Pete Beat is an old. Pete Beat published an IRL electro punk zine called backklash from 2001-2011. Pete Beat is a failed Twitter comic, a recovering Real Housewives troll, election of 2016 survivor and Ersa’s new pop columnist.
I am an old, a geezer-aged music fan. I come in peace, but I come to bitch. I feel a need to engage my fellow olds in some polite discourse about popular music. Olds talking pop to other olds, if you will–and maybe with some mils (millennials) and Assorted Other Youths as well. Good faith pop dialogue just feels like such a dying sport. Music culture has always skewed toward the youths, of course. But it seems that somewhere along the way, the obsessive pop stans on Twitter became the tastemakers. And I can’t go for that, because these stans just have really shitty taste and their blindly devotional arguments are convoluted at best.
Now don’t get it twisted, I listen to all of the new shit. And I absolutely love it! I know my Lil Pumps from my Lil Peeps, my trap from my trop house, my Rexhars from my Ritabots (fooled you: neither of those is a real thing!). Do I stan LOONA? Of course, I do. I would be nuts not to! Staying informed is really not that hard. It is rather refreshing to live in an era where you can find so much cool shit without even trying that hard at all.
You see children, I am so old, that I’m from an era where you actually had to be cool and know cool people and cool places to find cool music. It was exhausting and involved going places that smelled funny and talking to people (sometimes strangers) and you had to be very committed to the whole project of being a scenester (which was like a far more dignified version of hipster circa the late 20th century). Finding new and interesting and cool music in 2018 is so ridiculously fun and easy. You kids have no idea what it was like back then. NO IDEA! You had to go through hell just find a good bop, which back then we called a “jam.”
So I am not one of these people who think music was so much better “way back when.” I think that generally, all music of all kinds has always been pretty cool and I am glad we still have it and it’s easier than ever to access, especially in this current nightmare dumpster Fyre festival dystopia we call everyday li(f)e.
But there is something about The Pop Charts that really pisses me off. tbh, they always kinda have. The music charts are the commercial metric of the music business, a literal pop stock ticker that is always in flux. The Pop Charts can make dreams come true for some while killing the career of another on the very same day. And while The Pop Charts have always seemed to matter to everyone so much, they meant almost nothing to me for a very long time because, for the first few decades of my life, most of the chart-topping musical acts were pretty fucking dull.
The Billboard charts and the radio countdowns are sort of the fading gold standard in the USA, but I have always more obsessed over the UK charts anyway. British audiences have traditionally been so much more fanatical and devoted to pop music. Beatlemania basically never ended in England, they have been chasing that high for decades and have occasionally found ways to replicate it. Therefore, you always had a wider array of interesting artists making the British charts, at least compared to the relatively stagnant US charts. Not to mention that electronic dance music has topped UK charts in various forms since the early 80s, whereas that literally wasn’t happening regularly in this country until this decade. I had always hoped that one day, the charts in the USA could be just as dynamic and hip as the chart toppers in the UK.
In my early teenage days as a supreme music geek, I was also quite intrigued by the idea that Top Of the Pops was this major national show on the BBC. I longed for something similar here in the States. And I do take credit for manifesting MTV’s TRL onto this earthly plane at the dawn of the New Pop Era in the late 90s, all thanks to a black magic spell I found in an obscure supermarket tabloid one summer on a road trip through New Mexico. You are so welcome!
Although Total Request Live was just a glorious blip of an era–and wasn’t considered particularly hip at the time–I would argue that TRL was sort of ground zero for the hypermediated super pop chart stats-obsessed mega-arena in which our beloved popstars dwell today. TRL was the “hit parade” of the 1950s transformed into a fully blown national shit show. And it really presaged the shallow stan twitter obsession with chart positions as well as the personalized, socially engaged culture that has sprung up around pop stars in the social media age.
Then there was this rather magical era where the iTunes charts were EVERYTHING, a time from 2005-2011 that was like Peak Pop, at least in terms of complete cultural penetration. The blockbuster era of Beyonce and Rihanna and Gaga and Katy and Coldplay and Kanye and Timbaland and so many other mega superstars really feels like it was the last days of the Old Charts, the gradual winding down of the old business model which had guided the music industry for half a century.
In those waning days it took a lot of talent and image and cultivation and also a whole lotta payola and media and blitz to really storm the charts. The iTunes era was the last period when it felt we had several huge hits that were actually HUGE at any given moment. Nowadays, it feels like we get maybe 2 or 3 songs of significant, universally accepted major bops each YEAR. And often the most culturally potent songs that aren’t “Despacito” emerge from TV ads (I’m looking at you, Zedd’s “The Middle”). In the streaming era, there is a significant increase in content, but often a decrease in individual engagement with any given song or artist. The hit parade has transformed into a stampede.
Streaming has revolutionized the charts. Clicks are the new spins in terms of calculating a song’s marketing appeal. I am not one of these olds who complains about streaming. I get why artists and labels hate it financially, but as a music fan, it is exhilarating. I have lived through like seven hundred changes in the way music is consumed. Tapes, records, CDs, Napster, iTunes, streaming and also a few special top secret formats you’ve never even heard of that I got to use before I was kicked out of the Illuminati. It’s a long story, I’ll bore you with it another time. But remind me to tell you about the electric blue crystal gumdrop earbuds Prince gave me when I bumped into him in 2008 at a 9/11 truther meeting for ex-Illuminati! You could activate them to play any song you wanted with your mind and it allowed you to literally hear music in color, it was simply amazing. I lost them while being chased through a thick forest by feral boars outside a castle in Prague last Walpurgisnacht. Again please remind me to bring this up some other time.
Anywho, streaming is super convenient and has unlocked so many musical worlds that were not as accessible for so long. Artists and albums and styles you had heard of for years but didn’t have the time or money to research and consume are now available at your fingertips and that is truly a blessing.
Yet in this current streaming era, sometimes it seems like the perceived Importance of The Pop Charts has been reinforced to a ridiculous degree. This is particularly true within stan culture, with so much of it populated by gleeful trolls who love to weaponize data, i.e. the pop charts, as a tool in their endless quest to pit women against each other in their pointless meme wars. “Flop” is a typical slur used against a release which, despite critical or artistic or personal merit, is perceived as commercially unsuccessful and therefore irrelevant. But even amongst the genuine die-hard fans, you have kids saving up to download multiple copies of the same album or to play singles on a loop for hours on multiple devices (Really!), all in a vain quest to boost their hero to the coveted spot of #1.
I am here to call bullshit on all of that and here is why. BECAUSE THE CHARTS ARE RIGGED. Sorry to sound like I’m nuts, but I’m nuts and I’m here to tell you the charts have always been rigged, and now they are just rigged in a whole different way. Opaque algorithms and digital marketing shenanigans are driving a majority of streaming hits. And when you take into account that streams are as important to chart position as physical/digital sales—and combine that with recent revelations that Tidal has been falsifying streaming numbers–it is not hard to imagine the rife potential for gaming the system is widespread.
I’m not saying that genuinely positive response from audiences doesn’t help to drive songs to the top–that type of fervent fan activity may have more power than ever before–but those songs are still battling a steep uphill slope against the sly tradecraft of the industry gatekeepers of The Pop Charts.
As of this rant, literally, 38% of the Spotify US Top 50 is made up of the entirety of the brand new Post Malone album. And that just really pisses me off. EVERY SINGLE TRACK from his new album is “charting.” Now, I am not here to shit on Post Malone, regardless of how much he would probably enjoy that. I mean, really: I eat ass, drink pink Moscato, smoke Newports (once a year on the anniversary of the night my prom date died, but still) and I watch Bravo–who am I to judge someone for listening to Post Malone?
I admit I will listen to a Post Malone track myself am feeling particularly musty or unwashed from time to time, it’s no big deal. A lot of the songs are major bummers, but “Candy Paint” is kind of a bop. But I am not trying to argue about Post Malone’s value or authenticity as an artist or whether he belongs on the charts. There are plenty of other pieces on that. I am here to say with absolute authority that EVERY SINGLE TRACK from his new album does not belong on any kind of chart.
The Pop Charts nowadays often work against the fact that there are so many talented and diverse artists emerging all over the place. This is because the algorithms which drive them. Not to get all “Back in my Day” on you like the geezer that I am, but back in my day, we had an ALBUMS chart for a reason. So that popular albums were in one category, and all of their damn non-promotional singles weren’t cluttering up The Pop Charts.
When one or two hot new albums in their entirety are dominating the “Top 50,” it’s kinda shitty for every consumer looking for new music and for every artist trying to break through. And it is REALLY shitty for an old like me who is trying to crib as many cool new artists the Youths are talking about from the Top 50 as possible, but I can’t do it properly because literally every other song is a fucking Post Malone deep cut just taking up goddamn space!
There are SO many artists out there to discover these days, and yet so few places on the charts for them to occupy. Granted, great songs are measured on more than just chart position. But at the same time, it seems like such a shame that in age where such a large quantity of music is perhaps more accessible to listeners than any point in history, it is a shame to see precious few songs breaking through to wider audiences when in theory, digital streaming seemed poised to be a great equalizing force only a few years ago.