11 February 2013
The death that shocked me most that Spring wasn’t Kurt Cobain, or even Ayrton Senna. It was the passing of an owlish man in his 50s who people assumed – and hoped, in many cases – would be running the country before too long. Later on, John Smith’s heart attack became a locus for all sorts of counterfactual speculation – after the landslide of ’97 you heard people saying, well, tragic of course, you understand, but as things turned out not all for the bad…? And later – as the golden era of the Great Empathiser sank into a miasma of gossip, inertia and war – the wondering and what ifs turned sad and angry.
At the time – and since, really – what hit me was a sense of unfairness, based mainly on how hard Smith and his colleagues had worked. Also – and this didn’t last, at least not in this form – an irrational gloom, the feeling that things would never change, and that somehow the moribund, comical Tories would pull through again.
But then everything did seem to change, and quickly, with the facts of politics shifting last of all. more »
Tom in Popular • 41 Comments
11 January 2013
As a football-shunning nipper in the 80s it seemed to me that an FA Cup Final song barged its way into the charts every year, swayed through the top ten full of song like a beery fan on a train carriage, and was gone. And looking at this Wikipedia page – a memento to the rise and fall of the genre – I was basically right.
By the time I got to University, my terribly narrow social circles were broadening a little, and football was gentrifying a lot, so I had friends who bought FA cup records. The songs themselves were no better than they had ever been, often – to the extent that they sounded ‘up to date’ – quite a bit worse. But why should they improve? Who would it benefit? To criticise a club song for its music would be like criticising a souvenir scarf for its insulating properties. Cup Final songs were souvenirs, and maybe something to fuel your sense of belonging and anticipation in the lead-up – “belonging” being the emotion these bluff, comradely, incompetent things managed best and most often. more »
Tom in Popular • 77 Comments
10 January 2013
Pop’s triumph is when a private language turns out to have been public all along. When the way you express yourself – visual, lyrical, physical, vocal – becomes something hundreds of thousands understand, like a word that was somehow always waiting to be said. This was Nirvana’s triumph too, and part of Kurt Cobain’s doom. His scraping, negating, self-scouring howls and sneers turned out to be a Rosetta Stone, a way for his fans to start making sense of themselves.
But the language he’d helped discover was too powerful – it went too far for him, made him fans he hated, and then rippled out still further, beyond Nirvana and Seattle. “Grunge” mutated quickly, from music to catch-all generational tag – I bought a lumberjack shirt from a British chainstore sometime in 1992, not really understanding why. It was very comfortable. I would never have had the nerve to buy Levis, though. They were for the fashionable, not the misfits. more »
Tom in Popular • 94 Comments
4 January 2013
A missing Popular Year poll for your deliberation. As ever, I give a mark out of 10 to every hit – here’s where you can say which ones YOU would have given 6 or more to. The last year of pre-Beatles British pop – dredge your memories….
Tom in Popular • 7 Comments
3 January 2013
Before reality TV commodified the rags-to-brief-riches pop story, the charts threw out an organic example or two. Here’s one: a bathroom salesman from Buckinghamshire with a bedroom studio, his song riding a remix to fleeting glory. Within a few months of hitting number one, Tony Di Bart was shorthand for facelessness – as the stars fell into eclipse, would pop be taken over by herds of such worthy, ordinary try-hards? more »
Tom in Popular • 61 Comments
2 January 2013
Sometimes U have to state the obvious: this should not have been Prince’s only UK number one under his own name (or glyph). But a check of the stats shows he rarely came that close – he was an undisputed star, archetype, household name, whose most remarkable and famous singles settled in the middle of the Top 10, or at its outskirts. This is the charts’ fault, not his: so much of the spice of 80s pop, its distinctive decadence, seems to loop back to Prince. He should have a chain of entries here. more »
Tom in Popular • 45 Comments
1 January 2013
The fifth (of six!) single from Everything Changes, and yes, it shows. Breezy, disco-inspired, but this is the fussy, low-fat studio hack’s version of disco which dotted pop albums through the 90s and beyond. A sax solo fills in time and helps to cement the impression that this is a sketch of a song, bulked out as required by passing sessionmen.
What can be said about it? The B-Side was a medley of Beatles songs – as with the Lulu team-up, this feels a bit of a “we belong” move, though the band is asserting a continuity of boyband frenzy and light entertainment domination rather than any kind of songwriting chops. More importantly for Take That’s immediate future, this is the first number one with lead vocals from Robbie Williams. Cheeky in front of the cameras, chafing (by his later account) behind them, Robbie does nothing at all here: with hindsight you might take his perfunctory devotion as a sign of boredom, but it’s just as likely he simply wasn’t ready to own a performance yet. “I love you”, he mutters at the end: the words have rarely sounded less convincing.
Tom in Popular • 42 Comments
14 November 2012
One of the divisive things about disco was the apparent will to discofy anything and everything: no style, era, film theme or rock classic was safe. To haters it was proof of disco’s stultifying lack of creativity – why make something new when you could slap strings and a beat under the old? But there’s something a little utopian about it too – a sense that disco was the philosopher’s stone of pop, the perfect unifying sound that could turn anything into dancefloor gold.
Something of that survived in commercial dance music. While club music continued mutating and innovating at bewildering pace, its leaps forward took it into the charts less often. The gap was often filled by novelties – raved-up TV themes, videogame music, cover versions, and finally stand-ins for whole genres with a 4/4 thump grafted on. Hence “Doop”, some Europeans building their money-making vehicle from a xerox of a memory of a decade that had happened somewhere else, souping its engines up and letting it loose. more »
Tom in Popular • 66 Comments
12 October 2012
The problem with the phrase “vocal gymnastics” – if used as a pan – is that plainly gymnastics are awesome. Their poise, control, grace, swiftness and fluidity – why wouldn’t these be things you’d aspire to in pop, why wouldn’t you expect applause? But these are manifestations of technique*, and pop thought ran aground on technique years ago, setting up a series of straw oppositions to deny it. Technique versus emotion. Technique versus passion. Technique versus excitement. Why not have them all? Mariah could, and sometimes did – if you could do the giddy things she does with her voice on “Emotions”, say, why wouldn’t you? more »
Tom in FT /Popular • 50 Comments
21 September 2012
A song of many lives: we’re catching it at the end of its first, after a failed release in 1993 and a bounce around the charts. In three years time it’ll be changed for good, the soundtrack to Tony Blair’s first election win. From then on its critical fortunes are linked to its grinning patron’s, and at some point in the early 00s it stops being a naff take on real optimism and becomes a different kind of reflection: brittle, shallow, endlessly on-message. more »
Tom in Popular • 56 Comments