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25th October 2011

Column: Top of the Flops?

Gone are the gender bending days of Culture Club. You’ve just got to wear a suit of lamb chops and you’re halfway to number one.

Over the summer I made it my main ambition to maximise whatever spare time I had to catch up on a couple of years of lost literature. Whilst at university, your free time tends to be far better spent trawling through the depths of BBC iPlayer’s back catalogue for something that doesn’t feature Michael McIntyre, or the latest addition from Brian Cox. In spite of going out with good intentions, I soon caught eye of Alex James’ autobiography sitting on the shelf whilst at a friend’s house. I decided to ditch my half-hearted attempts to challenge another Jane Austen and instead learn of the Blur bassist’s incessant quest into drink and drug-fuelled self-indulgence. I took great pleasure in reading of his relentless hedonism throughout the nineties, as he ferried himself from gig to gig, bar to bar, and woman to woman. But what resonated with me more than anything else was not his lifestyle or his constant globetrotting, but how much it meant to him (as a relatively unknown artist) not just to perform on Top of the Pops but more so, to be featured in Smash Hits! magazine.

Both institutions have since ceased to exist, as they both ended production shortly after the turn of the millennium, an ode to the digital age of free downloads. The demise of the top 40 chart has coincided with this downfall, and obviously the declines have been widely attributed to the influx of digital music and its ready availability on the internet. Although NME is still considered by many to be the ‘indie bible’, there has not been a publication that represents popular chart music. And even this sacred offering has seen an unremitting decline in sales in recent years, with the magazine now only having just over 33,000 copies in circulation (as of June 2010), a figure 53% down on the 72,500 of 2003.

With the recent release of magazine ‘We Love Pop’, we have seen an attempt at a return to the days of old, as hoards of teenagers follow their favourite pop stars’ every move. Nevertheless, with this release comes a series of pertinent questions: Will it survive or did Smash Hits! get out at the right time? Has music journalism begun the slow death march towards non-existence?

As the musical juggernaut that is The X Factor enters its eighth year, I’m struck by not just the sheer number of past acts that feature in the upper echelons of music’s hierarchy, but the utter dearth of talent in popular music away from the said programme’s endless production line. I know it’s an easy copout to belittle the X Factor culture within contemporary music, but the constant stream of (attempted) Mariah Carey replicas are going a long way to eradicate any sort of individuality within music. Long gone are the days of a voice and a personality being what you needed to succeed in pop music. You’ve just got to wear a suit of lamb chops or writhe around in skin-tight leather and you’re halfway to getting yourself a number 1 single. The removal of the joy of being young and talented instead being replaced by a “tick-box of what the marketing department wants, with a liberal dash of clod-hoppingly obvious sex on top.”*

Gone are the days of every adolescent etching the Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt across their face. Gone are the gender bending days of Culture Club. Tulisa Contostavlos’ extensive musical achievements are now the adjudicator for what deserves to top our charts and mould the teenage generation. Looks like I might have to dig that old Jane Austen out again.

*Quote – Clair Woodward (Sunday Express)

Tom Hickman

Tom Hickman

Music Editor.

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