Feb 16

Together! We Will Learn And Teach

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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

The UK Singles Chart has two notable qualities. One is its particular place in the national imagination – chart “races”, “battles”, and records are tabloid fodder even now. The other is that the Top 40 was until recently entirely based on sales – a purely commercial barometer of popularity.

These two factors – news interest and sales criteria – historically interacted to make the UK charts a kind of cultural seismograph, a channel for unvoiced mass sentiment. Anything from the World Cup to the death of Princess Diana spawned hits, creating a feedback loop between pop and the rest of the media.

But in April 2005, something changed. The chart began to include digital downloads, dissolving physical and pricing barriers to entry. If you could persuade a few thousand people to buy a track, you were in. The cultural seismograph had become – at least potentially – a platform.

My presentation is the story of the pranksters, campaigners, trolls and fans who took advantage of the download era to make the charts themselves a megaphone. I look at attempts to manipulate the Top 40 to give voice to cultural grievances – like successfully getting Rage Against The Machine to Number One ahead of a reality TV hit. I explore efforts to send political messages via the charts – like the campaign to mark Margaret Thatcher’s death by charting “Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead”.

I also examine botched attempts, and the ways in which the tactic failed to live up to its expressive potential. And I put these campaigns in the wider cultural context of the 00s: part of the new media’s wider attack on the legitimacy of the old, and its seductive promise to give everyone a voice.

I am really excited about going there and talking about this – EMP is awesome and it’s fantastic to be going back there.


  1. 1
    The Arn on 22 Feb 2016 #

    I take it the likes of Drummond and McLaren going to get a mention as the analogue forebears of the chart jokers? Sounds an absolutely fascinating talk.

  2. 2
    Shiny Dave, logged out on 22 Feb 2016 #

    1) Ooh. OOH.
    2) I imagine the Bunny Against The Machine entry is going to be mostly an excerpt from this?
    3) Does the Greenwich and Bunnyham choir (and how Bieber effectively gave them a victory they’d likely have missed otherwise, costing him the first seven-weeker of the decade as it turned out) get covered?

  3. 3
    Tom on 22 Feb 2016 #

    #1 I don’t know how long I get – so what gets in and what gets left out is up in the air. You could do a book on this stuff!

    #2 The BATM entry will be about the music I suspect! (given I’ll have covered the rest of it in this). And yes, the choir – which happened after I sent the proposal in – was both a gift and cause some hurried redrafting of conclusions.

  4. 4
    Andrew Farrell on 22 Feb 2016 #

    The Manual has of course long since stopped working as a way to beat the chart, but it might at the moment be as notable for its loving description of the Sunday rundown.

    Also great news and good luck, Tom!

  5. 5
    Mark G on 22 Feb 2016 #

    There has been a recent upswing in “Tribute” downloads, now there’s no need to manufacture items as tribute artifacts. From the expected (David Bowie) to the impromptu (Cilla Black, Rik Mayall) and the requested platforming (Viola Beach).

  6. 6
    Tommy Mack on 24 Feb 2016 #

    [comment deleted after a second reading of the article revealed the answer to my question. Something, about which I am always hectoring my students.. ]

  7. 7
    AMZ1981 on 27 Feb 2016 #

    I have noticed that the news story now seems to be about getting something into the charts, rather than something being in the charts. Once you’ve had the Sunday (or Friday as it is now) rundown it’s job done. It annoyed me when people compared the Ding Dong business to God Save The Queen and Relax; one of these still provokes debate about whether it was deliberately kept off number one almost forty years on, one remains the seventh biggest selling single in the UK ever and the third collapsed to number 65 a week later.

    One thing that is noticeable in the singles chart now is that the average chart life of a hit single has vastly increased (Guinness used to highlight singles that spent thirty weeks or more on the chart, most significant hit singles can now expect that) but chart collapses are even more spectacular (the NHS Choir dropped 1-28 which might be a record). In the physical era charity records did normally shoot their bolt quickly but didn’t vanish overnight. I know there was physical stock to sell through but at the same time the songs are still available online.

    Viola Beach are also an interesting case. It’s inevitable the tragedy would strike a chord with many and there was always going to be a `get them into the charts` campaign. So many people, including myself, dropped 99p into the Itunes charity box and they charted at eleven. Job done. A week later they’re nowhere to be seen. I did wonder whether they fact that the song has picked up airplay as well (it takes a few listens) and the coverage of the chart entry would keep the interest alive but obviously not.

  8. 8
    Champiness on 2 Mar 2016 #

    I’m still enamored with your performance-competition-based chart idea from the “In Ragebows” article (handily in the related posts column to the right), even if it was just something you thought up in a flash of post-Rage inspiration and even though I don’t really understand the logistics of getting all the stars and record labels to agree to it. As someone who grew up in an age that never really had a flashy central point to pop music I feel like a show like that could fill a similar role without conflicting with the internet-based freedom that negated all its precursors in the first place.
    So yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing you revisit these ideas, even if I can’t make it across the country to see you discuss them in person!

  9. 9
    DanH on 2 Mar 2016 #

    Cool! I love Seattle, I go there every year….I love the EMP, but forced myself not to go every time. Got an Elvis Costello concert here in town that night though. Should be a fun talk though!

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