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How The Charts Were Overthrown

Updated: Jul 25, 2019

By Niall Walker

Ding, dong, the witch is dead...

“Things fall apart” mused WB Yeats, “the centre cannot hold”.

Simple words, yet potent. In times of instability, either personal or historical, they have unfailingly echoed through my mind. At the moment, they seem particularly voluble.

Instability marks our present time like a rash: one which refuses conventional antidotes, and which with every passing day appears yet more terminal to the major organs of our society.

The print and televised media, once so powerful it imposed the adjective ‘mainstream’ on itself, is dying. Neoliberalism, if not quite slain, appears to have been muted. Polling companies, the modern-day oracles to their Twittospheric congregation, have been humbled. Things, need we be reminded, really do fall apart.

Stretch our neck beyond the self-indulgent political parapet, however, and we can see this phenomenon within wider culture. Since its inception in 1969 the Official Charts Company has compiled weekly lists of the highest selling singles and albums in the UK.

The charts, however, have come to symbolise more than just what sound is most pleasing to the population’s ears. They have been the rule-makers of idealism; the triangulators of normativity, providing a soundtrack to our mall-wandering existences.

This reputation has been endowed on the charts because, like polling companies, their mechanism for gauging what we think and feel is seemingly infallible.

Slade performing on Top of the Pops
Another age: Slade performing on Top of the Pops

"Because the internet"

The internet – with its infinite array of streaming sites and music-sharing platforms – jackhammered this illusion. And it was always illusory: a 90s nationwide investigation found Banghra –traditional Punjabi music - to be the most widely sold genre in the UK. As its sales were made predominantly through independent retailers, and in cassette form, the charts company failed register its popularity.

A similar negligence was commonly afforded to garage and grime artists, who mainly distributed their tunes through pirating platforms. The latter’s recent surge as a genre broadly coincides with alterations made to OCC methods for compiling sales data.

The apparent spontaneity of the charts, therefore, is heavily orchestrated. Artists who feature prominently in mainstream shopping outlets will be disproportionately favoured by compiling organisations.

Who decides which artists are on the front shelf? Major record companies, who can pay millions in marketing and sponsorship fees, ensuring that our ears keep ringing to the sounds of Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran et al.

A system of impenetrable dullness is thus manufactured, self-assured in its ability to reproduce itself ad infinitum. Yet the system has ignored Yeats’ observation: in the past few years, its solipsistic sanctuary has been rudely interrupted.

Anti-authoritarian faultlines

The first tremors came in 2009, when a Facebook campaign raging against the Cowell machine sent Killing in the Name Of, the anti-authoritarian anthem, to number one. Four years later, Margaret Thatcher’s death inspired Ding Dong the Witch is Dead to hit number two in the charts. Earlier this year, Captain Ska’s Liar Liar – a savage polemic against Theresa May that sent BBC HQ in to a censorphilic frenzy - reached number four.

Despite their popularity, these songs were typically written off as anomalous; the self-indulgent anti-authoritarianism which had no legitimate justification or majority support. The ‘Liar’ would be coronated, Cowell would continue writing our Christmas carols, Thatcher would remain a sentimental speck in every sensible layman’s eye.

The recent election decisively returned Socialism to the mainstream, both as a political demand, and as a critical lens of analysing social events, figures and phenomena. With hindsight, these tracks appear as symbols; as simmering precursors to a seismic change in mass culture.

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead is an illuminating example. It represented a belief that Thatcher was not only a bad politician; she was symbolic of an ideology – neoliberalism – which was so callous and toxic that her death could be celebrated. In the height of the coalition government, with an anti-austerity movement largely confined to the streets, it was permissible for pundits to write this belief off, and for regulators to censor it as insensitive.

There's no place like home

Today, as the consequences of deregulation and market-omnipotence become starkly evident around housing, defenders of ‘Thatcherism’ appear notably absent.

It is the context, rather than the content, which defined these songs. Songs with explicit content – misogynist, homophobic, even political – are, after all, ever present within the charts. The line which these particular songs crossed existed beyond glitzy anodyne bubble which pop listings wishes to reside. The implication of this is stark: the charts are not, as they claim, neutral free-markets. They have political parameters and these boundaries must be respected.

To dare to dissent; to break through boundaries that have been impermeably erected, is the ultimate aesthetic virtue. Such a movement demands attention; refuses to compromise; and with perseverance and tenacity it can lay to waste all who wish to silence it. Our era shows this to be the case, and be it in our music, our politics or our communities, these lessons should encourage us to do the same.

To breach an echo chamber and sing the unsayable is to dare to dissent. That these songs were built by grassroots movements determined to change a narrative of presumed impermeability is remarkable. That their adversaries – the X Factor (is it still going?), Thatcherism, Theresa May – are now confined to the bin of the past, is testament to their success. These songs now exist as stories which should inspire.


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