Monday, 16 December 2013

Friggin' in the Riggin' of the Charts

We can usually only see ideology when we look at a political regime that is different to our own. North Korea is back in the news again with the execution of the leader’s uncle Chang Song-thaek. Although the news is shocking and troubling, there is also always condescension in the way that North Korea is reported: look at those crazy people, blindly in thrall to their crazy leader. But we’re blind, too. The thing is, we can’t see that we’re blind. As Stuart Hall says, when we are living amongst it, ideology is ‘rendered invisible’. Nowhere is this more true than in the democratic west. We can’t see the full ideological remit of democracy because it is made to look like ‘normal common sense’.
            What is true of politics is also true of the pop charts. The Top 40 used to look like the most obvious thing on earth: the record that sold the most was number one; the record that sold the second most was number two; and so on. But now that there has been a regime change of recording formats we can see the charts have never been straightforward or fair. At present, Britain does not allow streaming figures to form part of its tally. This seems wrong. YouTube, in particular, is the most popular means for accessing music. To not tabulate its returns is to ignore what people are actually doing. In contrast, the Billboard charts in America do include YouTube figures. But this also seems wrong. Are people using YouTube because they actually like the music, or are they catching up with gossip about salacious material? Billboard first incorporated streaming figures in February 2013. The direct result, some have argued, is videos such as ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’.
            Just as the particularities of video streaming are being used to gain advantage today, so were the particularities of physical formats exploited in the past. We can see this more clearly now. In Britain there were for many years only a limited number of record shops from whom chart returns were compiled. As a result chart pluggers targeted these retailers with free goods and promotional materials. They also sent customers in to buy numerous copies of each release. Once the sample of shops widened, the record companies adopted new tactics. They would release multiple formats to encourage fans to buy more than one copy of each single. Then there were the tactics of release dates. Records were issued to radio long before they were available in shops. They would also be discounted in the first few weeks of release. The effect of both of these measures was to ensure that new releases would go into the charts as high as possible. Singles would also be deleted after a number of weeks, thus ensuring sales within a strict timeframe.
            With the move to digital formats these policies have disappeared or have been reduced. The multi-format release is a thing of the past; singles aren’t usually discounted when they first come out; and they aren’t issued to radio as far in advance of release as they used to be. Perhaps most importantly, they aren’t deleted any more. Any recording can reach the charts at any time of its life.
            Where this has had most effect is in the lower reaches of the UK chart. Although the top thirty is still largely the preserve of the records that have been the most hyped, the numbers below that are more of a free-for-all. One effect of the permanent availability of ‘singles’ is that, more than ever, the charts are reflective of what is going on in the world. Last week ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ was part of Britain’s Top 100. A few weeks before that, the ghost of Lou Reed was back in the charts with ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and ‘Perfect Day’. On some occasions the higher reaches of the charts are being affected as well. On 14 April 2013 ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead’ made it to number two. This was the week after Margaret Thatcher’s death. (Thatcher, in fact, is the great exception to the ‘ideology is invisible’ thesis: she had no qualms about openly parading her philosophy and this is one of things that made her so terrifying.)
            At the moment the chart is full of old Christmas songs. There are 14 in this week’s Top 100, only one and a half of which are new records (Elvis Presley has returned from the grave to duet with Susan Boyle). There’s something hugely pleasant about this. It’s great to see Brenda Lee and Andy Williams fighting it out alongside Avicii and Rizzle Kicks. It’s particularly gratifying that it is the right Christmas songs that are doing well. Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ is now correctly identified as a classic. ‘Fairytale of New York’ is also flying high: quarter of a century after its release it has achieved one million sales. For reasons that I can’t explain, seeing Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ back in the charts has made me feel that all is right in the world.
Gareth Stedman Jones has described this sort of repertoire as offering a ‘culture of consolation’. It’s clear, too, that the festive season underpins capitalist ideology. A mixture of sentimentality, morality and drunkenness are sent our way, along with a whole load of shopping. What does it say about me that I enjoy it more with every passing year?

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