TV Editor Catrin Osborne argues that a reboot of TOTP would fill the missing piece in the modern music industry
From 1964 to 2006, British television was dominated by Top of the Pops (TOTP). The show consisted of live performances from a multitude of artists and aired every week, providing some of the most iconic events in popular music for the second half of the twentieth century such as David Bowie controversially putting his arm around another man whilst dressed as Ziggy Stardust. TOTP had a legendary run but was ultimately cancelled by the BBC in 2006. A shifting music industry and flawed attempts to revitalise the show, such as changing the airing date to Friday, resulted in its decline. However, the hole this left in the world of chart music has never been repaired. I argue that the next decade would benefit from a reboot of TOTP.
The absence of TOTP brought a disconnect between the music industry and public discourse. As British families gathered around their televisions every Thursday evening, all generations were provided with a neat, half-an-hour summary of all the up-and-coming artists. Even though they may have not liked them, older generations had an insight into modern music. However, it seems that very few people know what songs are on the charts these days. Richard Osborne, Senior Lecturer in Popular Music at Middlesex University, argues that: ‘It also meant that the UK had a visual conception of popular music, suiting and developing our interests in fashion and theatricality.’
TOTP is not entirely absent from our screens as each year the BBC releases a special at the end of the year. The most recent Christmas and New Year specials highlight the possible need for an equivalent of Top of the Pops in our modern-day. From Ella Henderson to Lewis Capaldi, all the musicians showcased their vocal talents. However, many performances lacked energy. Modern artists aren’t as used to TV performances which require different skills to touring.
Admittedly, the show came with some faults. For instance, the BBC insisted on the musicians miming to songs because the studios weren’t appropriate for live sound. The miming rules resulted in a plethora of artists mocking the format: The Stranglers no-handed guitar solo; The Communards and Sarah Jane Morris switching the male and female vocals; or Nirvana’s chaotic rendition of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in which Kurt Cobain sings one octave lower whilst parodying Morrissey. Although they mocked the show, unexpected performances such as these brought more attention to TOTP. However, the BBC recognised this and allowed artists to sing over backing tracks in 1991.
Another element of TOTP which may look outdated in our modern age was the dance troops. From Pan’s People to Legs & Co, the show used to have a resident dance troop who would perform to songs if the artists weren’t there. In the context of the BBC in the 1970s, these ended up being “something for the dads” as the girls were frequently dressed gyrating in little outfits. However, it is still important to remember that the members of these groups were working women pursuing their dreams of dancing and choreography. This concept could be updated if the show were relaunched as they could include male and female dancers and showcased contemporary dancing rather than objectification. Alongside music, a revival of TOTP could display modern dance trends.
Another opportunity for stardom provided by TOTP was in the place of the presenters. Discussing TOTP must involve a recognition of the fact that some of the original presenters, such as Jimmy Savile and Dave Lee Travis, have been exposed as using their power to conduct sexual abuse primarily in the 1970s. Despite this, the show also enabled plenty of unproblematic presenters pave their way such as Fearne Cotton. Also, the ‘golden mic’ concept introduced in the 1990s featured guest presenters from Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue and The Spice Girls.
Although anti-establishment bands like The Clash never performed on TOTP, seemingly alternative bands such as The Smiths recognised the importance of the show for their musical careers. TOTP provided a level of humbleness that is now lacking in the music industry. It’s hard to imagine artists like Beyoncé and Kanye West performing in a small BBC studio today but being invited onto TOTP was genuinely seen as an honour for musical artists. The fact that there was such a variety of throughout the second half of the twentieth century, TOTP offered a microcosm of society; watching an episode in 1979, I was shocked by the move between Ska to Disco to Punk to pop.
The cultural significance of TOTP meant that the show paved the way for many social debates. In 1988, Neneh Cherry performed whilst eight months’ pregnant, sparking debates about female agency. Similarly,Culture Club’s first performance on TOTP in 1982 intrigued the nation to consider gender expression due to Boy George’s androgynous appearance.
Some may argue that TOTP no longer works in our current, more technological environment. However, the weekly music show format is thriving in South Korea and providing an essential aspect of the K-pop industry. There are several music shows that K-pop artists will perform on for a month or so after they release new music. Rather than focusing on who’s Number One, each show has its own ranking system based on streams, music video views, votes and more – encouraging fan engagement. Common discourse suggests that the charts are no longer as important as they used to be. Therefore, if a show like TOTP were to return to British television, this would be a possible way for it to connect with the increasingly digital aspect of the music industry.
Moreover, music shows are catnip for fans. Western artists with particularly obsessive fandoms, such as Directioners in the early 2010s, tend to leave their fans wanting more. Rather than having to watch the same Jimmy Kimmel performance on repeat, TOTP provided an abundance of performances with different outfits and camera angles. Lucky fans were even able to see their favourite musicians in the intimate setting of the BBC’s studios.
Another way that TOTP could be improved for the modern age is through mashups, collaborations and covers amongst the charts. For instance, AJ Tracey and Jorja Smith incorporated carol-singers for a festive rendition of ‘Ladbroke Grove’ in the 2019 Christmas special. Alongside this, the show could incorporate covers such as BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge Covers. These are popular on YouTube; Miley Cyrus’ cover of ‘Summertime Sadness’ boasts 53 million views.
A revival of TOTP could also showcase collaborations between artists that would allow the industry to feel more interconnected. A photo of Ariana Grande and BTS hanging out backstage drove both fandoms crazy last month. Bringing different artists into the same studio, a new version of the show could incorporate collaborative performances such as when Ed Sheeran brought out Stormzy at the Brit Awards to deliver rap verses for ‘Shape of You’. In our increasingly isolated world, we could benefit from the feeling that at least our musical artists aren’t separate.
If harmony between musicians isn’t your thing, the show also provided an exciting environment for conflicts between artists and fandoms. We’re used to Twitter wars between different celebrities, such as the Kanye West-Taylor Swift feud. However, these conflicts used to take place on the screen such as the Oasis-Blur dispute of 1995. The Britpop bands had already released singles at the same time and were constantly compared by the media. The growing competition skyrocketed when the bands went head-to-head on an episode of TOTP after the release of their new singles. Ultimately, Blur reached the coveted Number One spot with their single ‘Country House’ and Alex James wore an Oasis T-Shirt during their performance to add fuel to the fire.
As opposed to a few decades ago, the charts are far more international. This was a contributor to the show’s end as it proved difficult to congregate a range of artists at the same time. However, with the rise of streaming services and catch-up television, a TOTP-esque show could make use of technology to combine performances from across the globe.
As we enter into the 2020s, we would benefit from a show like TOTP which managed to capture public interest and the entire essence of the music scene in weekly half-an-hour slots.