Pop & Populism

The UK singles chart has long been a barometer of popular desires. Today, it’s telling us that everything is up for grabs.

Jeremy Corbyn presenting Stormzy with the GQ Best Solo Artist award in 2017.

When Jeremy Corbyn presented Stormzy with the trophy for Best Solo Artist at 2017’s GQ Awards, it was a rare encounter between a popular musician and populist politics. The next morning, newspapers were full of misunderstandings of the epithet ‘paigon’, which the young grime MC used to describe Theresa May. Over the course of that summer Stormzy continued to berate the prime minister at the Brit Awards for her handling of the Grenfell tragedy. His name appeared on pro-Labour leaflets in his hometown of Croydon, and, when the crowd during his Glastonbury Festival set chanted ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’, he sang along with them, railing against the ‘fuckery’ of the Tory government.

Amid all the hype over #grime4corbyn, few paused to consider how strange it was that Stormzy had risen to such fame in the first place, how odd it was that so abrasive and unruly a record as his debut album, the independently-released Gang Signs and Prayer, had risen to the top of the charts. The recent publication of Dan Hancox’s book Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime offers an opportunity to trace grime’s unlikely return — and to find out what lessons it might offer to any prospective populist politics.

Until just a few years earlier, the consensus was that ‘grime is dead’ — the words used in 2007 by Rinse FM DJ Logan Sama. Its first wave of stars had abandoned the genre for radio-friendly electro-pop. By 2012, Dizzee Rascal, the wunderkind whose febrile breakout single ‘I Luv U’ had sounded like nothing on earth a decade earlier, was carrying the Olympic torch and collaborating with Robbie Williams. No longer was he ‘a problem for Anthony Blair’ — nor any other representative of the political establishment.

In the years since, grime has experienced a peculiar resurgence. Skepta’s ‘That’s Not Me’ — built with the same keyboard, the same sample presets, as some of the very earliest grime tracks — slipped into the charts at number 21. His album, Konnichiwa, then won the Mercury Music Prize and the label he set up with his brother, Boy Better Know, sold out London’s biggest venue. Stormzy, meanwhile, 19 years old and dropping out of an apprenticeship at an oil refinery when Dizzee Rascal opened the Olympics, was in the UK Top 10 by December 2015 with a freestyle recorded in his local park.

It’s exactly the sort of thing that isn’t supposed to happen. The mainstream is supposed to be a sanitised space, sewn up by mega-corporations and optimised to produce a stream of easily digestible, mutually-indistinguishable banalities. Yet these things seem to keep happening — tracks that sound like dispatches from another dimension, coming out of nowhere and crashing into the charts, like so many little bullet holes in the fabric of the matrix. Think of ‘Telstar’ by The Tornados, with its unprecedented use of electronic sounds, the beatless spoken word of Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’, the gleeful noise of ‘Charly’ by The Prodigy, ‘Incredible’ by M Beat feat. General Levy with its wild rhythmic delirium. All initially released on independent labels, all UK TOP 10 hits.

Tracks like these seem to not just disregard what was expected of pop in their time, but combine different elements excluded by the conventional musical discourse — in what Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau has called a ‘chain of equivalence’ — capable of bringing a new public into being. Before ‘Incredible’, jungle was effectively blacklisted by public and commercial radio in the UK — just as grime, a decade later, would be shut out of London’s clubs. M Beat coupled that sound with Levy’s near-incomprehensible rapid-fire toasting in heavy Jamaican patois to produce something like a direct assault on everything the BBC held dear. And whatever ‘pop’ meant before 1981’s ’O Superman’, it certainly didn’t mean extended answerphone messages that combine to produce a post-minimalist conceptual composition.

For nearly three quarters of a century, the UK singles chart provided a barometer of popular desires. Its annals have witnessed ideas once unthinkable become conventional and — occasionally — rare and momentous things destined to melt away again in an instant, but first change our perception of what is possible.

If there is something to learn from such glimmering blue diamonds, then it may be gleaned from what they have in common: rootedness in a scene both warmly cooperative and fiercely competitive (whether the New York Downtown art community of the late seventies or London’s early nineties network of jungle sound systems); access to an independent media infrastructure (from Joe Meek’s RGM Sound to pirate radio and Boy Better Know); a blend of the strange and the familiar, the futuristic and nostalgic (Massenet arias sung by vocoder, vintage public information films layered over smashed up breakbeats).

Perhaps, too, there is something in the timing. ‘Telstar’ landed in that brief interregnum after the death of rock’n’roll but before the Beatles’ first single; ‘O Superman’ was a product of an early eighties when punk had rendered much that was popular before it obsolete but had not yet worked out what to do with the rubble; rave entered the charts in an early nineties some years before the definition of British music would be confined to the leery hydra or Britpop and big beat.

And today? The global music industry has spent the last twenty years in a state of permanent crisis and uncertainty. The neoliberal consensus that has dominated global politics is heading the same way. Everything is up for grabs.