When I was a kid I compiled my own music charts. A geeky undertaking, for sure (“All men have secrets and here is mine”, to quote an old Manchester band – although I suspect I’m not alone in hoarding such a confession).
Also – a serious undertaking; each week I’d sit down to carefully calibrate the music I was exposed to, then rank each record, Top 30 style, according to a set of arcane criteria I’m embarrassed to admit I still kind-of remember.
Not that I was necessarily assimilating a wide range of recorded sound, at least initially – this being an era where the concept of accessing any track by banging a few words into the Vic 20 or the BT landline was strictly Buck Rogers In the Twenty-Fifth Century territory – but the combination of Top Of The Pops, Radio 1, and those initial investments of pocket money saw my perception steadily broaden, to the extent that usurping the official chart run-down became a natural extension to understanding pop music.
I was frighteningly methodical, back then. I had a grid system upon which the records I’d purchased (or more commonly – taped off the radio) would be scored according to number of factors, until I had a semblance of a top 30, which in turn would be handwritten into a series of notebooks I kept hidden at the back of a bookcase. Early on I grasped the notion that to be truly representative, an artist could only have the one track in the chart at any one time, which meant that when I’d saved enough for an album – cassette, obviously – each individual song would have to experience the lifecycle of new entry to falling out of the Top 30, before another could follow a similar curve.
This had the unintentional effect of delivering twelve consecutive #1 records from the Human League’s Dare album over the course of a year or so… but then again, this still sounds like a terrific pop LP, even now.
This weekly ritual I kept up with for more years than I should probably admit to – although I’m better now; promise. And as for why I’m telling you this; I think it’s to illustrate the scope that even the most mundane pop music can wield. How it interacts with imagination. That formative listening experience, from which the parameters of a grown-up sonic fascination are cast.
And also because its demonstrates the disconnect between now and then. Even ignoring for the moment the particulars of how we aggregate our non-physical, best-selling product, what constitutes chart fodder (for want of a better phrase) has evolved radically since – say – 1983; fashions flipping over themselves as vogues mutate, grow slicker and more aligned to technological cadences.
Or – in other words – there’s a moment in many of our lives where we turned left when pop music flanked right; were you to challenge me to name a #1 hit record from the past couple of years, I doubt I’d be able to do it. Based upon the minimal amount of pop culture that does permeate my bubble, I could make an educated guess at some of the artists concerned, but as the only occasion I ever get to hear chart music is involuntarily and free of context (store PA systems, I’m guessing), my actual knowledge has pretty much run away and joined the circus.
Hence the point of these words. A fit of intrigue as to what commonality – if any – there exists between today’s best-selling singles, and some tired old hack from the wrong side of the tracks. Transpires that I haven’t heard a single occupant of this week’s UK Top 10 (if you exclude the synth line from A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’ that unaccountably crops up along the route); What a load of jolly fun I’ve been missing out on…
Starting with #10: ‘Gentlemen’, by Psy – which indicates just how much this choice of subject matter is a lousy idea. There’s a quite astonishing edge of desperation about this track – and unfortunately not in an Elvis Costello, “I Want You’ fashion. Rather, this is defined by its defeated air – the final throw of the dice by the hammiest of washed-up novelty acts who can see the end in sight.
At #9: ‘Pompeii’ by Bastille, which at least has some base familiarity with song construction. There’s a homogeneous, chart-style tonality to this – I’m half expecting a flow to this top 10 fly-by, as if each song could comprise an album from the same producer if not a singular artist – but as with #10, this also sounds like it could have been recorded in the early ’90’s.
#8: Pitbull (featuring Christina Aguilera) and ‘Feel This Moment’; the first of seven tracks to utilise the guest vocalist, as if musics exists as little beyond a platform for mercenary behaviour or glamour by association. Despite being centred around the chord structure and central riff of that A-ha record, ‘Feel This Moment’ is a messy, awkward, all over the place affair that sounds semi-finished – the moments designed to promote hackneyed euphoria come across as simply anodyne.
#7: ‘I Need Your Love’ by Calvin Harris featuring Ellie Goulding sounds like it was recorded in – well, you’ve already guessed – this watered down ’92 club scene vibe is growing incredibly thin, only four tracks in. As part of the writing process, I’ve now listened to this six or seven times, and not a single element has lodged in my memory.
#6: Nelly’s ‘Hey Porsche’. Far more conventional in its twenty-first century, RnB framework. As in any passion, emotion, belief or interest has been so bleached from the narrative, this comes across as more of an anti-record than anything else – it makes ‘I Need Your Love’ feel like the most immediate thing I’ve heard for months.
#5 is Elton John at his most generic, surely? Alas not – ‘Just Give Me A Reason’ by Pink featuring Nate Ruess. Or P!nk, as she’s now styling herself (unfortunately my research didn’t reveal if she’s currently sporting the word SLAVE across her cheek, à la Prince Rogers Nelson). This is a fairly conventional; piano-lead ballad, spiced up by reams of flat, studio trickery that can’t disguise how mawkishly irritating this all is. Depressing stuff.
#4: Duke Dumont featuring A*M*E– ‘Need U (100%)’. Written by Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal. I danced to this in some shite provincial nightclub – somewhere like Leicester or Wolverhampton – back in 1990. The DJ played ‘Naked In The Rain’ by Blue Pearl next. That was good – they should bring that record back.
#3: Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers may be something I know the background to, what with ‘Get Lucky’ having generated a degree sanitised, officially-sanctioned media attention. And neither does it sound like its twenty years old (phew). Yet none of this can disguise its formulaic nature, the performances mailed-in from the land of Studio 54 pastiche.
#2: And the surprising element of ‘#thatPOWER’, by some chap called William featuring Justin Bieber is that, despite being the fruit of arguably the two biggest names in pop music right now (I think – don’t quote me on that), the whole texture is characterised by a sharp intake of uninvention. If anything I’m disappointed by the extent that this doesn’t stand out from the ambient thrum, once you exclude the default narcissism and predictable posturing. A startlingly dull record, to be honest.
And finally, the biggest selling track in the United kingdom this week is something called ‘Waiting All Night’ by Rudimental featuring Ella Eyre. And there’s a moment in this – 50 seconds in, to be precise – when the generic clubland facsimile becomes subverted by a faintly interesting injection of bpm. It is the only interesting thing about this record, mind, but at least – unlike the majority of this list – there’s a sliver of momentum here.
So – what have we learned from this shabby exercise? I kind of hope that some fifteen or sixteen year-old pop kid stumbles across this piece and denounces me for the sad old man I’m probably becoming. Yet whatever you think of pop music as a chartable proposition, it’s hard to escape from the nauseating, homogeneous aesthetic that’s supplanted a genuine seam of variety. One of the enjoyable elements of scanning through historical hit parades is how both genre and quality freely associate. A huge amount of crap, of course, but crap of different sizes and textures, amongst which the very occasional track of genuine interest would surface. Obviously, looking at just a single week is such a tiny sample size that drawing any conclusion is irrelevant, but I do wonder if a record such as ‘Your Woman’ by White Town (to name a random example) would succeed in quite the same fashion.
The Human League / The Things That Dreams Are Made Of