Dancing Queen and the End of Popular Music

The other night, as I lay sweating in my mum’s flat in boiling England in the early hours, a crowd of 20 somethings spilled out of a nearby club. The usual hubbub of indistinct chatter ensued as they prepared to disperse. Then the females (I assume; I couldn’t actually see anything) started singing something together, and, gradually the song they were singing emerged: “Dancing Queen”, by Abba, released as a single in 1976. The lassies, who can’t have been born when it first came out, all knew the words (no big surprise, perhaps, given it’s been covered by 20 other artists and was rereleased by Abba in the early 1990s) and sang it long after I felt the moment had passed and they should all go home.

Apart from keeping me awake, I realised something more important: I was listening to the last hurrah of popular music. And today marks, at least in the UK, the death of this era. That’s because today is the last edition of BBC’s Top Of The Pops, the long-running television show that broadcast (usually mimed) performances of the top selling single artists of the week. Everyone here in the UK is waxing nostalgic about the show, which first went out in 1964, and has been running pretty much every week ever since. But perhaps its greatest significance will be in its demise, as it reflects the end of popular music as a unifying force.

Ironic, really, given that folk like me weren’t allowed to watch ToTP as kids, at least with the sound on. Even as a late teenager my dad would make a point of walking in to the lounge when I was watching it, to mess about with the grate, or the wine cupboard (necessitating a move of the TV) and would make some sarcastic remark about whoever was on — and his entry always seemed to coincide with a particularly outrageous display by Roy Wizzard or Noddy Holder or Gary Glitter (turns out he was right about him, come to think of it). ToTP was a divisive force in our household, but nationally, culturally, it united. In an era when pop music remained fringe — only a couple of radio stations played it, one of them pirate, and there was scant pop music on TV outside ToTP — the program was a Mecca for anyone who wanted to know what was what. We really cared about who was number one; seeing bands and artists play on ToTP was sometimes the only chance we got to put a face to the voice we heard on the radio. And then there were Pan’s People, the dancers who “interpreted” songs to help fill up the show. They, dancing to the Chi-Lites’ “Homely Girl”, were my first glimpse of sensual womanhood and for that alone I’m hugely grateful.

The point about ToTP was that it gave everyone a cultural reference point. Watch ToTP and we knew all we needed to know to bond with friends, chat up those we wanted to chat up and to sing along at parties. We all knew who The Rubettes were, and while we may have hated ‘Sugar Baby Love’ we all knew it was number one, and hearing it on radios as we went on holidays or tried to steal a French kiss or two at a party, provided a cultural anchor that would forever make that the soundtrack of the summer of 1974 (or was it 1975.) The point? ‘Sugar Baby Love’ meant different things to different people, but it meant something. Listen to it now and I am transported back to the smell of hay (yes, those kinds of parties), feel the excitement of flashing lights and the electrifying presence of females through the gloom.

Of course, a lot of people will see the demise of ToTP as a good thing, the victory of the Long Tail of pop music (or whatever we have to call it now, given it’s not really popular any more.) They’ll say that the Big Head of mass commercialisation of popular music, where a few acts get disproportionate air play, promotion and media interest to the detriment of others, was never what people really wanted, and that now, with the Internet fostering better distribution and an increasingly sophisticated medium of recommendation, we can now listen to what we really want to, rather than what big business wants us to.

That’s true. But when are we going to be able to stand in car parks at three o’clock in the morning all drunkenly singing “young and sweet and only 17” because we all know the words? Or commenting on the silly hats that the Rubettes wore, or complaining about the number of appearances of Status Quo? And it’s not just about the Water Cooler culture — where we all stand around discussing last night’s TV, where we all saw the same thing because there was only one thing to watch — but of something else: cultural reference points that provide a shared soundtrack to our lives. Not a reason to keep Top of the Pops, necessarily, but perhaps food for thought about the world we are entering without it.

30. July 2006 by jeremy
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