Thursday, 24 December 2009

X Factor vs. Rage + Chart Relevance

Well Christmas is upon us and we’re about to shut down the hatches on this blog until January 1st. But before that we thought we had better close with some sort of comment on the whole X Factor vs. Rage phenomenon, although we’ve been very reluctant to post on the issue, partly because we don’t have anything new to add to the heaps of internet debate that already exists, and partly because neither song particularly interests or excites us in any way. So we apologise, but this blog is very much a waffle about nothing in particular and loosely concerns itself with the whole campaign for The Climb, Killing In The Name Of, the pop charts and the relevance of these things in culture. It’s another one of our discursive blogs that probably sees our own selves asking questions of our own views without really giving the answers. Kind of.

So whilst neither of the two songs that fought for no.1 engages us on a personal level (we haven’t purchased any singles at all this week) what does interest us is that the Rage Against The Machine campaign has provided some justification to the argument that the UK Top 40 singles (and albums) chart is still relevant, even in the wired web world we live in. The chart has a few detractors - back in 2007 for example HMV declared that they would no longer sell singles based on the UK Top 40, as it wasn’t relevant to the way they sold music. But are the charts culturally still relevant ? Let us explain our thinking.

For sure, the singles and album charts may not be the defining beacon they once were, but it cannot be denied that people are once more talking about the charts and the importance of a number one single. At this moment, at this time, it still means something to a significant number in this country – sales figures show that more than 500,000 copies of the Rage single have been purchased following the campaign to stop the X Factor single getting to number one. In broad terms what people are buying is what is popular at that moment in time, and there is a strong argument for something that is both popular and crosses cultural boundaries being culturally relevant. The fact that the number one single and the charts are being discussed in all aspects of the media and by the public provides evidence of that crossing of boundaries and that relevance. People of all types, from fans of the blandness of X Factor to rock kids supporting Rage have reconnected with the charts - this ‘battle’ has spoken to a large number of people. Like it or not it’s engaged a significant proportion of the UK.

So let’s state this clearly now – as a fan of the pop charts from back in the eighties when all of our peer group would sit with a cassette recorder and record the whole of the Top 40 to listen again to during the week, skipping the songs we disliked (Spandau Ballet, Level 42, Rick Astley) and playing over and over our favourites (The Cure, OMD, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Human League) we’re excited that people are talking about the charts. Even if we couldn’t care for the songs they are talking about.

So if the charts are culturally relevant at this moment in time, are they relevant all the time? Are they are a barometer of what is truly connecting with people?

The rise of the internet has fogged the issue somewhat, but improved it in other ways. For example when an artist gives out a single for free download it doesn’t count for the charts. So, such a song may be hugely popular, even inspirational to people, but it will not register as a hit on the charts. Likewise the multitude of new ways that people consume music be it through Last FM, Spotify, illegal downloads or other means may lead to a song being highly listened to, engaging people, affecting lives, but not appearing in the UK Top 40.

However the internet has also improved the charts in terms of being an accurate representation of what people want to buy rather than what they are able to buy. Whereas previously singles and albums were only available to buy in a physical format, incurring costs in distribution, storage and production for retailers and producers, when sales began to drop record companies would delete the recording from its catalogue ensuring that once the product sold out, no more were available. With the internet however, as no costs are incurred, any album or single can remain available for purchase indefinitely. This can change the charts. For example The Kings Of Leon single Sex On Fire remained in the charts months and months after it was released. For better or worse the song has become a culturally popular landmark, gaining greater significance through long term chart position due to internet sales.

Of course when we talk about cultural relevance in relation to contemporary music, there is a school of thought that suggests that only youth culture creates and consumes the music that defines our age and connects. However, attempting to quantify the demographic range of those purchasing, consuming and engaging with music today is fraught with difficulties, and we need to be careful with generalisations. For instance this blog is not written by some hip young urbanite, but someone who has reached a middle age, yet we hope that at least some of the artists we have talked about are relevant to those who are much younger than its writer. If blogs are part of current music culture, does this blog become redundant by pure virtue of the age of the writer? We would suggest (or at least hope) not. It is more to do with if readers receive and connect with the content of the blog.

This year one of the albums that has engaged the country the most, like it or not is the debut from Susan Boyle. We have already talked about the power of the grey pound in terms of purchasing power here and why the older generation has significantly influenced the chart. Is Susan Boyle, a 48 year old singer who appeared on Britain’s Got Talent culturally relevant? Are Rage Against The Machine a band whose current number 1 single was first released 18 years ago culturally relevant in 2009? What about Jay-Z? Robbie Williams? The XX? Animal Collective? Diplo? Are these acts culturally relevant? We can argue yes or no until the cows come home, but the charts help us give some evidence.

Measuring the true popularity of a song is now virtually impossible. Measuring cultural relevance over anything but a snapshot of time is even harder. What is fashionable and popular today may seem resolutely irrelevant tomorrow. However the UK Top 40 charts remain one of the best tools we have to assist us in quantifying cultural relevance of the moment.

Ultimately if something is of cultural relevance is probably not important to us as individuals, most of us just like certain music, irrespective of its position in culture. Looking on a larger scale however, the cultural relevance of a song helps to form and shape our society now and in the future. Just like Bob Dylans The Times They Are Changin’ did in the 60’s or The Clash influenced in the 70’s, the Rage vs. X-Factor chart battle may have, in a small way, done exactly that at the end of the 00’s. This is why the charts are important.

Happy Christmas. See you next year. Here's one of our favourite Christmas tunes that always lifts us and energises us, with a belter of a vocal. Take it away Darlene.....

No comments: