My world would never be the same
I was nine when I first started obsessively paying attention to pop music. My family was living in England for a year (Twickenham, just outside London) while my dad, a history professor, took a sabbatical and tried to write a book that he never finished. I had an allowance for the first time, and there was a Woolworth around the corner that sold tapes and LPs and sometimes CD longboxes, so I finally had the luxury of buying a new tape every few weeks or so. But the main reason I got into music was Top of the Pops, a BBC TV show that ran down the top 40 singles in the country and hosted lip-syncing performances of a few of the songs. Some BBC radio DJ would MC, and the bands would come out and perform on a stage that looked like a low-budget Dr. Who spaceship, all flashing colored lights and metal catwalks everywhere and dry ice. I didn’t realize at the time that the bands were lip-syncing (or sometimes singing live over a prerecorded track); I remember being really impressed when the guy from the Fine Young Cannibals played piano with his foot on “Good Thing.” The show would always manage to land non-UK acts; I can remember seeing R.E.M. and De La Soul and Midnight Oil, though I guess none of them were really stars at the time. But I’d usually get the most amped about the UK acts that came on, specifically the hip-house that was pretty much dominating the charts that year; my favorite shit was always, like, the Beatmasters or D-Mob, stuff that never made it to these shores as far as I know. (I still have a few of those tapes; they’re fire.) And the show would present this stuff in this totally digestible format, reading out all the singles and then bringing the acts to the stage without putting them in any sort of context, so all you had to go on was the song and the performance. So it would become easy to follow the singles chart like it was basketball or something, keeping track of how Michael Jackson or Rick Astley or Poison was doing that week. It was fun. When we moved back to America, and I realized that there was no American equivalent on TV, I was pissed. I’ve only been back to the UK once since, on a two-week trip with my friend Nat in the summer of 1997. I watched the show once while we were over there, and the set didn’t look much different, but they’d started doing this thing where people who couldn’t make it in to perform would make a video and send it in. And so Puff Daddy and Mase sent in a video of themselves lip-syncing to “Mo Money Mo Problems” in shiny suits, just dancing while the Biggie verse played.
The BBC announced this week that it would be canceling Top of the Pops after forty-two years because the show’s ratings have been falling for a while now. It makes sense; what with the interweb and all, kids don’t really need a TV show to tell them what songs are popular. But it’s still a shock; the show is a British institution. Its first show was in 1964, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones both performed on that one. I’ve always loved the idea of the show: a weekly forum for pop stars to do their best to capture kids’ imaginations, to pull out whatever visual tricks they had and worm their way into the public’s collective head. In a way, the show had a democratizing influence; the UK has no equivalent of country, a genre that sells huge numbers of records despite a huge chunk of the public having no idea who its biggest stars are. The show never made genre distinctions, and so metal bands and Britpop bands and R&B singers and prefab teenpop groups would always share the stage with each other. Pretty often, bands would make a big point of protesting the shows lip-syncing policy by being really obvious about not playing their instruments; Oasis did that crap like ten times. But more often, groups would use the show to create iconographies for themselves, doing whatever it took to separate themselves from whatever random clump of chartpop stars they’d be sharing the stage with that week. And since the UK is a relatively small country, a lot of weird stuff would sneak its way through the gatekeepers and wind up on the country’s biggest stage, scrappy punk bands and new-wave genderfuckers and clumsy British house-rappers.
Reading the Wikipedia entry on the show today, I’m learning that there actually was an American version of the show for about a year in 1987, and the producers had been planning on launching another one next year, though it’s not entirely clear whether that’ll happen after the cancellation. I hope it does. We’ve got a ton of TV shows now devoted to exposing the mechanisms at work behind the music industry, the way people become stars and find audiences: American Idol and Supergroup and Making the Band and whatever else. What we don’t have is a show that gives us what that mechanism creates, a way to present the finished product to an audience that wants to see it and doesn’t need be insidery all the time. I mean, MTV doesn’t even show videos anymore.
In the meantime, YouTube has literally hundreds of archived TOTP performances, and it’s a lot of fun to dig through them even if you don’t have any memory of watching the show. A few I liked:
Beenie Man: “Dude”
Nirvana: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Air: “Cherry Blossom Girl”
Tatu: “How Soon is Now?”
Public Image Ltd.: “Death Disco”
Pulp: “Party Hard”
Iron Maiden: “Running Free”
Ace of Base: “The Sign”
Black Sabbath: “Never Say Die”
Jacksons: “Get Happy”
Yazoo: “Don’t Go”
Pogues: “Fairytale of New York”
The Cure: “Primary”
Julee Cruise: “Fallin'”
Bananarama: “Cruel Summer”
Sham 69: “Angels with Dirty Faces”