So I listened to the UK Top 40 on Radio 1 for the first time in – oh, I don’t know, years. Like a lot of the audience, I was ambulance-chasing: I wanted to see how the download-led charts would cope with a superstar death. I was hoping – for partly selfish reasons – that Michael Jackson would get to number one, maybe even with a song that hadn’t got there before.
As it happened the Jackson thing was kind of an anticlimax. Scott Mills – the stand-in DJ running the show – started off by playing up the prospects of a Jacko clean sweep, but gradually began dropping hints that the album chart was where the real action would be. When “Billie Jean” limped in at 25 the game was up. In the end the closest Michael Jackson got to the Top 10 this week was Kanye West’s shout-out to him on Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down” (#5).
It’s not that the sentiment wasn’t there – just that the vote was split. 20 Jackson-related entries in the Top 75 attests to the breadth of his popularity. “Man In The Mirror” emerged as the frontrunner – hardly his best, but sufficiently autobiographical and hopeful (a rare combination with him).
By the time all that became clear I was caught up anyway in the routines and rituals of the chart show. Had anything changed since I’d switched off? Hardly. Here were the halting interviews with pop stars trying to hide their disappointment or apathy. Here was the dogged pretence at a non-existent suspense. The statistician’s glee with which Mark Goodier had approached the job of host was long gone, but Scott Mills at least didn’t sound as if the whole thing was beneath him.
A live performance from Glastonbury of GaGa’s “Paparazzi” was an innovation, and a great deal more weight was given to listeners texting in – whether out of a desire for modish interactivity or to convince the rest of us that we weren’t alone, I’m not sure. If the latter, it worked: it reminded me that listening to music could be – at least notionally – something that happens in public and in real time. Commenting on Twitter as I listened, while hearing the texts and banter on the air, created an experience that felt a lot more ‘social’ than, say, last.fm does.
In other ways the countdown felt even older than I remembered it: the show began, as it had begun in the 80s, with the solemn announcement of how many new entries, climbers and non-movers lay ahead. An appreciable quantity of each. It seems that after all the tinkering and engineering the people running the charts have a Top 40 that works how they feel charts ought to work.