Hello, it’s us again. Welcome to Popular. Welcome to 21st century pop music, now fifteen years old and dreadfully teenager-ish in its surly refusal to admit to any pigeonhole you might want to place it in. Putting the pop culture of this century’s first decade into a historical context is an unsatisfying job: it’s wriggly and shapeless. Some would gloomily have it that pop descended into an ahistorical inertia in the 00s, cycling through a tatty parade of old signifiers. Others would point to this tribe or that as keeping its vital spirit alive. From either perspective, trying to grab onto this century’s music through its number one records seems a strange proposition.
Maybe Gladstone can help. His famous placing of bets is no kind of socialist endorsement: he was appealing to his notion of a spirit in “the masses” that transcends factional (class) interest – the surges of support for a noble cause that led, in his eyes, to many of Victorian politics’ grand reforming moments, and overturned any partisan support of particular classes for the status quo. By focusing critically on only the best-selling record of any given moment, I’ve tried to place myself to pick up on as many of pop’s broad-based swells of sentiment as I can. There’s a nagging feeling that those kind of hits – the ones that stick around and define a summer, a winter, or a year – are more genuine and worthy of note than the mayfly one-week wonders that might surround them. But this is misguided. The pop charts have always also been about the classes – a mess of overlapping factions and specialisms that sometimes, somehow, get their message through. And the format of Popular also forces me to pay attention to this jabber of enthusiasms that a smoother history might overrule.
So number ones are a volatile balance of the masses and the classes, and that’s why I like to write about them. Still, though, 2000 is a shit of a year for doing it.
There are forty-two singles to cover, more than any year before or since. This berserk turnover is no accident: let’s remind ourselves of what getting a number one took at the turn of the 00s. In general, a hundred thousand sales would do the job. Pick the right week and you could hit the top on barely half that. Competition for number ones was planned to a degree, with release dates shifting back and forth to give bands with strong fanbases the best chance of a week’s glory. Those fanbases knew exactly what was coming, because singles were released to radio weeks in advance so they could build or mobilise an audience. On the relevant Monday, multiple formats in the main record shops helped fluff performance and ensure a high entry and peak. It was an unromantic business: marketers and fans united in what amounted to a business planning exercise, with all the thrill of a well-ordered Gant chart.
With hindsight, you notice two things. First, it’s astonishing the charts of the late 90s and early 00s are as representative as they are. There is a ridiculous number of number ones, but no more injustices than usual. Big records have always missed number one, whole styles have been neglected, but this period is no worse for it than any other. The masses remain in full voice.
The second curious thing is that this system, far from being sewn up, was ripe for gaming, vulnerable to the influence of faction. If you had a big enough fanbase, and picked the right week, you could get anything at all to number one. The charts have never been more open to the possibility of pop theatre than in the 00s: it might have been a golden age for wannabe Maclarens. But almost nobody took advantage of it. Of course, once bands built the kind of support to make trolling the charts a live possibility, most of them simply couldn’t be arsed any more.
It wasn’t just the innate conservatism of the act with an audience to please, though – the very idea of the charts as something that should be “subverted” seemed to belong to a prior age. One of the things that happened after punk was that the relationship of the underground and the mainstream changed. British psychedelic and prog bands didn’t shun the singles charts quite as much as lazy history might summarise, but there was hardly ever an ideological angle to their occasional visits. Punk, and the Pistols specifically, altered that. The near-miss or spiking of “God Save The Queen” became a feat to emulate, a crime to avenge. By 1980 the charts were highly winnable territory – former or tangential punkers like Adam Ant and Paul Weller going straight in at No.1, then pop itself restaffed by the eager and glorious theorists of the New Pop. A series of peaks – of fondly recalled victories – followed: Paul Morley and Trevor Horn’s tactical conquest with Frankie; 4AD getting M/A/R/R/S to the top; the situationist pop chaos of the KLF; the Battle of Britpop. And all these became rolled up into a general sense of an era when the charts “mattered”. But you got the feeling that to many, they mattered because of this possibility of minor, nose-tweaking shock – the classes winning out against the masses, if only for a week or two – and their day-to-day operation was a mere backdrop to that.
The Manic Street Preachers, on the threshold of the 21st century, are almost the last in this tradition. They had the opportunity – a band with enough fans to do something in that torpid millennial January. They had the motive – a band with a long-standing interest in quixotic pop gestures, and a fan’s love of theatrical subversion: they’d even called one of their videos Leaving The 20th Century, after a Situationist slogan. They also had the method – “Masses Against The Classes” was a limited single release, to be deleted after a week, guaranteeing it a compressed sales burst and a high debut placing.
But did they have the song? And who were they actually aiming it at?
It’s very doubtful that “The Masses Against The Classes” is meant as any kind of coherent statement, even more doubtful that you can parse it as one. The Occam’s Razor interpretation is that they wanted a Number One, saw a way of getting it, and slapped a Chomsky quote at the start as a bit of decorative brand-building and because it tickled Nicky Wire. If you take the perspective that a Cuban flag in HMV was an inherent pop good, and the Manics are fixing the charts to provide an alternative to complacency – then “Masses” works as an unfocused blast of wrath. It’s better – a lot better – than Westlife’s “Seasons In The Sun”. High praise, eh? But let’s offer the band the respect of at least trying to read too much into it all.
The quotes it’s topped and tailed by – Albert Camus bringing up the rear – sit in uneasy relationship. “This country was founded on the principle that the primary role of government is to protect property from the majority, and so it remains.”; “A slave begins by demanding justice, and ends by wanting to wear a crown”. Side by side, Camus’ fatalism makes this a glum pairing: the liberation of property (which a slave, by definition, is) inevitably ends in the re-establishment of government, and the cycle begins again. The title – Gladstone’s invocation of the historical spirit of the masses, magically separated from their economic interests – offers some kind of way out, however mystical. Break the cycle by backing the decent impulses of the masses against the classes. It’s not an analysis I would agree with, but that’s how the salad of sources works together, for me.
That’s the title and the quotes. The actual song, meanwhile, takes a rather different approach: it’s a haters-gonna-hate sneer. “Success is an ugly word / Especially in your tiny world”: A lot of people, it seems, didn’t like the furrowed-brow AOR direction the Manic Street Preachers had taken themselves in for This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours, and the band, in the grand tradition of successful bands throughout history, interpreted boredom as envy. “The Masses” has them striking a defiant pose. Their grumpy old fans are the petty, factional classes, and their stadium-rockin’ newer ones are the noble masses.
It’s a nasty little record by this reading, but to really get how nasty it is, consider what it sounds like. This angry defense of a change of direction is packaged up in a song that’s a deliberate callback to their very first records. The early Manics single “Masses” reminds me of most is “You Love Us” – snotty, scrappy, and the kind of audience- and critic-baiting statement of belief that feels terribly 1992 but no less electric for that. “Masses” is determinedly uglier, though, janking and grinding along on its basic rock undercarriage like a car dragging a broken exhaust along a road. The early Manics never sounded quite this loud, either – boosted by compression steroids into a very deliberate kind of rawness, though compared to those early records what’s been gained in power has been lost in swagger. So what we’ve got is a song played in a manner designed to excited the band’s old fans, powered to number one at a time and using a gimmick that calls back to the Manics’ early theatrical streak, but which is actually a brutal dismissal as elitists of the very people most likely to get enthused by those things. Now there’s subversion. Oof.
“I guess at heart I remain some kind of a crinkly English situationist who wants to have his MTV and critique it too. I am reminded of the story of how high priest of situationism Guy Debord rushed over to London from Paris in the 1960s when he heard that a trained guerilla combat unit was ready for his inspection in Ladbroke Grove. He was directed to military headquarters on the All Saints Road where he discovered a young guy watching Match Of The Day on his sofa with a can of McEwan’s Special Export in his hand…. Debord, quite naturally, stalked off in a rage.” – Steve Beard, Aftershocks: The End Of Style Culture