Tom Ewing

26
Apr 16

VOX POPULAR: The Charts As Soapbox In A Digital Era

FT + Popular11 comments • 1,206 views

Slide1This is the text of my presentation to EMP 2016, in Seattle. The theme of the conference was “voice”, thankfully this proved flexible enough for me to ride my favourite hobby horse. I gave the presentation without notes, so the text here is slightly drier than attendees might remember, and lacks ad libs, embellishments, moments of desperate panic, etc. Thank you to everyone who attended and thank you especially to all those attendees who came up afterwards and said nice things. I had a wonderful time.

Hello Seattle. Make some noise.

24
Apr 16

WESTLIFE – “Queen Of My Heart”

Popular22 comments • 1,196 views

#912, 17th November 2001

westqueenBack to ‘Life, back to reality. The charts’ burst of Autumnal energy fades, the novelties and classics depart, and it’s a return to business very much as usual, the first single from Westlife’s third LP. “Queen Of My Heart” sounded to me like the ur-Westlife song from when I first heard it, a merciless tramp through the now-established formula. It flirts with the sombre, at first – can this be the Westlife track where the boys are actually going to break up with their long-suffering lady? Not a bit of it: though this is a more muddled Westlife lyric than many, the initial finality turns into a very temporary break.

21
Apr 16

4 U

New York London Paris Munich9 comments • 4,090 views

prince Six days ago I was about to do an EMP talk and I saw rumours about Prince on Twitter. I thought for a second about what I would do if I had to break the news that Prince had died to a room of women and men who loved him. Only for a second, because the answer was very obvious. I would tell them, and end the presentation, and we would all go to the bar and talk about Prince. Prince had not died. Prince has died. I would prefer to be with the friends I was with then, not in an open-plan office which feels like the least Princely place in the world right now, without any of his music to play. Prince is a star who makes most sense with people – dancing, talking, gasping at his ideas, sharing ideas and memories. There are probably other things you might think of to do with other people that involve Prince.

But I also wish I was there, talking to Americans, because for me Prince was America. My first idea of America as a place that could be wilder, stranger, funkier, deeper, more committed to itself, more religious, more dangerous than where I lived. British stars I understood. Prince was a myth, a creature of scandal and rumour; from Smash Hits I understood Paisley Park as a city of music, an Oz. Prince’s records sounded electric and frightening. At that time he was the centre of pop’s map and its edge at the same time. Nothing I learned about him later changed any of that, or of my sense that he was a key to America’s music and its secrets.

He was a star, I want to say the first, where that dynamic of incomprehension turning into awe hit me, very strongly with “When Doves Cry”. “Do I like this”, “I love this”. The pop uncanny. Without that, pop is just things you like and things you don’t. Prince gave me things that made no sense then suddenly did. Every so often in the decades since I’ve heard something and thought, ah, pop has come back to Prince. He was a meeting point of all the ideas America had about pop, soul, and rock music and the ones it was about to have. This will go on for decades more, there are futures to mine in Prince beyond easy reckoning.

That’s what he meant to me, a long time ago, and as an adult. There is so much more to say and learn. I will read the stories. Thankyou to Prince.

20
Apr 16

AFROMAN – “Because I Got High”

Popular32 comments • 1,641 views

#911, 27th October 2001

Afroman If rock criticism was a stoner, one of its endlessly repeated good-vibes stories would be Paul McCartney waking up and ‘discovering’ the melody to “Yesterday” in his head as “Scrambled Eggs”. McCartney, no enemy of the herb at this point, became convinced he’d heard it before, only gradually accepting that he’d stumbled upon the tune via luck or talent or sheer morphic resonance – the theory popularised by Dr Rupert Sheldrake in the 80s that blue tits learn to open milk bottles because they’re all connected by a kind of blue tit superconsciousness, mind blown, except it wasn’t true. Though it was true enough for a physics teacher I had to suspend lessons so he could give us all crosswords to fill in, staggered batch by batch to see if morphic learning was happening.

6
Apr 16

KYLIE MINOGUE – “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”

Popular59 comments • 3,981 views

#910, 29th September 2001

kylie head Between its two writers and its performer, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is the sound of over seven decades’ pop experience. It’s better heard as distillation than prediction. Maybe its bright, brisk pop-dance sensibility comes from Cathy Denis. Maybe its moreish chunkiness, the crunchy stomp of its beats, comes from Mud’s Rob Davis. Its obvious comparison point, as a mantric, obsessive disco song, is Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. But “I Feel Love” risks goofiness in placing a wager on the future – I bet this isn’t a novelty record – while there is no risk of “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” being anything other than a classic. As Kylie Minogue knew, the second she heard the demo.

“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is still sleek and clean, impeccably designed, full of beautiful textures. If “I Feel Love” was a kiss blown to an imagined future, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” is an engineer’s fond response now that the imaginary has come true, more pragmatic but just as heartfelt. Moroder and Summer’s song was a jet pack. Dennis, Davis and Minogue’s is a map of flight plans. It’s a crystal of a record, an omnihedron revolving gently at the centre of pop, refracting and reflecting the 20th century’s music. In a context of Atomic Kitten, DJ Otzi and Blue, you might weep for joy on hearing it. It’s so well-arranged, so uncluttered, so satisfying. But the joy is partly one of familiarity. Ever since “Telstar”, people imagined 21st century pop would sound a bit like this. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” isn’t futuristic, it’s the fulfillment of a promised future.

24
Mar 16

Of Was And When

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rebel rebel Rebel Rebel, by Chris O’Leary (Zero Books)

One of the many remarkable things about David Bowie’s career is that it came so close to not happening. Bowie seems like an archetype of individual genius – even his most misguided detours have something interesting about them, as Chris O’Leary’s blog (collected in part in this book) patiently shows. But his career had a multiplicity of false starts – even once he’d scored a big hit, five years in, there was no particular sense he’d become a constant presence in pop. Let alone rewrite or dominate it.

8
Mar 16

DJ OTZI – “Hey Baby (Uhh, Ahh)”

Popular88 comments • 4,384 views

#909, 22nd September 2001

otzi So the cruddiest number one of 2001 lands at the top in a week when a lot of people were not caring about music. And certainly, spending £1.99 on “Hey Baby” is one of the more aggressive ways you could find to not care about music. The song is a mugging of a rather sweet #2 hit from 1962 by Bruce Channel: his “Hey Baby” was hayseed bubblegum, a bag of folksy candyfloss with a harmonica hook hot enough that people assumed the Beatles swiped his idea.

5
Mar 16

BOB THE BUILDER – “Mambo No. 5”

Popular28 comments • 1,938 views

#908, 15th September 2001

Mambo Bob The last time we met Bob, I made a tantalising suggestion that his “Mambo No.5” was the superior version. This theory does not survive contact with reality. Whatever the merits of this hymn to the tools of Bob’s trade, ultimately it’s still Neil Morrissey trying to swing over a Woolworths backing, and nobody really needs to hear that.

2
Mar 16

BLUE – “Too Close”

Popular73 comments • 2,596 views

#907, 8th September 2001

blue close The differences between Blue’s “Too Close” and Next’s “Too Close” don’t seem profound – four years, a few production gewgaws, a mild shift in context between male US R&B group and UK boyband – so why does the original make me smile and the cover make me wince? Might it just be that I don’t like Blue? Simon Cowell, who managed Five, had his fingers all over a pre-incarnation of Blue. But every boyband is pitched a little differently, however similar the origin stories. If Five were a cartoon attempt at the Spice Boys, Blue were All Saints’ younger brothers. A little cooler than the average boyband; a lot more knowing. They owed something to East 17 – the first British boyband to drop the niceties and sing about fucking – but they were a hell of a lot smoother and less awkwardly intriguing than Tony Mortimer’s mob.

22
Feb 16

Together! We Will Learn And Teach

New York London Paris Munich + Popular9 comments • 902 views

I am delighted to share the news that Popular (or rather me) is GOING WEST, with a speaking slot at this year’s EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. You can find full details here. Come along if you happen to be in Seattle and otherwise stay tuned for publication of my paper right here.

What is it about? I’M GLAD YOU ASKED. Here is the, if you will, poposal that got the nod.

VOX POPULAR: The Charts As Soapbox In A Digital Era