published: 14 /
With the UK Top 40 now in complete chaos, Ben Howarth in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' ask if rock as we traditionally know it is dead
As I sat down to write this month's column, I realised that I had literally no idea what was currently topping the UK Top 40. Do you know?
The disconnect between what people like us – who actually try and keep up, and call ourselves fans of 'pop' music, as distinguished from classical or jazz – and what the mass public of music buyers are listening to has never been greater.
Fifteen years ago, the ‘NME’ could attract controversy by temporarily suspending its coverage of guitar rock and instead featuring the pop stars of the day – the Spice Girls, say, or maybe Westlife. Cue gnashing of teeth and many angry letters. If they tried that today, they'd simply get blank stares. None of us would have the faintest idea who the supposed 'pop star' was. (There are exceptions, I admit. Jessie J, who topped the charts in late September, is genuinely famous and known – but mainly, that is because she judged a TV talent show, and not because the milkman is humming her new single.)
Watching the 'Official UK Chart Company' – for it is they who do the counting – desperately try and keep up with changed buying habits has been a wearying experience. Their definition of what constitutes a 'single' appears entirely arbitrary and as a result, certain songs hang around for ages. You could say that this is a better reflection of popular taste. But it isn't – it’s just a reflection of the popular taste the chart company bothers to count.
In June, they announced that online streams would count towards the charts – a decision trailed as “future proofing the charts”. In fact, all this does is acknowledge their irrelevance in an era of bulk-buying.
This led to the bizarre situation where a song that had become popular online (Meghan Trainor's 'All About That Bass' – no, I hadn't heard of it either) entered the charts at number 33 a week before its 'official' release as a single.
It is tempting to see all this as an irrelevance – and, in many respects, it is. Is someone really a 'pop star' if most people haven't a clue who they are? Is it really a hit if the vast majority of the population will remain completely unaware of its existence?
But, actually, this is a change that has had and will continue to have profound impacts on the wider music scene (i.e. the part you and I are interested in). Gone are the days when bands could aspire to cross-over and take radical music and ideas into the mainstream. We all know that the charts were rigged so the Sex Pistols weren't at number one for the Jubilee in 1977. They wouldn't bother rigging it today. The best place to hide a revolutionary idea is in the charts – nobody is paying any attention.
This means a wide part of our critical understanding of music has changed. The power of certain bands came not just from the sounds you heard, but the intention – they wanted to smuggle radical ideas into the popular imagination.
And that distinction mattered. It was how Nirvana justified signing to a major label. It is the reason ‘Metal Machine Music’ is an artistic statement, and not just some guy dicking about with a guitar pedal. It was why Frankie Goes To Hollywood were a phenomenon, not just a pop group.
That carrot has gone now. Music critics spent decades looking for the new punk, and judging music as much on its wider cultural impact as on the sounds. But any band who decides to 'challenge' their audience in 2014 knows that they are preaching to the converted. The wider public will never hear them, or even know they exist. There is no 'mainstream' to cross over too, just a different niche.
In a perceptive editorial in last month's ‘Uncut’, John Mulvey wrote, “When commentators who don't listen to much music take a cursory look at the charts and announce that rock is in some way dying, what they generally miss is that rock is actually diversifying, maturing, becoming a more diverse and complex beast.”
I agree with that – but what I would add is that rock as it is traditionally understood really is dead. It is a post pop-star era, and therefore, a post rock-star era as well. The kind of 'rock star behaviour' once part of the fun of the fair cannot be tolerated now. Anyone who decides to make rock music should be understood as a craftsman, not an aspiring star. That doesn't make what they do uninteresting or irrelevant. But it does fundamentally change the motivations, and – as a result – makes rock music something of a heritage culture, not unlike jazz, being kept alive by an army of true believers. Alas, the era when you changed the world by joining a band, or at least dreamed of doing so, is over.