Queen Elizabeth II as Pop-Culture Target for Warhol, Sex Pistols and More

Helen Mirren studied the queen’s voice and physical presence before filming the 2006 drama 'The Queen'. She later won an Oscar. Miramax-Courtesy of Everett Collection

Like so much in British life—scones, soccer, the Battle of Agincourt—the story of the queen's relationship to pop culture comes in two parts. The first unfolds in a state of siege. In 1977 the Sex Pistols rhyme "queen" with "fascist regime" on "God Save the Queen," cut-and-pasting her image, ransom-note style, onto the cover. The BBC bans the record and it goes to No. 2 on the charts, marking a new low in public protocol toward the royals. A new era of pop-cultural plunder dawns. The queen is paraded in comic effigy by the makers of the TV show Spitting Image, flattened into a silk-screen by Andy Warhol, rugby-tackled by Leslie Nielsen in 1988's The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, and mooned by Mike Myers in 2002's Goldmember. Both comics are Canadians, citizens of the Commonwealth. Her Majesty is not—as they say—amused.

Then comes Diana, or more important, Elton John's rendition of "Candle in the Wind" at Diana's funeral: an unprecedented pop flourish amid the solemn protocols and processionals of Westminster Abbey. Diana leaves behind her two young princes, trailing iPods, iPads, and Nintendo game consoles around the palace. The queen's secretary lets it be known that Her Majesty is "addicted" to Nintendo, and when the movie The Queen comes out, she receives Stephen Frears, the director, and its star, Helen Mirren, for tea.

The tabloids belonged to Diana, that child of the celebrity-driven '80s, the pop princess incarnate, friend to pop stars and fashionistas, and arch press manipulator.

The Sex Pistols God Save The Queen
A new era of pop-cultural plunder dawns in 1977 with the Sex Pistols 'God Save the Queen'. Michael Ochs Archives-Getty Images

In 2002, as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations, she watches Paul McCartney sweat his way through his 1969 ditty "Her Majesty": "Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl but she doesn't have a lot to say"—looking as shame-faced over his former cheek as a kid forced to repeat the joke in front of the class. The queen sits Sphinx-like, neither amused nor unamused, much as she sits through African tribal dances, while the ghost of John Lennon chokes on a semolina pilchard in the corner.

The queen and popular culture just don't mix, which is precisely her appeal in the popular imagination: a symbol of all that is most timeless and proper about British life, she cries out for boisterous mashup. A whoopee cushion for Hollywood, a piñata for the rowdier species of rock star, she is the ultimate empathy challenge for novelists: how to unstiffen that lip?

In the novel and play, The Queen & I, Sue Townsend transplants her to a working-class council estate, where she has to learn how to zip herself and feed the corgis on a state pension. In the novella An Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett sends her on a marathon reading binge that takes in Salman Rushdie, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Beckett, even the "notorious jailbird and homosexual" Jean Genet. "I think I may be turning into a human being," she notes primly. "I am not sure this is an altogether welcome development."

Bennett has been here before, in his play A Question of Attribution, where the queen makes a cameo appearance as a shrewd connoisseur of duplicity, in both art and life. Her own tastes run, famously, to the middlebrow and prewar: she disdains literary novels, preferring farces, once giggled through Wagner, preferring show tunes from the 1930s like the ones loaded onto her iPod by the Obamas. The queen's relationship to popular culture is fascinating precisely because she largely predates it. The only still-serving world leader besides Fidel Castro to have seen the arrival of the Internet, the pop single, and television, she acceded the throne while Britain was still infatuated with wireless radio. The thing most closely resembling what we would now identify as popular culture, funnily, was the queen herself, whose image was printed on coins and stamps, hung in pubs and town halls, sewn into every inch of British public life save the cinema, where impersonation of the monarch was forbidden. Otherwise, it was queen for breakfast, queen for lunch, queen for afternoon tea.

Morrissey The Queen Is Dead
Morrissey got in on the royal action with the Smiths’s well-received 1986 album 'The Queen Is Dead'. Stephen Wright / Redferns-Getty Images

The story of the monarchy in the 20th century is largely the story of its battles with, and eventual accommodation of, new media—George VI's struggle to master radio, Elizabeth's battles with the tabloid press, which came to a head after the death of Diana, when the palace refused to fly the royal flags at half mast, engulfed in a froth of public indignation, whipped up by the tabloids. Essentially, it was a fight over iconography. The press was asking the queen to produce something she had not been asked to show in her nearly five decades as monarch, but which happens to be the price of admission for any public figure in the era of Oprah and Hello!: a display of emotion. They wanted her to act like Diana, which is to say—like a celebrity.

Round one went against the queen: the tabloids were never her medium. They belonged to Diana, that child of the celebrity-driven '80s, the pop princess incarnate, friend to pop stars and fashionistas, and arch press manipulator. But replay those events on the big screen, as Stephen Frears did in his film The Queen, and it's a different story, quite literally. For all their gimcrackery and glamour, the movies are much more sympathetic to emotional reserve and the telling gesture, and so it was with Mirren's Elizabeth, who sheds a single tear for Diana with her back to camera—a touching fig leaf of dignity that seemed both an answer to the public clamor for royal waterworks and a rebuke to it.

The queen's tacit endorsement of the film may, in time, come to seem like one of her smartest moves as monarch: that winning display of humor and shrewdness seemed to usher in a new era of pop-cultural glasnost with regard to the royals, who have received noticeably better treatment since in books by Bennett and royal biographer Andrew Marr. After Kate and William's recent wedding, the palace echoed to the sound of "God Save the Queen," this time played, with punning obsequiousness, by Brian May of Queen. It's hard to pin that all on one movie, yet maybe the queen simply found her medium. She turned out to be a movie star after all.