I arrived home yesterday to find a group of schoolchildren hanging around my doorstep, and had to weave my way through to reach the front door. This happens. Ignoring me, they carried on doing what they were doing, which involved staring at a phone and then bursting into song. They knew the song well, and sang two lines together in perfect unison before bursting into happy laughter. And my first thought was "I don't recognise that song at all".
I used to know every song in the charts, indeed in the 80s and 90s I knew the Top 40 inside out and could have hummed you the lot. Somewhere around the turn of the century I lost that ability, despite still being plugged into Radio 1 as my station of choice. Music was slowly changing, or rather what was popular was changing, and I didn't like the new stuff as much as the old. That trend alas continued, and what currently fills daytime airplay I find crass and empty, despite the fact that schoolgirls still love it enough to sing on my doorstep.
I'm aware this is a well-known stage most people go through, from loving the music of their youth to hating the music of the younger generation. What bemuses me is that I thought I had a pretty general musical taste, capable of wider appreciation, but instead the mainstream has careered off down some dark avenue I no longer appreciate and left me behind. There is still plenty of great new music around, as showcased on Radio 6 Music or on late night Radio 1, but these days it never troubles the charts.
Instead what's become popular are solo singers warbling inconclusively about relationships above a generic plinky plonk backing track. Tunes are out, in the common sense, and instead the done thing is to pick a note and then wander marginally up or down as the song progresses. Songs combine vocal showing-off with mundane instrumentals. The singer usually sounds like they've been mulched through a computer. Harmony is a rarity, and 'bands' simply don't get a look in. It's the worst excesses of Mariah Carey spliced with the X Factor's lowest common denominator. It's the monotony of bad rap bolted to the corpse of European Dance Music. And it's all so bloody samey.
Or at least that's my ingrained prejudice. So I thought I'd test it out.
Friday is chart day, so yesterday I tuned in to the Official Top 40 on Radio 1 and forced myself to listen all the way through. Pretty much every thing Greg James played would be new to me, so it'd be a good test.
Would I be pleasantly surprised, or would I simply sigh at the tuneless inanity of it all?
40Ramz (new): Straight off, a full-on generic autotune warble, with homeboy la-la-las, from the bloke who brought you 'Barking'. 35Tom Walker (new): Dull self-penned blokey ballad, with proper piano, streaming courtesy of an ad soundtrack. 30Marshmello & Anne‐Marie (↓1): The first formulaic female. Repetitive bubblegum for backseat humming, oh so very Rebecca Black. 28Shakka (↑12): Derivative vocoder wobbles, switching from male to female, and managing to rhyme Kilimanjaro with gonna aim low. 26M-22 (↑7): Actual dance record with plinky backing, very mid-2000s, but the poorest attempt at a tune so far. 25Rita Ora, Cardi B, Bebe Rexha & Charli XCX (↓1): Anyone could have written this predictable girlie-foursome meander. 24Years and Years (↑14): I loved King, but this is pish, as Olly tackles unmemorable Casiotone trills. 22Keala Settle & The Greatest Showman Ensemble (↑3): Finally something different, but also much more safe, a lot more Disney. Could've been a hit in 1988, and I wouldn't have liked it then either. 22nd week in in the charts, ffs. 21Liam Payne (↓1): Ex boybander attempts streetcred with overtweaked duet, employing the "repeated syllables" gimmick. 18Shawn Mendes (↓8): Sheeranesque guitarstrummer pitches for a John Lewis ad. 14Khalid & Normani (↑2): A lot of vocal swapping, a lot of "mmm-uhuh"s, and the fewest notes yet. Has somehow been in the charts since February. 13EO (↑2): Smug mindless paean to automobile worship, with even fewer notes still. An almost perfect exemplification of meh. 12Clean Bandit (new): Jaunty rhythms plus Demi Lovato singing gimmicky farmyard hooks, keyboards bouncing underneath like a Club Med holiday. 11Sigala (↑1): Paloma Faith guests to create a simple banger for the Top Shop changing room. Nobody's voice sounds like this for real.
(deep breath, now for the top 10)
10Post Malone (↑1): Every line repeats at the end-end, with nothing much doing underneath-neath, like he was churning it out. 9Childish Gambino (↓3): The first song to make me sit up and listen, but after the township intro the remainder was drably vacuous, because different isn't always good. 8George Ezra (-): 18th week for this growly song with a faster beat, the closest so far to a standard tune, but still undeniably warble-influenced. 7David Guetta & Sia (↑2): Strong slow Euro-stomper, with long-term shopping mall potential, but still within the generic envelope. 6Jess Glynne (↑7): A pulsing beat and a firm vocal, but still a shallow song-by-numbers. On the Radio 1andRadio 2 playlists. Will undoubtedly become a talent show audition favourite. 5Banx & Ranx & Ella Eyre (↑2): Doesn't waste time with an intro, bangs in with a blanket tale of relationship woe, plus na-na-nas and a ringtone-esque hook. 4Anne‐Marie (↑1): A lot of chirrupy syrupy reminiscence, essentially nostalgia for 20-somethings, yet lacking much emotion. 3Ariana Grande (-): Very much standard girl-fare, from the one-note queen, which probably wouldn't be up this high were it not for Manchester. 2Drake (-): I once understood the charts, but I fail to comprehend how this drab grunty rhythmic rap, underscored by tinkly babes, has been high-flying since Easter. 1Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa (-): Sixth week at the top for the Scot with the magic touch, whose two-note synth refrain somehow sounds different, topped by Dua's you-ou-ou me-e-e which should be awful, but maybe I like it because it could be from 2006.
Having endured the entire countdown I can confirm I didn't especially enjoy the experience. Despite being braced for repetition, I was still surprised quite how formulaic everything got, and how a new over-produced genre dominates. It's still clearly pop, but it's more about the singer than the musicians, more about the delivery than the melody, and I can't get into it at all.
Where popular music and I have diverged is because I do genuinely like a tune, and revel on a bed of harmony. Sure, the 80s and 90s threw up some absolute stinkers, but also songs to make a wedding dancefloor erupt, and I can't see today's tranche managing the same. Almost the entire top 40 came over as riffs on one successful formula, as if someone's found the recipe for mainstream appreciation and resolutely refuses to let go.
Perhaps what's been truly lost is breadth, as quirkier stuff repeatedly fails to cross the streaming threshold, and all this bland burbling electronic stuff wins though.
The girls who sing on my doorstep know what they like. I shall stick with the cracking music the Top 40 no longer plays.