Thursday, 6 December 2012

Top of the Pops, BBC Four and the hierarchy of art forms

Going back through my offairs from BBC Four's early years - when it unashamedly celebrated many of those (Robert Wyatt, John Martyn, Vivian Stanshall, Ivor Cutler, Mark E. Smith, Penman/Morley-era NME) who most joyously and defiantly refuted the semi-feudal structure of popular art and society in England - and comparing them with its current hierarchical separation of documentary classicism and a certain kind of Friday night pop (Paul fucking Carrack) and Top of the Pops reruns is a painful experience which, in many ways, says much about the change from NuLab to ConDem.  Whatever other horrible things happened during those years - and there were many, of course; God save us from any kind of sentimentalism of that long period of missed opportunities and money that didn't exist - there was a definite sense that the hierarchy of art forms, the idea that pop must Know Its Place, had been comparatively broken down, or at least that those who would enforce it as an absolute, unswerving, unchangeable rule were marginalised, licking their wounds on the fringes (that joke about selling the Telegraph as if it were the Socialist Worker was real, once).

Now the divisions and rules about what each art form can do and what it cannot are being as viciously reinforced as they can be in our present society - which is more viciously than some of us would have imagined, then - and the BBC is powerless because those doing the reinforcing hold the key to its very existence.  The Top of the Pops reruns were, from the start, an attempt to render a suspicious product of the Labour years acceptable to those reignited gatekeepers casting their noses over it, to say "look, BBC Four's alright, really, it may once have thrown the barriers down, but now it's put them back up again and this forgettable fluff is all it thinks pop ever was, or ever can be".  Contrary to popular myth, most of pop's greatest enemies always rather liked Top of the Pops - because pop's greatest enemies aren't, and never have been, the Thomas Winnings or Peter Hitchenses or John Tyndalls of this world, they are the patters on the back, the extreme centrists, those who love it as long as it is content to play a minor, unobtrusive role.  They are The Sunday Times in 1996, praising Status Quo for their changelessness and as a front for demonising the young generally and the global unity of the proletariat in particular.  They are Chris Dunkley, nudge-winking at Channel 4 daring to make The Hip Hop Years in 1999 and doing far more to back up the BNP than crude send 'em-backery ever could.

Top of the Pops was perfect for them, because most of the time it reassured them that, in direct contradiction of all the other evidence screaming in their faces, the working class generally (then identified with pop in almost everyone's minds in a way we cannot now imagine) were perfectly happy to play along with a ruling-class agenda.  Top of the Pops' very existence was always conditional on most, if not all, of the music in it knowing its place in the Reithian hierarchy of art forms, never challenging the feudal role pop had been ordained.  Its constant appearance where Wyatt and Stanshall and Smith once got the serious celebration they had so long deserved is a sign, of a piece with DJ Q or Young Lion's "not on our money" dismissals, of the re-establishment of that hierarchy, that structure, that certainty.  Those who regard it as BBC Four's highest priority should be aware that they are, in fact, being used by those who hate pop music and all it has ever done and all it is still doing.  This is why the dark shadow that now hangs over it, with editions presented by two of its most familiar faces considered unshowable and a vaguely sleazy, nasty-tasting feel to much of the rest of it, is entirely appropriate.  The Cameronite biter bit, and it's all Top of the Pops really deserves in the end.

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