OK Computer at 20

<i>OK Computer</i> at 20

‘We hope that you choke.’ On the reverse side of my CD of OK Computer, just below the track listing, you can find these words in small, red type. It summarises the album pretty well. 20 years old this week, Radiohead’s third album is now celebrated by critics as one of the greatest in the history of rock – and it’s worth revisiting why.

Over the course of 53 minutes, OK Computer paints a picture of complete and total alienation – from society, from relationships, from life itself. Yorke’s singing style – often indistinct and mumbling – is dramatically different from Radiohead’s previous effort The Bends, creating a sense that the lead singer himself is being excluded from the album’s texture.

And the album’s texture is often oppressively thick. Although OK Computer was nominally self-produced by Radiohead, this owes a huge debt to recording engineer Nigel Godrich, now one of the world’s most sought-after music producers. Numerous echoes and other effects are layered on top of one another to create a musical soup that at times feels almost impenetrable.

My favourite track has always been ‘Let Down’. The song begins immediately after what it is arguably the most crushing point of the album. The hopes and dreams of the lovers depicted in ‘Exit Music’ have been destroyed in catastrophic fashion, and Yorke closes the track by singing purely, almost psychopathically, those words on the reverse of the album sleeve. Over and over again. ‘We hope that you choke’.

‘Let Down’ begins utterly simply, with a single guitar line: a repeating line that is almost like a lullaby. But more and more lines are progressively added – each line in a different time signature, so that until the drums enter at 00:13 it is almost impossible to feel any kind of a beat. The complexity and intricacy of the arrangement is overwhelming; it is all too easy to become lost in a sea of swirling counterpoint. Yorke, meanwhile, progressively layers more and more vocal harmonies onto the track with each verse, increasing the thickness of the texture but also the vocal pitch at which he is singing. By the time the track reaches four minutes in, the emotional anguish of Yorke has reached breaking point: but here, unlike in ‘Exit Music’, it feels cathartic rather than nihilistic.

Conventional wisdom holds that ‘Fitter Happier’ – perhaps the strangest track on the album, with lyrics read by a synthesised voice from the Macintosh SimpleText application – divides the album in two. I’ve always felt as though OK Computer could equally be heard as existing in a tripartite division: three parts that each carry the listener in a journey from a state of neutrality to an emotional abyss. The abyss is reached three times: at the ends of ‘Exit Music’, ‘Climbing Up The Walls’, and ‘Lucky’.

‘The Tourist’, a gem of simplicity, acts as the perfect album closer. Working at a tempo far less than any other track on the album, it acts as a semi-ironic comment on all the content so far – testament to Radiohead’s underappreciated sense of humour. ‘Slow down,’ Yorke entreats himself. ‘Idiot, slow down.’

Originally published by Cherwell on 26/05/17 (not online).

High Life

<i>High Life</i>

Originally published on The Poor Print on 05/05/17 as part of a series of music articles released on a daily basis to celebrate Oriel Arts Week 2017


For a man who has a lot to say, Brian Eno doesn’t always say that much. High Life, his 2014 collaborative album with Karl Hyde, is relatively verbose; Eno is nowadays best known for his pioneering albums of ambient music, beginning in the 1970s. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find any of the lyrics to High Life online.

Perhaps the lyrics don’t really matter that much. Eno’s distinctive singing style is vitally important to the album’s aesthetic, almost completely without vibrato, creating a drone-like quality. The singer becomes merely another instrument among many; the sustained melodic lines and mumbled articulation seamlessly blend Eno’s voice into the texture.

The influence of Eno’s experience in ambient music is evident throughout. None of the ‘songs’ utilise structures that can be likened to those of a standard pop song, instead using additive processes that create a static temporal state. ‘Return’ may employ full sentences in the lyrics, but harmonically the song simply oscillates between two chords as the texture continually thickens over a period of nine minutes. ‘Time to Waste It’ is simply built on a one-bar groove, and the lyrics are entirely meaningless (as far as I can tell) – a collage of phrases thrown together by intuition. The method is a speciality of Eno’s.

Yet it would be wrong to say that Eno were at the centre of High Life. ‘Cells and Bells’, the perfect closer, is serene enough to have easily come from an Eno solo album and, despite their incessant pulses, neither ‘Return’ nor ‘Lilac’ is exactly a dance track. But High Life as a whole is far more varied – ‘Time to Waste It’, with its heavily processed Soul samples, feels like a ‘70s groove that’s been cut into tiny pieces and reassembled by a 21st-century robot with no clue what to do. ‘DBF’, meanwhile, is furiously aggressive: a frenetic instrumental track that melds West African influences with 21st-Century electronic music. (The album’s name is almost certainly derived from ‘Highlife’, the name given to a genre of jazz-inflected West African pop music that emerged in the 20th Century.) Karl Hyde’s guitar signature guitar technique is the glue holding the album together, providing a driving rhythmic force and blending the texture throughout.

The standout track of the album is ‘Lilac’. The texture begins simply – just Karl Hyde’s guitar and electronic percussion – but grows; the soup thickens with each iteration as new lines are added to the mix. Especially noticeable are Eno’s vocal harmonies, which are slowly layered onto the track as it progresses. Absent over the central instrumental section (beginning at 4:35), their return at 8:50 feels colossal: a sea of Brian Enos bearing down upon you.

‘Lilac’ is mostly supported by an oscillation of G major and D major chords. The effect is to lull the listener into expecting nothing more, creating an extraordinary lift in mood when a stray C major chord is struck – the simple made radical. Nine and a half minutes are carried by only two lines of text, an aphorism blissfully repeated over and over ad infinitum. ‘The door between us is lilac. Made of something like light. But not.’

Fantastic Trumps and Where to Find Them: on Fantasy Tropes and Political Narrative

Fantastic Trumps and Where to Find Them: on Fantasy Tropes and Political Narrative

The exhibition currently showing at the Christ Church Picture Gallery, Fabulous Beasts and Beautiful Creatures, documents the human fascination with the animal kingdom. Combining depictions of real-world creatures with those of myth and dream, the collection stands in marked contrast with much of the rest of the pictures on display at Christ Church. A horse, reduced to barely a few lines on paper, feels as though it moves before your eyes; a sketch of a lion hunt overwhelms in a cacophony of colliding bodies and spears. The beasts on display are alive: many are depicted in scenes of epic battle where confusion of lines prevails but the spirit is captured. The immediacy and mess of these pieces (primarily pen, pencil or chalk on paper) could not be further apart in some respects to the stylised intricacy of the canvas paintings on display elsewhere in the gallery.

A special in-focus display case gives information on the seminal British animal artist Francis Barlow. Subtly exaggerating the key aspects of the animals portrayed, his work lies on the border between naturalism and caricature. A trio of treetop squirrels is lovingly sketched as they call to each other, with special attention (naturally) given to their tufty ears and bushy tails. As with the rest of the exhibition, the emphasis is on the movement and vivacity of the natural world – the innate beauty and strangeness of the creatures around us.

The timing of the exhibition, naturally, comes as no coincidence. It doesn’t take a sleuth to suppose that the topic of the display (running from 18 February to 29 May 2017) was chosen to coincide with the latest film from J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In many ways, the collection of pieces has most in common with the original 2001 book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the inspiration for the development of the recent film. Taking its name from a textbook mentioned in passing in the original Harry Potter book series, Rowling’s spin-off tome took the form of a catalogue of information and drawings of faux-fauna from the realm of Harry Potter – detailing both those mentioned in the series (such as Hippogriffs, Flobberworms and Kappas), and also newer inventions such as Chizpurfles and Lethifolds.

The newer film finessed the original material by adding a backstory (including a mandatory love-interest) to the writing of the book by the renowned magizoologist Newt Scamander. Yet the emphasis on the wonder and quirkiness of Rowling’s world was retained – a welcome relief from Harry Potter films that all-too-often seemed to sand down the magic and charm of the books into something ultimately far too boring and serious. (Where is Peeves, the parodying poltergeist? Why do we never get to see the Weasleys battling with their garden gnomes? What happened to SPEW, Hermione’s Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare?)

Rowling’s creatures in the film are often wonderful works of the imagination in their own right, and frequently feature her trademark intertextuality. The Thunderbird, a huge North American relative of the phoenix that generates maelstroms merely through flapping its wings, has its originsin the folklores of North American indigenous peoples such as the Algonquians, the Menominee and the Ojibwe. Meanwhile, the Occamy, a winged serpent that has the ability to grow or shrink to fit the available space, has clear roots in the dragons of East Asia that can shrink to the size of a silkworm. In a Chinese legend about the Zen Buddhist sage Huineng, a fierce and destructive dragon is tricked into shrinking small enough to fit into his rice bowl[1]  – a scene that has an uncanny echo in Rowling’s film.

An extraordinary world, populated by creatures that stretch the bounds of reasonable belief, is fundamental to the definition of fantasy – a nearly facile observation when you consider that ‘fantasy’ shares its etymology with ‘fantastic’. Key to the definition of the genre is an inherent escapism – in the best fantasy works, the plot itself is often incidental; the author draws you in through the sheer intricacy and originality of their imagined world. (By the by, in my opinion this is probably why fantasy and science fiction are often undervalued by traditional literary critics.)

Yet, walking out of my first viewing of Fantastic Beasts, the creature that struck me most was neither the Thunderbird nor the Occamy, but the amorphous Obscurus. The writhing clouds of dark smoke, that Newt describes as an ‘unstable, uncontrollable dark force’, represent the latest manifestation of another key fantasy trope: the inherent, unexplainable evil.

The classic example here is Tolkien. Sauron is evil, because… well, because. In such an extraordinarily long and detailed saga, you’d think there would be some time to probe this a little. But that would be missing the point. The beauty of the fantastic escapism is a fundamental simplicity to the conflict at hand. There’s no need to probe such pressing questions as whether orcs have rights (or quite why the tyranny of the kings of Gondor is better than the tyranny of Sauron) simply because the story is better without fussing over all that. The conceit of the inherent evil is so successful because, well, shades of grey make our heads hurt – it’s a conceit that the reader is fully willing to engage with.

The Obscurus – shapeless and unreadable – is a particularly elegant employment of this trope. The trope works best when the Inherent Evil has as few human attributes as possible: whereas humans have motivations, reasons and purposes, the Inherent Evil by contrast is unexplainable, unreasonable and purposeless. It is the Unknown, the Other. The Evil that has no meaning behind it, and sins for sin’s own sake.

Hence the prevalence of masked and mutilated villains. Star Wars’s Darth Vader is effectively faceless; his ‘humanity’ is only restored to him after he finally returns to the good side of the force at the end of Return of the Jedi. At this point, his life-support unit is symbolically removed, revealing a human face beneath. G. R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire is a series that seems to specialise in shades of grey and set out to pour scorn on this trope. Yet even Martin cannot avoid the allure of the unknown horror: his White Walkers (who are at times even referred to as ‘Others’) are described as having ‘flesh pale as milk’; ‘faceless, silent’, they have eyes that are ‘blue, deeper and bluer than any human eyes, a blue that burned like ice’[2] .

The Inherent Evil frequently works through human counterparts: unseen and working from afar, yet manipulating the whole of Middle Earth through his servant Saruman, Sauron is far more terrifying. Sometimes the dynamic is inverted. Voldemort, Rowling’s villain in her original series, was never entirely successful simply because he was ultimately far too human. The Dementors, however, who eventually become his servants, are truly terrifying: faceless, voiceless and cloaked, they feed on fear; in a similar way, Fantastic Beasts has both a motiveless Inherent Evil (the Obscurus) and a human antagonist with a purpose (Graves/Grindelwald). In Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, the villain is ostensibly the robber Capricorn. Far more frightening, however, is his slave The Shadow:


Sometimes he was red as fire, sometimes as grey as the ashes into which fire turns all that it devours. He leaped from the ground like flame flickering up from wood. His touch and even his breath brought death. He rose up at his master’s feet, soundless and faceless, scenting the air like a dog on the trail, waiting to be shown his victim[3].

And yet – I wonder if problems don’t arise when these tropes are applied to real life.

Fantastic Beasts – with its frequent allusions to Grindelwald’s dreams of ethnic cleansing, and with the populist political propaganda that is in the background throughout – carries clear reference to the fascist movements of the 1930s (the period in which it is set). And the Second World War is frequently depicted in just the same way as a fantasy conflict plays out: a clear-cut battle between Good and Evil. The below poster – an anti-Japanese US poster – is representative of the way the fantasy narrative of an inhuman, intrinsic evil was employed in propaganda at the time. Even now, the Second World War is often remembered as the last ‘simple’ conflict – when you knew who was in the right and who was in the wrong. I’m not questioning the horror of the Nazi atrocities or trying to be an apologist for the Axis regimes in any way – but it’s worth remembering that most soldiers in the War were, at the end of the day, just fighting for their country, and atrocities were committed on both sides[4] .

It’s hard to talk about the 1930s nowadays without discussing the current political climate, and to an extent this tendency is fair enough. The parallels between the two periods are clear: far-right parties are on the rise across Europe; the US have recently voted in a nativist, isolationist president; and supranational unions such as the EU seem increasingly fragile. Fantastic Beasts, whether it was intended or not, can’t help but seem as though it is making reference to current regimes in Hungary, Poland, and the US.

To look at a lot of political rhetoric at the moment, the fantasy narrative of Good vs. Evil also seems as though it is being employed in just the same way as it was in the 1930s.  Trump has become an image of Evil Incarnate for many, with Democratic activists – despite their political impotence in Congress and state legislatures – determined to obstruct and resist at every turn. A Poor Print article in November spoke of the need to ‘fight against the darkness and coldness that people like Trump and Pence bring’. To an extent, I agree.

Yet the issue is that the great works of high fantasy usually climax with an epic battle, such as the culminating scene in The Lord of the Rings; or the great battle against the forces of the White Witch at the close of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

This is where the metaphor can no longer be applied to reality. Bernie Sanders, the hero of so many left-wing students, is no Aslan. Neither he nor any other Democratic politician is ever going to lead a cavalry charge against the Trumpists of the US.

As politics grows ever-more divisive, liberals (and I use the term in the loosest sense of the word) increasingly appear to be fighting arguments on the basis that to disagree with the liberal point of view is already a moral sin. Too many liberals no longer appear to  try to persuade those of differing opinions. Political campaigns are focusing more and more on increasing voter turnout by railing against the Other Side rather than attempting to convince naysayers; more and more activists appear to be complaining that they’re ‘tired of making the same arguments time and time again’. The implication is that when those who disagree are just wrong… why should we have to engage?

That’s no way to win this war. Political battles are won in a different manner to those of folklore and fable. Far from annihilating a horde of alt-righters, instead the end goal must be to change the minds of the horde. To rewrite the Tolkien narrative, the orcs of Mordor have to be persuaded to vote for Aragorn (…or whatever 2020 Democratic challenger comes closest). Shouting at Trumpists will only get us so far. Calling those of differing opinions a ‘basket of deplorables’ will never persuade them to your way of seeing things. The righteous indignation of a political minority is utterly useless.

It’s easier said than done. Changing minds is hard – Confirmation Bias is strong, meaning people will always more easily agree with something that chimes with existing beliefs than with something that fundamentally change their outlook. Social science research shows that reasoned argument generally has no effect on people’s outlook when it comes to polarised issues – and indeed, it often causes a ‘backfire’ effect that causes people to dig in deeper into their preconceptions.

But people’s opinions can, and do, change – even on polarised issues. The steady increase in support for same-sex marriage in the US – from 31% in 2004 to 55% in 2015-16 – is testament to that. The rapid change in attitudes on this issue – both in the US and across much of the West – is incredible.

The roots of the liberal success on the same-sex marriage argument are complex, but nonetheless contain lessons for political campaigns on other issues. Key to the increase in support was a steadily increasing number of people coming out as LGBTQ to their family and friends – causing the issue to become normalised; causing people to learn more about the issue; and creating a multiplier effect by encouraging others also to come out. In a similar way, some advocacy groups have reported that open, non-confrontational discussions with people on doorsteps have far more persuasive potential than conversations where activists actively try to change views. The idea is that these generate less hostility and may be more successful in normalising arguments. (Thorough research on this is currently inconclusive.)

Many will find the takeaway here slightly depressing. Though I’m not endorsing fake news, facts are somewhat useless when it comes to changing minds on divisive issues, since our moral reasoning[5] is rarely based on evidence in these situations. Rather, it is more usually dependent on the opinions we perceive to be acceptable among our personal social group. The crucial year in the same-sex marriage debate in the US was in 2009, when for the first time support for same-sex marriage started rising among Republicans at the same rate as among Democrats.

The real mystery, however, is why so many mainstream political candidates still struggle to grasp this. Remainers can cry foul at the conduct of the Brexit referendum all they like, but the truth is that the argument had been lost long before the referendum campaign even started. Whereas tabloid newspapers and UKIP had unfailingly screamed at Europe for decades, pro-Europe politicians had been notably timid. No debunking of false facts on Brexiteer buses was ever going to make up for the years of silence, or the failure to create a convincing Europhilic emotional narrative. The fantasy narratives have one thing right – much as G. R. R. Martin’s ‘Battle for the Dawn’ is repeated every few millennia, the battle of ideas is never truly won. Political success is rarely permanent; liberal arguments must be repeated again, and again, and again.

So rather than shouting at the alt-right and bemoaning the end of the world, the lessons for liberals are clear. Don’t give up the argument. Don’t be disheartened where you fail to persuade – we have to be in this for the long run. However much you hate their opinions, try to restrain your gag reflex when dealing with those with whom you disagree. And an emotional narrative is crucial. Facts are important – but don’t rely on them to make your case.


Fabulous Beasts and Beautiful Creatures’ is showing at the Christ Church Picture Gallery until 29 May, 2017, and free of charge to students at Oxford.

‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is no longer showing in cinemas, but can be bought on DVD from Amazon for £10.

The Trump presidency has a forecast expiration date of 20 January, 2021.


Footnotes

[1] American Museum of Natural History (2016), Mythic Creatures and the Impossibly Real Animals Who Inspired Them. Sterling Signature, New York. Adapted from an exhibition curated by Laruel Kendall & Mark A. Norell, with Richard Ellis and the American Museum of Natural History Department. See an abbreviated version of the book’s contents online here.
[2] G. R. R. Martin (1996), A Game of Thrones (prologue). Great Britain: Voyager.
[3] Cornelia Funke (2003), Inkheart (Chapter 40), trans. Anthea Bell (original title: Tintenhertz). Chicken House publishers.
[4] Incidentally, Tolkien always denied that The Lord of the Rings was intended as a metaphor for the War, arguing that ‘if it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied’. [J. R. R. Tolkien (1954), The Lord of the Rings (Introduction). George Allen & Unwin publishers.] As a Professor of Anglo-Saxon, it seems far more likely that his Dark Lord was inspired by monsters in ancient myths such as Beowulf, an epic which has innumerable echoes in The Lord of the Rings.
[5] Jonathan Haidt, 2012, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.


Originally published by The Poor Print on 28/04/17.

Putting Rhodes in His Place

Putting Rhodes in His Place

A report on Oriel College’s January 14 meeting on how to contextualise their statue of renowned imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

‘Buccaneer, loose cannon, privateer – see Walter Raleigh.’[1] So goes one account of Cecil Rhodes – but one perhaps uncomforting for Oriel College. Controversy around Rhodes’s achievements has simmered since his death (The Guardian’s 1902 obituary lambasted him as a ‘dragon efficient in tooth and claw’) – yet still there is little consensus on how to approach his legacy.

On Saturday, 14 January 2017, Oriel held a meeting on how to contextualise the College’s statue of Rhodes, around which debate has raged since May 2015. Teresa Morgan, Classics Professor at Oriel, opened the meeting by defining its parameters: the purpose was neither to discuss the presence of the statue or the King Edward Street plaque (both of which had been decided on), nor to attempt to come to a single ‘Oriel view’ of Rhodes. Rather, the aim was to explore ways of recognising the complexity of Rhodes’s legacy – adding nuance to a symbol that, for many, appears to indicate unqualified endorsement.

The meeting, therefore, was hardly a concession to RMFO’s demands. (RMFO has yet to respond to repeated attempts by The Poor Print to contact them.) All four guest speakers present could be classed as ‘pro-contextualisation’, and the event was exclusively for Oriel members. The resultant demographic of the room was uncomfortable: a nearly entirely white audience. Few members of the JCR chose to attend – perhaps oddly so, given the furious arguments that raged around RMFO in Open Meetings only a year prior.

Yet the discussion was nonetheless valuable. Oriel’s Dr Ian Forrest (Fellow in History) began by exploring Rhodes’s biography; his connection to Oriel; and the lack of awareness around Britain’s colonial legacy. Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, a cultural historian and broadcaster, spoke on the conflict between heritage and diversity: how can we celebrate the achievements of the past while at the same time looking at it critically?

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director of English Heritage, spoke intriguingly on two cases with parallels to Oriel: Richmond Castle, Yorkshire; and Marble Hill, Twickenham, an eighteenth-century villa. In both cases, the heritage process is riddled with controversy. Richmond Castle, dating from the Norman Conquest, has cells in which the walls are scrawled with pencil graffiti: relics of conscientious objectors imprisoned there during the First World War. A recently-built commemorative garden for the objectors proved controversial with locals due to Richmond’s military history. Meanwhile, Marble Hill has vital importance to archaeological history as one of the earliest structural uses of mahogany. Yet English Heritage faces the challenge of preserving this site of immense beauty, while at the same time allowing space for the narrative of the Belizean slaves who it is thought must have harvested the villa’s mahogany under appalling conditions.

The last speaker on the panel was Judy Ling Wong CBE, President of the Black Environment Network, who spoke on how to effect a change in narrative. Arguing that you must ‘bring a wholeness of yourself to truly bring about a multicultural society’, Wong reminded the room of the ‘enormous opportunity’ that the College has. As a world-renowned institution, Oriel has a responsibility to lead the way.

Views in the room varied wildly as to how best to contextualise the statue. Many maintained that Oriel – as an academic establishment – could not appear to be imposing a single view of Rhodes; some argued that any form of contextualisation was inappropriate, being more suited to heritage sites. Others swung as far in the other direction, arguing that, in order to achieve neutrality, any response by Oriel would have to be as large, solid and permanent as the statue. Some warned against ‘over-privileging’ the name of Rhodes in Oriel’s history, as ultimately counterproductive to any contextualisation.

In practical terms, an array of suggestions was proposed: a clarifying plaque (perhaps supplemented online); a series of lectures/exhibitions; or indeed an artistic installation to visually compete with the statue, either on the High Street or in Third Quad. All are being considered by Oriel’s Rhodes Working Group; the Governing Body will likely adopt some combination of the above.

The Poor Print’s view is that a supposedly neutral consideration of Rhodes (whether on a plaque or online) would be wholly insufficient. While it is true that Oriel has a responsibility to encourage nuanced discourse, the college can neither be pigeonholed as a centre of academia nor as a heritage site. It is also, for many, a community and a home, and so any response must adequately address the fact that the statue has become a symbol of violent oppression to some in Oriel. Oriel has a duty to support those who study here – and if it fails to be a welcoming environment, it may find that the diversity of applicants falls off a cliff. The contextualisation of the statue must be as antiseptic to a wound: antiseptic is never neutral.


References and further reading

[1] Quoted by Dr Ian Forrest during the meeting.

The Guardian‘s 1902 obituary of Cecil Rhodes.

English Heritage sites on:

Dr Laurence Brown, ‘The Slavery Connections of Marble Hill House‘, a 2008 report commissioned by Historic England.


Originally published on 28/04/17 by The Poor Print.

The Myth of Rhodes: a Poor Print Special Report

The Myth of Rhodes: a <i>Poor Print</i> Special Report

‘The Myth of Rhodes’ was a Poor Print special report on Cecil Rhodes, Rhodes Must Fall, and the statue at Oriel College. The report was conceived, commissioned and edited by Alex Waygood, who also wrote one of the articles and carried out a large amount of additional research and fact-checking. The report was originally published on Friday, 28 April 2017, as part of Issue #18 (themed around ‘Myth’), which was also designed in its entirety by Alex Waygood.

The report consisted of six features (one of which was only online), plus a Complete Bibliography, a list of suggested Further Reading and copies of Facebook posts cited in the report. The report can be read online in its entirety here; or alternatively, for links to the individual articles, see below:

A pdf of the entire print issue can be downloaded here.

Pop Is Dead – Long Live Pop

Pop Is Dead – Long Live Pop

All hail the Great and Glorious Ed Sheeran! The singer’s latest album, ÷ (pronounced Divide), is continuing to smash chart records across the board since its release on 03/03/17. In its first week of release, Sheeran claimed nine out of the top ten spots in the UK Charts simultaneously. (The previous record had been held by The Beatles, who in 1964 occupied four out of the top ten spots at the same time.) Even more incredibly, all 16 of ÷’s tracks entered the UK Top 20 on the album’s release – and Sheeran’s success has by no means been limited to the UK, as ÷ continues to break records in the US and Australia as well. Who would have guessed that the 21st Century’s King of Pop would turn out to be a scruffy, ginger-haired guy in a hoody? The album is now the third-highest-selling album of all time – only Adele’s 25 and Oasis’s Be Here Now sold more in their first seven days of release.

Sheeran should obviously be congratulated: his success is significant, and down to a winning combination of easy pop melodies; slick production; and (crucially) clever branding. His sweeping domination of the Charts is all the more impressive when you consider that the previous record-holders, The Beatles, dominated the Top 10 in 1964 because their previous singles were still selling as they released new ones. Sheeran, by contrast, dominates the Charts through songs that are all from the same album.

Yet Sheeran would be the first to admit that his record-breaking success is not all that it seems. Since 2014, the Charts have changed to include streaming in their figures – and the result has been a steadily increasing stasis and homogeneity in the top spots. While 2014 had 42 songs reach no. 1, 2015 had only 26, and 2016 only 11. The first six months of 2006 saw 230 new entries to the UK Top 100; the first six months of 2016 saw only 86. “I don’t know if there’s some weird thing that Spotify and Apple Music are going to have to change now, Sheeran told BBC Radio 1 in a recent interview. “I never expected to have nine songs in the Top 10 in my life. I don’t know if something’s gone wrong but I’m definitely very, very happy about it.”

Others are less happy. Justin Hawkins, frontman of rock band The Darkness, was blunt in an interview with News Corps Australia, saying: ‘That just means the system’s broken… Everyone knows Ed Sheeran is great and is selling loads of records, but imagine listening to the Top 40 rundown on the radio on a Sunday like you used to as a kid and you have to listen to the whole Ed Sheeran album. It’s totally ridiculous. The system is broken and they have to mend it’. The problem continues to intensify despite repeated adjustments to the formula used to calculate the Charts – whereas previously 100 streams had counted as a single ‘sale’ for the calculation of the UK Charts, the formula was upped to 150:1 in January 2017 (apparently to little effect). Australia, which has an even higher ratio of 175:1, has also seen records smashed and chart positions hoarded by the Unstoppable Ed.

So – what’s up with streaming? The Official Charts Company (OCC) was clearly right to start including streaming figures in their calculations in 2014. As physical and digital music sales both continue to decline, streaming is now the single source of hope for the music industry. Due to the rise of streaming, the industry has enjoyed two consecutive years of growth since 2015, arresting a long period of declining profits triggered by Napster’s demolition of the existing model in 1999 and the advent of online piracy. As Spotify, Apple Music and others continue to attract new users, the importance of streaming as a means of music consumption will only continue to grow.

The issue is that consumers stream music very differently to the way in which they buy (or in any case, used to buy) music. In the past, a Queen fan (for example) might have bought a single and listened to it several times in the few weeks after buying it. A hardcore fan might have listened to it many more times; but regardless, the two purchases were counted equally from the point of view of the OCC. With streaming, however, the picture changes. Your modern-day Ed Sheeran fanatic might have listened to ÷ non-stop for the past two weeks without making a single purchase, instead listening to his music through Spotify’s free service or through YouTube. Crucially, though, their continued listening means that Sheeran’s album is still making an impact on the Charts weeks after the album’s release, even if no more people are in fact listening to the album. The streaming of music is a far more trivial decision than the purchasing of music – since streaming costs so much less, and can cost nothing at all, a consumer need not be particularly enthusiastic to stream a track. Paradoxically, however, since the inclusion of streaming the Charts have only appeared to indicate new heights of enthusiasm among consumers, since artists remain at no. 1 for much longer than they used to.

In many ways, the new-look Music Charts actually reflect people’s listening habits far better than they used to. Drake’s One Dance spent 15 months at No. 1 in the 2016 Album Charts, despite only ‘outselling’ (physically and digitally) the competition for the first three weeks of that period. Far from being meaningless, that tells us that people were still listening to the album (for some reason) well after it was released.

But the shifting nature of the Charts presents multiple problems for new and up-and-coming artists. The first is that the inclusion of streaming figures in the Charts acts as a ‘multiplier effect’ to the prominence of superstars such as Sheeran in the Charts, meaning they occupy the top spots for weeks on end. The second is that the inclusion of album tracks as well as songs selected as ‘singles’ means that an extremely successful album such as ÷ leaves little space for new artists to enter the Charts. The issue is compounded by the way in which consumers often access music on Spotify and the like – those listening to Spotify’s ‘Top 50’ playlist will only cement the positions current Top 50 even more.

If new artists are crowded out from entering the Charts, they will find it even more difficult to make a name for themselves – and the new dynamics of the music industry have meant life is already much more difficult for new and unfamiliar acts. The advent of streaming has been wonderful for new artists in some ways, as their music can quickly spread to a large audience without that audience paying for it. Yet unless a small artist gets big quick à la Sheeran, the new model can make life very difficult for new performers: the pittance paid per stream adds up to a sizeable amount for artists with a large, secure audience and hefty back catalogue, yet provides insignificant revenue for acts still making a name for themselves. (The formula determining how much an artist is paid per individual stream is hugely complicated, meaning that it can vary wildly from artist to artist and from month to month – but for a ballpark figure, a January 2017 study by rights-awareness group The Trichordist reckoned on an average payment of $0.00437 per Spotify stream. Apple Music and other pay more, but make up far smaller proportions of the market.)

The new-look Charts contain other distortions, as well. Although Spotify have managed to gain access to most back catalogues by now, artists such as Taylor Swift and Radiohead still resist putting their music on streaming services. Taylor Swift has argued that ‘music is art, and art is important and rare,’ that ‘important, rare things are valuable’ and that ‘valuable things should be paid for’, thus concluding that music should never be free; Thom Yorke of Radiohead was characteristically blunter in his description of Spotify as ‘the last desperate fart of a dying corpse’. Yet while both artists may well have sincere objections to the ethics of the new model, the reality is that they also know that they can gain more revenue by withholding (at least initially) their music from streaming services. Both Taylor Swift and Radiohead have fan bases committed enough that fans will buy their music through more lucrative, more traditional channels if they cannot stream. Thus Taylor Swift is nowhere to be found on Spotify; Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and Adele’s 25 were both sales-only for a time; and of the streaming platforms, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is exclusively on Tidal. This makes financial sense – yet means that these artists end up underrepresented on the Charts, since the limited streaming of their music over the initial period after release means they cannot enjoy an equivalent to the ‘Sheeran surge’ of 2017.

The Charts, then, are seriously dysfunctional in their current form – and the problem cannot be fixed by simply continuing to adjust arbitrarily the formula by which streams are registered as ‘sales’. Various, more radical, solutions have been proposed – one is a cap on individual users, so that only the first ten streams of a song (for example) by any one user count towards that song’s chart placement. Another – favoured by Justin Hawkins – would be to say that each artist could only feature a certain number of songs from each album in the singles chart (but the disadvantage of this is that it would conceal the extent to which ‘album tracks’ are listened to). Spotify et al. can help, too, by finding ways to improve their financial model for smaller artists, and by actively working to improve the representation of new artists in their increasingly popular curated playlists. (The situation is complicated somewhat by the fact that Spotify, despite rising revenues, has its hands tied to an extent since it has yet to make a profit.)

Yet the fading relevance of the Charts predates streaming – the BBC’s Top of the Pops was cancelled in 2006, 42 years after its first showing yet well before Spotify became a major player in the music industry. The cultural importance of the Charts is not what it used to be; in the Internet Era, the Charts are no longer the primary way by which consumers access new music or keep up to date with new music trends. And albums themselves will continue to become scarcer in the future, as artists continue to focus more on live performances as a more effective money-earner in the digital era. It may be that alternative metrics such as ticket sales will become a more effective barometer of an artist’s success in the future.

Streaming may yet save the music industry, but in many ways the advent of streaming creates as many problems as it answers. The ways in which pop music is manufactured and delivered will be forced to change if pop is to survive. The stasis at the top of the Charts is merely symptomatic of the far bigger problem, and of the massive changes that are afoot in the industry. Pop is dead – long live pop.

Originally published on 30/03/17 by Cherwell.