"Music's not what it was" is a phrase most people eventually utter.
Whenever you grew up there's probably an era of hit music you enjoyed and then your tastes diverged from the mainstream, or rather the mainstream diverged from you. A period when you knew what the top-selling songs were, maybe even bought several of them, which has inexorably declined into not knowing what any of the current hits are.
I thought it'd never happen to me but it did. I used to be able to tell you everything about the hit singles of the day, as my family will attest, listening religiously to the new chart and having Radio 1 on in the background pretty much all the time. Today the new Top 40 passes me by and I sit through the annual Christmas Top of the Pops sighing "what on earth is this?" Where did it all go wrong?
Radio 1's usually a good barometer of popular taste because its ethos is to play new music and the hits, whatever they may currently be, so there comes a time when its playlist moves on and you don't follow. I listened relentlessly in the 80s and 90s, a fair amount in the 2000s and hardly at all in the 2010s. But that's not a particularly scientific way of judging things so I've tried something more systematic - an annual familiarity count.
I looked up the Top 10 selling singles for every year from 1990 to 2020, then noted whether I remembered each of them or not.
Green for "I know this song, I know how it goes"
Yellow for "I knew this song when I heard it"
Red for "Even when I heard it, it wasn't familiar"
Then I shuffled each year by colour, and then I made a graph.
The 1990s are fully green because I know every one of the top ten singles well enough to sing them to you, everything from Sinead O'Connor to Britney Spears. I could sing you the entire 1980s too, indeed I have cassette tapes of all the end of year rundowns so am super-familiar way beyond the top 10. Take it as read that the 1970s are green too because everyone knew all the top records back then.
My first (yellow) blip comes in 2001, because it turns out "Because I Got High" by Afroman wasn't played much on the radio. But it's 2002 where things start going properly wrong. That year has five songs I know, three I only knew when I found them on YouTube and played them (oh yeah, obviously) but also two musical brick walls (by Nelly and Eminem) which appear as red crosses. Music was starting to go edgy, urban and American in 2002, a strand I'd increasingly ignore.
The rest of the 2000s stay mostly green, confirming I was still mostly in touch with the zeitgeist, aided and abetted by a lot of X Factor songs in the annual top 10s. My real downhill moment begins in 2010, an era of Rihanna, Usher and Katy Perry, where the name of the song is no longer enough to trigger a memory of what it sounds like.
The only song from 2013 I could sing without prompting was Get Lucky by Daft Punk, so there's only one green tick. 2016 is such a disaster that I didn't even recognise the top-selling song when I'd heard it (One Dance by Drake ft Wizkid & Kyla), indeed I'm not hot on many of these one-off artist collaborations. 2017 and 2018 would be even more disastrous were it not for the ubiquitous Ed Sheeran, and the only green ticks in 2019 and 2020 are the same Lewis Capaldi song.
It may be more appropriate to think of this in terms of ages. Up to 35, everything. Between 35 and 45, most of it. Over 45, very little.
1 "In the Summertime" – Mungo Jerry
2 "The Wonder of You" – Elvis Presley
3 "Band of Gold" – Freda Payne
1 "Can We Fix It?" Bob the Builder
2 "Pure Shores" All Saints
3 "It Feels So Good" Sonique
1 "Don't Stand So Close to Me" The Police
2 "Woman in Love" Barbra Streisand
3 "Feels Like I'm in Love" Kelly Marie
1 "Love the Way You Lie" Eminem ft Rihanna
2 "When We Collide" Matt Cardle
3 "Just the Way You Are" Bruno Mars
1 "Unchained Melody" The Righteous Brothers
2 "Nothing Compares 2 U" Sinéad O'Connor
3 "Sacrifice"/"Healing Hands" Elton John
1 "Blinding Lights" The Weeknd
2 "Dance Monkey" Tones and I
3 "Roses" Saint Jhn
Three things have changed to bring about this relentless decline in my musical engagement. Firstly pop music has edged out of the national spotlight because it now has so much competition. Back in the 1970s even your granny would know YMCA and the hits from Grease, whereas today only a tiny number of songs (e.g. The Greatest Showman) have cross-generational appeal. Secondly music has splintered into multiple genres it's possible to love without ever venturing into anything 'popular'. I listen to lots of great new stuff on Radio 6Music these days but it'll never trouble the charts. And thirdly the charts themselves have changed, reflecting streaming rather than sales in a world where the entire back catalogue is effectively free. Buying a single would once have contributed one sale, now every play of a salacious video racks up another point.
I look at the charts these days and it's an alien world, not because my musical tastes have changed but because the mainstream is now somewhere else. These days it's all about singers and producers, not instruments and groups. Tunes have become melodically unadventurous, if indeed there's a tune at all. Everything now sounds depressingly formulaic and thereby dull. I have to turn Radio 1 off these days because I don't know how they can call that music. Listen to me, I've turned into my parents. It happens to us all.