Monday, 25 January 2010

TOP OF THE POPS, TOP OF THE POPS!

You remember Christmas; you know, tinsel, presents, over-indulgence. When all you could hear were the classic Christmas hits, and the big Christmas Number One. Killing in the Name Of.

There’s more to say about the event than even this lengthy article has room to support. Rage Against The Machine getting to #1 with a song that peaked, nearly two decades ago, at #25. Not just that, but to Christmas Number One, the one chart result the whole country is trained to care about. People’s reactions? Well, we’d need a whole new website to talk that one through.

All the backlash about “oh it’s still going to Simon Cowell” (not true, the man doesn’t own Sony) or “it’s a silly song” (being honest, 17 years removed, it kind of is) isn’t the point. The point they missed is, do we still care about the Top 40?

The music in the is the world to a certain demographic (shudder); the pop-discovering, identity-forming young teens. But the spread of that isn’t top-down, it’s bottom-up: what a marketing person would be able to call viral without having difficulty ever looking their reflection in the eye again.

It spreads across playgrounds and the backseats of buses, through word-of-mouth and mostly, through phones. Ringtones; playing a new song to your mates; Bluetooth, if you’re that old-skool. Y’know, for the kids...

It’s this kind of able-to-hear-it-anyway method that renders the chart unimportant, I guess. Who needs the public at large acting as a taste-maker, when you’ve got your friends skimming for the best bits and playing them to you?

For me, card-holding Indie Kid, this means flicking through blogs and occasionally even traditional magazines with Spotify close to hand, and the recommendations of a few particular friends. I get to choose whose taste I trust and listen to the songs immediately.

No more relying on the general public. But us alternative types, the indie kids, the obscurity seekers, we never should have to care about that anyway, should we?

But I think the charts are important. As historical record for one. What was it like being young in 1977, really? 1982? Check the charts. Look at freakytrigger.co.uk’s genius Popular, which is going through every British #1 ever since the first (Al Martino's Here In My Heart, since you’re asking) and writing an essay on each.

They're also important as a way of making music feel like it matters. Giving us a story. You might well have sneered at a sudden Michael Jackson fan produced by his death. But, to go one notch more credible, how much of the Blur/Oasis enjoyment rode on that feeling of being in a gang? Still sneering? Have you ever worn a band t-shirt, liked someone because they liked the same type of music? You like being in a gang, admit it.

But ultimately, it’s all just music, right? Sounds that do or don’t vibrate your ear drums the right way to make you feel something. Why should all the trappings matter?

Because it makes people interested. Let’s look at the Top 40 right now as I write this (for the blog-o-sphere, now a week ago). Numbers five and six in the chart right now are the same song, in two versions- Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, the original and as performed by the cast members of American smash-hit TV programme Glee (which I still haven’t seen and am holding out hope will be good, but that’s a mainstream-embracing story for another time).

That song has snuck back into the public consciousness loads of late- your university life has probably crossed paths with an anthemic singalong at some point. We’re all just a smalltown girl… It’s the same story as Rage- a third-party makes you suddenly care about the song, and before you know it it’s being thrust to the forefront of pop culture all over again.

But those are old songs. The Top 40 is a signifier of the new. Singles are the currency of freshness in music; something new every week please, more and more until I’m full. My esteemed colleague Tom Lowe suggests here that this is a dangerous attitude.
But how is this desire any different to the music obsessive’s constant hunt for a new favourite band?

Not necessarily following them but being aware of the charts, I have discovered a lot of stuff I genuinely love. It took months of singles for Lady Gaga to click with me and now I celebrate every time I hear Bad Romance (#7) because something so unusual made it through. Weirdness being the lifeblood of pop, the home of the novelty single.

The rest of the chart is hit and miss. I hate Iyaz’s Replay (#1), still don’t get Florence or her Machine (You’ve Got The Love, #8). I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at Owl City’s blatant Postal Service rip-off Fireflies (#2, and I implore you, if you like this, to seek out their seminal album Give Up). I probably shouldn’t but I adore Sidney Samson’s Riverside (#3, though it seems much bigger than that) and rather like 30H!3’s Starstrukk (#4) which cheekily combines Katy Perry, a few great lyrics and some good gimmicks to hide the fact that it’s a bit generic. There’s no denying that ‘pop music’ today is an umbrella that covers a whole lot of ground, a lot of it really interesting. Who’d have thought something that sounded like a Death Cab For Cutie cast-off would ever make it to number two?

And more good stuff more popular means less overplaying. Only you can prevent another Sex On Fire, kids.

...But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve hit that point in life where I mellow out, stop caring about music with the intensity of a teenage zealot. I’m also less exposed to overplayed, overproduced rubbish- I club a lot less these days (getting old), am generally exposed to the radio only for short bursts, and can’t afford music TV. But I think the charts are important- even when they were, or are, rubbish they’re important. And right now they’re better than usual, so I follow them and celebrate when someone I like wins.

Rage 1 – Cowell 0, for example.

(A shorter version of this article can be found on the Redbrickonline.co.uk website, or in their lovely pretty paper, for whom I originally wrote it. They're good people, them 'Bricks.)

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.