(The third part of the 3-part piece about the 1000th Number 1, the charts, and 20 years of writing about them. Part 1. Part 2. See also the pieces on #999 and #1000 on Popular.)

Here’s the thing, though. I still really like pop music.

When I started Popular, I said something stupid. Not “I’m going to write about every No.1”, a normal statement by a sensible individual. But I said something along the lines of, I’m writing this because pop gets better every decade, and my subtext was as this blog will show! Let me remind you that No.1 at the time I said this was “Where Is The Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas, a record I do actually enjoy but not anybody’s pick for a tune on which a Whig Interpretation Of Pop could rest.

But it was the early 00s, and the world of pop and rap and R&B were on multiple highs, full of fresh poses and new ideas, just as exciting as any of the 20th Century ones. The charts felt stuffed with good ideas, jostling along with terrible ones, like the notion the proper form of pop was a gameshow run by a man who didn’t know how trousers worked.

It was a time to be, how might you put it, optimistic about pop. So a project like Popular was a bet that you could tell an interesting version of the story of pop through the story of Number 1s, and in September 2003 that bet felt safe. And like everyone else who ever thought “No more boom and bust!” I said as much out loud, and along came the bust.

A quick digression. The most embarrassing of my inspirations for Popular – in the very general sense of a guy who started a weird personal project and saw it through – was a cartoonist called Dave Sim, who drew a comic about an aardvark for well over 20 years. His version of seeing it through involved revealing political and religious views so batshit that even today’s right wing haven’t embraced him. (This is why he’s embarrassing. I was wearing a T-Shirt with his aardvark guy on my first date with my wife, a year or two before that became the reddest of red flags. Fortunately I had other T-Shirts available which made me look less like a freak, for example The Smiths.)

Anyway, Dave Sim told everyone his aardvark comic was going to last for 300 issues, and astonishingly it became clear that yes, it probably would. But then, approaching issue 200, he revealed that he’d lied – the story would end at 200, in fact was always going to end then. Dave Sim is a guy who believes genuinely terrible things, but that particular bit of audacious trolling I always liked.

But he was trolling – the comic did not stop. You can read – if you like Fitzgerald pastiches, treatises on male bonding, lengthy exegeses of the Torah, and extremely malignant ideas about women – issues 201-300 of Cerebus The Aardvark. They were published. They exist. They are even about an aardvark.

But he also wasn’t trolling. The story he was telling in the first 200 issues did end, and it ended badly.

There are still charts, and there are still number one records, great long lists of them between the second coming of Elvis and the reanimation of The Beatles. Smart researchers have worked hard to make sure that the charts behave in the same sort of way The Charts used to. But in 2005 the story of physical singles is ending; the story of buying individual singles at all will flare briefly then fade itself. Top Of The Pops, the window between The Charts and the world, will end in 2006. Within 5 years the presenter will be disgraced to a degree that comes close to damning a whole era, and means the final edition can never be repeated.

Popular was a way to tell a wider story of pop music in Britain through a narrower story of The Charts, and what reached Number 1 in them. By 2005 the cartilage between those stories has – at best – rubbed painfully thin. So when Elvis got the 1000th Number 1, I did honestly think, well, everyone who’s been telling me the charts are meaningless is right. If I wanted to finish Popular, this would be a good place.

But I have to be honest. If I’d known since 2005 that I’d be ending with Elvis reissues, I’d never have reached the 1970s. Popular is not ending here. Sorry for dicking you around! But this is the right point to ask – what about the story it’s telling? What do those lists of Number 1s represent?

There was something extremely unusual about the 1001st Number One single: it wasn’t by Elvis Presley. The Elvis reissue campaign rumbled on until May 2005, and every one of its singles reached the Top 5 – and in fact we have one more Number 1 to come. But the spell was broken in the fourth week by a different young Southern teenage singer with a strange name. Ciara Princess Wilson doesn’t have 18 Number 1s, just “Goodies”. But her timing is exquisite, a reminder that pop’s story was not over quite yet.

The charts are not the public focus of that story any more, and they never will be again. In truth though, the story of pop doesn’t really have a public focus, which means the charts are no worse a record of it than anything else. Wait, though – does pop even have a story? Is the word even meaningful? These aren’t silly questions. There is, for sure, intense pop-cultural interest in a handful of huge stars, which occasionally even extends beyond economics and amateur sociology and talks about their records. But often, narratives of pop music in the 21st century have focused on how people listen – a succession of platforms from Napster to Spotify. The question of what they’re listening to has slipped down the agenda. Which is infuriating, honestly, because that’s still the juicy stuff.

While I’ve been indulging myself with these posts I’ve also been posting a list of singles on Bluesky. (If you’re reading this in 2033 ask your local AI to make up what Bluesky was). It’s a list of my favourite singles of the 21st Century for a social media challenge called #FearOfMu21c – about a hundred other people are doing the same thing. The point of the challenge is that the stories of pop music that get told and retold, listed and relisted, are 20th Century ones. Elvis refuses to leave the building. 

Popular as a 20th Century project was interesting because it cut across this canon, bundling the ridiculous unavoidably with the sublime, forcing you to reckon with the fact that people wanted both. Popular in the 21st Century is a trickier prospect because it can feel there’s not much of a real canon to cut across. But why isn’t there?

Ever since I started Popular I’ve heard that the charts are irrelevant. This series of posts has been me reckoning with that idea, firming up the strongest version of it I can, and I think it goes like this: The charts were a way of turning individual listening into a communal event. But they only mattered to people because of the systems around them – broadcasters, retailers, record labels – and when those systems failed or fragmented, they stopped being important. “Pop music” goes on, but the charts aren’t telling its story.

That’s as far as I can go – but other people go further. They say the charts fell into decline because music fell into decline. There’s no 21st century canon because 21st century popular music isn’t as good as the old stuff. This version of the story is extremely tempting because it takes something an awful lot of people feel as they get older – I’m personally not getting much out of keeping up with this stuff – and turns it into a response to changes in the world, not a response to changes in yourself. It’s not for me becomes It’s just noise.

The not-for-me people are right and honest – I don’t think you can get to middle age and not feel that sometimes. The it’s just noise people I have less sympathy for, but I’m sure there’s things I’ll be as incurious about before the end. The two groups have one important thing in common, though. They’re not giving up on pop music, they’re just giving up on current pop music.

Very few people stay interested in current pop their whole lives, and there’s no great virtue in those who do. But equally, very few age out of music entirely. You don’t spend 18 weeks buying a set of collectable singles if what those singles represent isn’t somehow meaningful for you. If you were 16 and had your first kiss to “It’s Now Or Never” in 1960, and helped get it to No.1 in 2005, then you’re about to turn 80 – congratulations! I bet you still like the song!

My parents used to roll their eyes at me for spending so much money on music (and role-playing games and comics about aardvarks), because in their eyes I was certain to grow out of it. As it turned out, they were almost the last generation who grew out of anything. But if nobody ages out of old pop music, and if “pop” means what lots of people like, then the 20th Century has always already won. No qualitative judgement required: the old stuff simply has the numbers.

Weirdly, though, the charts is one of the few bits of pop where this isn’t true, not that you’d always know it. “Now And Then” got the most press coverage of a No.1 this year, just like “Running Up That Hill” did last year. But the biggest No.1 of the year was surely “Sprinter”, a track by UK drill artist Central Cee, which was at the top all summer – ten weeks all told, racking up close to half a billion streams just on Spotify, with another 146 million plays on YouTube.

It took me three plays to even like “Sprinter” – if I had to sit down now and write about it, I would do a terrible job. But it’s objectively a huge, year-defining hit among people who are still engaged with current pop. It’s as ‘relevant’ as anything I’ve ever written about on Popular. 

There are 125 news results for “Sprinter” on Google. There are 22,400 news results for “Now And Then”. Relevance is a media choice. The charts still matter when somebody decides they matter.

I’m not naive: I do not think there is a world where Central Cee gets as much press as The Beatles. But I can imagine ones where the ratio isn’t pushing 1:200. And I think there’s a starker truth behind questions of relevance, and canon, and what the charts mean now.

Let’s admit that the charts stopped telling a grand story of pop, if they ever did. And let’s admit that the fact there are more fans of old pop music than the current stuff makes it harder for newer pop to get attention. Why keep paying attention to the charts? Because of this: there may not be a story of 21st century pop music, British and global, but the charts are full of a rainbow of new stories, overlapping and contradicting, sprawling out like side-quests in an open-world videogame.

“Sprinter” is part of one – the rise of British rap, grime and drill to dominate our local charts. Taylor Swift and more locally Ed Sheeran represent another – a tier of seemingly unshiftable pop-superbrands. Swift’s reissue program symbolises yet another – the way women stars have taken undeniable control of their own creativity and careers. African and Asian acts push into the charts on a weekly basis; a flotilla of Barbie No.1s suggest the worlds of Hollywood and pop are closer than any time since the 80s. Every time I flag with Popular, interesting things keep happening and I’m pulled back.

Many of these story strands do have something wider in common: the slow collapse of a demographic hegemony, the decentering of people who look like Elvis, or the Beatles, or Jann Wenner, or frankly me. In so many other artforms you find reactionaries howling at the idea of consciously elevating women’s voices, Black voices, queer voices, African and Asian voices, and so many others, insisting that to do so is a de haut en bas conspiracy by elites. Music has them too, but they’re weaker: in pop that diversification feels like an established fact. (If anything, the bigger fight right now is to remind people that it always was a fact, to excavate the foundations of the old canon and find where the bodies are buried).

And this is why I’m so wary of the idea that the tech, not the music, is the only real story. The logistics, economics, and technology of music are massive concerns – they always were. In fact the pendulum used to swing too far the other way, with the perfume of artistry concealing the stench of exploitation. We now live in an age where the people who run the pipelines by which music reaches us are more powerful than ever, and they need – somehow – scrutiny and accountability. But in the end a pipeline is just a pipeline: what it carries – what people listen to and latch on to – still matters. The reason the Number One was irrelevant in 2005 was because only 20,000 people bought it? Fair enough. The reason the Number One is irrelevant in 2023 when it gets 470 million streams is… because Spotify is a racket? Because TikTok is annoying? Because 99% of over-40s don’t know who Central Cee is?

And so we’re back again to the question – why the charts? Why write about No.1s? Pop music didn’t start with the charts and it won’t end when they finally go. But the charts are still a place where those two stories – the logistical, technological, economic one and the story of people listening to and loving music – meet. That meeting generates a list of songs, and asks us to pretend it’s less arbitrary than it is – but it always was a little arbitrary. The includes some bloody awful music – and that was always a risk too. Good ideas still jostle along with terrible ones: the bad trouser guy finally fucked off, and the sausage roll guy came along instead. The charts, then, are some way beyond imperfect, a series of pieces from dozens of different jigsaws, trying to sucker you into thinking you can see a big picture. But they’re worth thinking about because music is always worth thinking about, and because not much else has any of the pieces at all.

One last question, and one last diversion. Is it worth me thinking about them?

When I was in my early teens I caught a late night film on TV, and it felt like a terrible hallucination. I never saw the start and I’m not even sure I saw the end. Much later I learned that it’s a film called The Swimmer, from 1968, starring Burt Lancaster. Lancaster is a successful man, a golden man, the toast of his neighbourhood. All his friends have pools. He decides to swim home across them. At first his friends cheer his efforts on, but gradually conversations take a darker turn, secrets are revealed. The seasons seem to have changed across an afternoon, the pools are deserted, the swimmer’s own house derelict.

It’s a portrait – not subtle – of successful 60s America cracking up under its skin, of dead leaves and debris clogging up its vents. It was a shocking, baffling film to encounter, out of context. I forgot about it for years, until I started dreaming sometimes about watching it with old friends who I hadn’t seen for decades.

I think of The Swimmer a lot when I think about Popular, a project I started as a lark. From quite early on I would ask myself the question: what’s going to happen when nobody cares? When the nostalgia runs out and you’re staggering from post to post in the dark? There have been times when I’ve felt like that’s happening. There are stretches ahead I don’t know how I’ll handle. It’s going to get worse before it gets better: I am a fifty year old man and I will at some future date be attempting to write with authority about Rizzle Kicks. The water is cold and my towel is damp and everyone’s gone to bed.

But when I finished the “I Got Stung” post yesterday, I thought, fuck me, I did it. One thousand Number Ones. That’s something. Is it worth me writing about the rest? Let’s find out.

(Thanks for reading this, and thanks for reading Popular: I honestly couldn’t have done it without you. Only four hundred and twenty to go. That’s nothing, eh?)