What are the Charts telling us?
As a music fan, a journalism enthusiast and a boy, I can’t help but tell myself that the Top 40 still matters. Bob The Builder has had a number 1 single earlier this century, people no longer have to flock to Top 40 radio shows to discover what’s ‘hot’, and many of the biggest and best stars of contemporary music (Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, The XX, and Kanye West of late) have little to no presence there, but the list still holds authority, not only on what people are listening to, but they are really enjoying to the extent that they are willing to spend actual money.
So what are the Charts telling us now? Since starting university and snubbing Bristol’s throbbing culturally relevant nightlife for it’s two cheapest, studentiest, shittiest clubs (Bunker and Lizard Lounge if you’re asking, the latter is possibly the least hygienic place in SouthWest England, and also my favourite) I can’t help but notice one thing which seems to be in serious regression considering the charts; identity. According to everyhit.com, 10 years ago (March 2004) the Charts’ 10 biggest singles were by Peter Andre, Britney Spears, Usher, Jamelia, Jennifer Lopez, Will Young, Westlife, George Michael, Kylie Minogue and DJ Caspar. All enormous stars who even now would struggle to walk down any street in the uk unnoticed, a factor which one imagines was integral in their music’s success (except for DJ Caspar, but to be frank my theory doesn’t cater for the ingenious dancefloor Manhattan Project he forged back in the day). Gossip magazines talked of how Jennifer Lopez’ Baby I Love You was likely directed at her then-boyfriend Ben Affleck, how Westlife used Obvious as a swansong for leaving member Brian McFadden, and how Peter Andre had discovered a new method of applying lipgloss. The publicity generated by these big names was free marketing for their music, making chart success easy.
According to Radio 1, the UK’s most recent top 10 singles were by Kiesza, Sigma, Shift K3Y, John Legend, Aloe Blacc, Tove Lo, Pharrell Williams, Duke Dumont, Iggy Azalea and Route 94. Other than Pharrell and mayyyyybe John Legend, could you seriously recognise any of these people in this list (that’s Kiesza on the right, by the way)? The obvious retort is that these are simply young artists whose personal fame will follow their music’s popularity, just as those on the previous list did, but my replies to this are twofold;
1: The establishment of many of the first list’s careers involved a large amount of non-musical factors; Andre, Lopez, Young and Minogue all launched their careers through tv.
2: : The album/single art, music videos and promotion in general for the first list’s singles were all heavily centered on the celebrities themselves, in a very simple sense
The latter list’s aesthetics, on the other hand, are foccussed exclusively on eye-grabbing design and simple logos
Surely this can only be a good thing. The internet has meant that celebrity appeal is no longer necessary in the slightest to make a good song a hit; chart hits are defined no longer by who already has the virtues of extreme fame and heavy marketing budgets (see: utter failure of Lady Gaga/Kylie/Lily Allen’s most recent singles), but instead a new elitism has arrived: sonic perfection. The advent of mass-streaming has meant that pop singles are the only commercial artform which can very easily be experienced in their entirety before the customer chooses to pay any money for them, and so we have inescapably enormous hits like Martin Garrix’s Animals or MK’s remix of Look Right Through, which arrive seemingly out of nowhere, carried only by their own musical qualities. The days of unremarkable covers dominating the charts via the xFactor are over; the listener is now in charge.
Of course aesthetic and word-of-mouth are still often critical for musical success, but the internet has made this an open playing field. Last year the charts were attacked by the two American male singers’ comebacks: one had already scored a plateau of number 1s over here before spending his 7 year musical hiatus starring in blockbusters, the other had once had a number 11 track in the charts back in 2007.
And yet Justin Timberlake’s return was utterly dwarfed by Robin Thicke, whose Blurred Lines is now the UK’s most downloaded song of all time. This is because despite inferior fame, he just got the song right. It was an utterly perfect combination of laughably blatant selling of sex (‘what rhymes with hug me’/’I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two’/THAT video) with juuuuuust enough smoothness to make it acceptable for daytime radio (Pharrell’s charmingly minimal production/aesthetic direction just sharp enough to pass off the promo as anything other than soft porn). As Rachel stated in the 2nd episode of Glee before performing Push It ‘we’re gonna give them what they want… sex.’ Timberlake proceeded to put out an equally explicit video for the actually-quite-good Tunnel Vision, but no one really cared; he was late to the party, and he missed the trick of looking just as excited to be in the video as most men probably were when they first watched it (stoicism around naked women is cool, but not exactly relateable for 99% of us). It’s not as if major labels haven’t been trying to very gently sell sex to the masses for years, but dovetailing such ridiculousness into such a harmlessly playful tune was a stroke of genius, comparable to when Franke Goes To Hollywood sold 2 million copies of a song about gay sex in the 80s.
It takes a lot of luck, skill and good timing to get a smash hit, no matter how perfect the track, but if the Top 40 is telling us anything right now, it’s that the field is more open then it has ever been before. Please comment below if you agree, disagree, or just want to point out any errors in my grammar, thanks.
(Though please don’t reply if all you want to talk about is how rapey Blurred Lines is, that subject has been done to death by internet blogs)