Bond, Punk and Paddington: How Elizabeth II Became the Queen of Pop

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Bond, Punk and Paddington
How Elizabeth II Became the Queen of Pop

By Markus Lippold

Sung by the Beatles, mocked by the Sex Pistols, painted by Andy Warhol and played by Helen Mirren, the Queen has become a pop culture icon during her long tenure. And she too has shown her sense of humor in recent years.

When the Queen became Queen of the United Kingdom in 1952, James Bond hadn’t been invented, Paul McCartney hadn’t met John Lennon and Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the Sex Pistols, wasn’t even born yet. During her reign, Elizabeth II witnessed the end of the British Empire. But she also saw Britain conquer the world in other ways: with movies and books, with Beatlemania, the British Invasion and punk, with fashion and style.


Royal reception for the premiere of the Bond film You Only Live Twice with Sean Connery.

(Photo: image/ZUMA/Keystone)

Over time, the ruler himself became part of this pop culture. Not just because she always hosted prominent musicians and actors, from Marilyn Monroe to the Bond actors to the Spice Girls. But because in a way it accompanied the rise of pop – and became the motif.

Countless fashions, trends and hypes have echoed the queen over the decades. She remained true to herself and became a symbol of continuity in times of rapid change. The older she got, the more people could identify with her – simply because they knew no other head of state. The Queen became the projection screen for hymns, as well as harsh criticism in the popular arts.

She owes this ubiquity to another fact: the queen has been in the public eye from her earliest childhood. Even as a little girl, she was a subject in the tabloid press, and at the age of three she first graced the cover of the magazine “Time”. Constantly photographed and filmed, she is probably the most portrayed woman in history – right up to Andy Warhol, who published his portrait in many colors in a series of serigraphs, of which the Queen bought a few copies in 2012.

Queen, Soup, Marilyn


The Beatles received the MBE Medal from Elizabeth II in 1965. Lennon later gave it back.

(Photo: image stock&people)

“Her Majesty is a nice girl, but she doesn’t have much to say,” Paul McCartney once sang on “Abbey Road.” That sounded more teasing than critical. For the 50th anniversary of the throne in 2002, McCartney sang the song again, this time in the presence of the Queen, and it was more ashamed than confident. For the image of the queen had changed in the meantime. From a young monarch without political power, she had become a world-famous figure, the personification of British understatement.

The Queen used this image. For years James Bond acted on behalf of Her Majesty – from the Scotsman Sean Connery to the Englishman Daniel Craig. But Craig was the first to receive a special honor: at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony as Bond, he escorted his top lady on duty to the stadium by helicopter and delivered one of Elizabeth II’s most spectacular and funniest performances – enthusiastically cheered by the people in the stadium.

That wasn’t always the case, of course: In 1977, the Sex Pistols spat out their “God Save the Queen” and rhymed it with “fascist regime.” Punk’s criticism of the establishment was harsh, the British were shocked – or bought the single and took it to number two on the charts. Elsewhere, too, people treated her with contempt. In Hape Kerkeling’s “Willi and the Windzors”, for example, the royal family has to leave Britain and ends up in a terraced house in Hanover. Also memorable is the scene in which Canadian Leslie Nielsen ends up between the Queen’s legs in “The Naked Gun” after turning a state reception into chaos.

At odds with the boulevard

In the film, the compromising photo ends up on the front pages of the press. In reality, especially tabloid journalists have never hesitated to criticize the Queen in Buckingham Palace. No wonder, given the many family scandals Elizabeth went through with her children in the 1990s. The Royals’ rejection peaked in 1997 with the death of Princess Diana, the “Queen of Hearts”. Her mother-in-law’s muted response drew sharp criticism. It was the time when the British puppet show “Spitting Image” pissed off the royal family.

Ironically, a film about this time, Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” years later was an expression of the change in public perception: there was understanding for the Queen, for her role as head of state, for her discipline in deep crises. Thanks in part to the balanced portrayal of Helen Mirren, who spent months studying the Queen’s facial expressions and gestures in preparation and received the British Film Prize and Oscar for it. Since then, Elizabeth’s life has been explored fictionally, from The King’s Speech about her father to the series The Crown, which follows Elizabeth from her entry into the present.


Photobomb for eternity: the Queen laughs in the background.

(Photo: Instagram Jayde Taylor)

In the final years of her reign, the Queen had become an untouchable person. Even their fads were lovingly celebrated and almost became a part of British culture: from the love of corgis to the use of Tupperware in the royal household. Her completely human preferences and habits were forgiven in a woman who had lived her life in the service of her country, persistent and unwavering, always putting her own interests and opinions aside.

Become a cool queen

There were plenty of examples. Reports of the Queen enjoying playing with a Wii were greeted with enthusiasm, as were the gift from US President Barack Obama of an iPod, or the beautiful photo bomb the Queen accidentally landed. The Queen as a globally celebrated internet meme, a 90-year-old influencer in the digital age. Her visit to the set of the hit series “Game of Thrones” also fitted in with that. In one photo, she looks almost pityingly at the eponymous Iron Throne of Swords — what was this myth-laden TV series compared to its own?


Myth and TV series: The Queen visited the set of “Game of Thrones” in 2014.

(Photo: AP)

She was laughed at and insulted, but in the new millennium, Elizabeth II became the cool queen. So cool that she appeared in The Simpsons. Their colorful costumes, along with matching hats and pearl necklaces, were no longer considered old-fashioned, but rather a constant sense of style. Her insistence on protocol, her countless appearances and patronages were no longer a sign of outdated monarchical thinking, but of discipline – and that she was “not amused” became a dictum. Her portraits on stamps and coins – in fact signs from the greatest possible distance – were supplemented with state portraits, which, despite all the staging, also made intimacy possible.

Not only did she show her sense of humor when she appeared at the Olympics with James Bond. This year, on the 70th anniversary of her accession, she aroused enthusiasm with a lovingly funny video: The Queen sits with Paddington the bear at tea, keeping her composure in the face of his clumsiness – showing the jam sandwich in her handbag. This is British humor at its best.

The mocked young queen and the sharply criticized representative of the British establishment had become a much-loved, unifying figure. With Elizabeth II, the world is likely to lose the last person to not only witness but shape the fundamental change since the end of World War II—politically impotent, but symbolically influential. This time is difficult to imagine due to the many developments. But just as her predecessors Elizabeth I and Victoria stand for eras, Elizabeth II also symbolizes a culture: the era of pop.

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