroots whirlwind in human ingenuity and ‘will this work?’ creativity, reintroducing moments of laughter and joy into the pervading oddness.

It’s a zoom pub quiz. It’s a pub quiz in fancy dress. It’s a dance party for 20 people. 50 people. 5000 people. It’s a family dance show going viral on TikTok. It’s an online gardening class. It’s a campout on your driveway. It’s House Party. It’s cooking pasta and pretending your kitchen is an Italian trattoria. It’s streaming world-famous djs direct to your living room while you sort your socks or plan your dinner. It’s zoom inception — joining a party in one room, and getting the link to a party in another. It’s community meditation. Community yoga. Community community COMMUNITY.

And it’s unprecedented. For a few weeks, it has been as if a space for entertainment and joy opened up in the midsts of the confusion. And while the celebs and brands who usually occupy that space were wondering what the hell to do next, Joe-Public just said ‘hold my beer’ and got on with the job of creating the fun.

Now at this point, I want to take a second to respond to those who might be thinking that there is something frivolous or privileged in this pursuit of creativity in a time of crisis. I hear you. But I would also ask you to consider that perhaps it’s in times of crisis that fun is at its most essential.

Laughter and joy are proven to be one of the very best tonics for a stressed immune system. They reduce inflammation, strengthen our ability to fight disease, improve our ability to stand up and face another day. And as a result, those dance parties haven’t just been helpful for people lost in lockdown. They’ve also welcomed doctors, nurses and key workers of all kinds. In trying times, creativity is perhaps one of the strongest ways we can support ourselves.

Which is what’s made the grassroots groundswell so significant. Because for the first time in a long time, we’ve remembered that EVERYONE can create. EVERYONE can play. That we don’t need to outsource entertainment or consume joy, but we can use our imaginations and make it for ourselves.

There’s something beautiful about that.

But here’s my concern: it might also be short-lived.

Already in the last week, it’s felt like things are shifting. That Madonna Party was showcased on the BBC, and 18000 people joined the Facebook group that it was hosted on, and the parties got bigger. And then the established party brands saw what was happening and, in a mix of relief and opportunism, are now jumping on the concepts being played with by the amateurs. And the bands started running the pub quizzes and the celebs started hosting the living room shows. And entertainment started to fall back into the hands of the industry. It’s like the stalwarts suddenly pulled it together after a few weeks of uncertainty. So they walked onto the dancefloor, tapped Joe Public on the shoulder and said ‘heh, nice work, but we’ll take it from here.’

Part of me wonders if there is anything particularly wrong with this. It brings fun to bigger audiences. It makes art more sustainable. It opens up ideas to people not previously reached. But at the same time, it feels as if something precious is lost. Because the grassroots players feel the energy ebb away. And entertainment had a price tag again. And suddenly, we risk falling back to becoming consumers of joy, not the makers of it.

It’s the age-old tale of cultural gentrification, on speed. And it doesn’t end there. Because while the entertainers and celebs have been adapting to the new world, the brands and marketing agencies are watching and asking, how do we get in on this? How can we take what people are creating and enjoying and, you know, do that. I know this conversation is happening, I’m one of the people having it. I’m someone who makes their rent by helping brands with their marketing.

And that’s the rub: long term, one of the few ways for 99% of people to make a living while expressing their creative side, is to find a way to monetise it. Which means shifting from the concept that creativity is a precious human experience, a public good that should be available to all of us. And moving to a mindset of creativity being ownable. Of entertainment existing for some, not others. Of art expressly used to build an audience or to sell a brand.

And in a time where we need to create space to create joy, that’s just SAD.

I’m not sure what the answer is, or the solution exactly. I’m not sure what’s right or wrong. In this system of being, artists need to get paid. Businesses need to reach their buyers. Ideas that start in the grassroots have always been taken to bigger audiences, turned into mass market products by those with bigger budgets.

But before we revert back to outsourcing our creativity, I feel like it is important to remember what happened here. That during this strangest of times, when we felt so motivated to support human life, there ended up being this freewheeling permission for anyone and everyone to engage their imaginations and bring fun to the table.

That for just a second there, we were creative beings. And that in the gaps left open in the chaos, it turned out we are always able to make joy for ourselves.

Thanks to Sarah, Tay, Laura, Tarik, Claudia and Ryan for conversations on this topic over the past few days, which have undoubtably shaped my thinking and words. Ideas are rarely owned by one person, but rather built and developed through the influences of many.