Saturday, 12 March 2011

Anyone Who Had a Chart

Watching Top Of The Pops was a big part of my life; it was the first television programme I was allowed to “stay up” to watch, and I would sit attentively for half an hour, enraptured. I loved finding out what songs had gone up, what had gone down, and best of all, spotting the new entries in the chart.

As I grew older and my interest in chart music waned, the Top 40 became less important. Then, in 2006, Top Of The Pops was cancelled, and since then I’ve hardly been aware of what was at the summit of the charts.

So, this week, I decided to listen to the Official Charts in their entirety, on Radio 1. Three hours later, I was exhausted and suffering from pop music overload, but what had I learnt? I’d discovered that a young man named Bruno Mars would go to such lengths for his beloved that he makes Meat Loaf look uncommitted; I’d found out that twelve years after his chart debut, Eminem was still unfeasibly angry about something or other; and I’d realised that a bright young thing called Jessie J has a fairly loose grip on the difference between the genders.

Recently chart music was described as “variations on the same shade of beige” but that’s not really the case. While there were similarities between many of the tracks, to call them “beige” would be to suggest they were insignificant and content to blend into the background.

That couldn’t be further from the truth; most songs demanded attention from the moment they began. Every possible space was filled with sound, leaving the songs strangled of any semblance of character; instead conjuring a relentless assault.

Music is so ubiquitous nowadays; you want to make yourself heard, and heard now. Today, music is often heard through MP3 players and faces tough competition from outside noise: traffic, and the general hubbub of daily life so it’s no surprise that the average chart entry displays all the subtlety of a seaside kiss-me-quick hat.
The leading example in this week’s crop appears to be Jessie J, whose debut hit, ‘Do It Like A Dude’ displays an approach to production that is akin to banging your head against a wall; repeatedly.

The singles market has actually experienced a renaissance in recent years, largely thanks to the advent of online music stores, like iTunes and in 2007, with eligibility rules relaxed, songs could enter the charts based on downloads alone, regardless of whether they’d ever been officially released as a single.

However, there will always be loopholes, and the latest to benefit is the mysterious American rap troupe ‘Hype Squad’ who have capitalised upon the buzz surrounding the as-yet-unavailable Wiz Khalifa track, “Black and Yellow”, and rush-released their own version (which sounds strangely similar to the original). Those who pine for the Wiz Khalifa version can’t wait, apparently, it for its UK release so Hype Squad’s ingenuity has given them a Top 40 hit.

Frighteningly, the average age of artists making up the Top 10 this week is less than 22, with the aforementioned Hawaiian, Bruno Mars, representing the old-timers, clocking in at a not-exactly-decrepit 25.

The lack of what we’d probably call traditional bands is striking It’s no secret that dance and R&B are the sound of the 21st Century generation, but there are only two acts, Foo Fighters and Noah & The Whale, who have a classic pop/rock line-up consisting of a guitarist and a drummer.

Does all of this mean it’s time to denounce chart music and claim things were better ‘back in the day’? Well it’s true that the trend of (perceived) “maximum impact” production is a little unsettling, but there is always room for invention and experimentation in pop music.

It may not be to everyone’s taste, but the exhilarating dubstep of Breakage shows promise, and the collaboration between Tiesto, Diplo and Busta Rhymes is oddly thrilling. For anyone wishing to write off the class of 2011, it’s worth bearing in mind that the current number one is Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’, a timeless piano-led ballad fit to top the charts of any era.

Of course, looking at the charts of one week in isolation doesn’t provide a watertight conclusion. It’s a snapshot.

The charts of 2011 are brash, an indictment of our obsession with celebrities, and display a severe shortage of guitars, yet the Official UK Top Forty still provides surprises and a few traces of gold amongst the silt.

Sunday at 4.00pm on Radio One – bring your own sieve.

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