From the 1950s through to the 1990s there was great awareness, in Britain at least, of what was going on in the pop charts. It wasn’t just the number one record that was common knowledge, the rest of the Top 30 was widely known as well. One way that this can best be revealed is though general knowledge quizzes, whether these are shown on television or held in pubs. The best contestants have a remarkable memory for the music of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, but it fades once the Britpop era is over. This tendency can be heard regularly amongst the contestants on Ken Bruce’s ‘Pop Master’ on Radio 2, and it’s also something that Richard Osman of Pointless has noted. When asked what, as a quiz show presenter, he had learnt about the British public’s general knowledge, he replied ‘Anyone that was famous in the 1970s or 1980s is gonna be famous forever’.
Of course age has something to do with this. Many quiz show contestants are middle aged and are much better at recalling the music of their youth than they are at recalling the music of their first mortgage. But it’s not just this: these contestants also have a good knowledge of music that was made before they were born. I do too: when I look at the Top 30 of any week in the 1960s, I’m struck by the fact that I know just about every song. When I look at the Top 30 of a week in the 2000s, I feel pained that I hardly know any. Moreover, young people do take part in quiz shows such as Pointless and they too are rubbish at the pop music of the modern era.
There are a number of reasons why the British pop charts have less centrality than they used to, but the most important is that British media has less centrality these days. The BBC’s pop radio station, Radio One, had an audience of millions before it started hemorrhaging listeners in the mid-1990s. Top of the Pops, the BBC’s television chart show, regularly had an audience of 15 million in the 1970s; this had declined to less than three million by 2004. The sales figures of the British music press have also declined drastically: the NME sold 300,000 copies a week in the 1970s; it sells under 15,000 today. In the 1960s the charts were front-page news of the British music journals. They were also news in the British daily press. In the present day the tabloids still cover pop, but this coverage is focused on gossip rather than on who is number one in the charts.
The overall effect of this is that the average listener’s knowledge of chart music is spread more thinly. In the pre-internet years, the committed pop fan would be quite capable of carrying each week’s Top 30 in their heads. They would know all the tunes and they would know about their rise and fall. Such matters do not pre-occupy people any more. Rather than surveying the Top 30, it is only the very biggest records that register widely. We live in an era of blockbuster hits: ‘Take Me to Church’, ‘All About That Bass’, ‘Let it Go’, ‘Let Her Go’, ‘Happy’, ‘Royals’, ‘Blurred Lines’, ‘Get Lucky’, ‘Gangnam Style’. The rest of the Top 30 merely props up these songs; it exists to catch out the contestants of quiz shows.