By Issy Flower
As another year came to an end, so did the second of the two annual Top of the Pops (or TOTP to its friends), the sad relics of the iconic music television show. Due to Covid, it was even less impressive than usual this year, dispensing entirely with an audience and relying on filler sections and production team claps to pad out the five or so performances that made up the hour-long show. With this lacklustre showing, many have come to wonder whether there’s a place for TOTP even twice a year, not even daring to conceive of someone bringing it back fully.
But does the doddering old institution still have legs?
Some parts of the shows suggested that it does. Live performances such as those of Yungblud and Alfie Templeman showed that with enough charisma and energy, pure pop can still be beamed into your living room, and they really recaptured that sense of being at a (more-or-less) live gig as seen in the traditional TOTP (for the purposes of this article, let’s define that as being between 1970-1995). The brief overview of the year sections also helped create a comforting feeling that the music industry had not stopped completely, and introduced artists to a widespread audience that due to other concerns might not have had the chance to explore the global soundscape this year. Additionally, the choice to broadcast performances from various Live Lounges or from across the BBC saved the show from falling into one of the traps of mid-80s TOTP: that of the video. Rather than replaying the same videos fans would have watched time and again on Youtube, the less polished and more lively performances allowed the BBC to celebrate live music and attract people to watch who might have avoided a more MTV style playout. Modern Top of the Pops, even in the Covid era, is still able to bring live performances from the biggest artists in the world into your living room, presenting eclectic performers who have nothing in common except that they all occupied the charts over the year and showing those on the edges of the pop world just what they’ve been missing.
And that, in a nutshell, is why Top of the Pops is still important. For the sheer diversity of acts it brought into the homes of the nation it has yet to be bettered, and at its peak allowed breakthrough acts such as Wham, The Human League or The Housemartins to achieve mainstream success. These kinds of opportunities are no longer offered so readily in a world where media is so fractured, and the charts are determined less by what you bought in a week than what you’ve been listening to for six months. The eclecticism of the charts was reflected and empowered by TOTP, and is sadly missing from the music world today – at least on a chart level.
Nor is chart oddness so joyfully showed off and celebrated – it’s incredibly unlikely that you’d get a performance by Clean Bandit and Ladbaby on the same show, yet on Top of the Pops that sort of thing happened week by week. Pop was presented to the masses in its most unpolished form, and watching the repeats of the show now on BBC4 is like looking into the heart of British pop culture, in all its strangeness. One week you might get Keith Harris and Orville; the next, the Liverpool Football Team; the week after that, New Order performing a ropey live version of ‘Blue Monday’. Top of the Pops celebrated both mass culture and provided exposure for its indie margins, stimulating pop myth while reminding you of its mistakes.
So could we cope with TOTP today? The commissioners of linear TV would say no: who would watch it, for starters. But they’re thinking of the trappings of TOTP, rather than its heart: the lycra, the Pan’s People, the tiny studio and denim-dressed thirteen year olds. And there is of course a dark history, a reminder that pop is too often a lustre on top of something grimy and wrong. But Top of the Pops as a way of bringing live performances by the stars straight into your home; of inspiring the next generation; of providing an outlet for the wacky and wonderful outside of Britain’s Got Talent; for showing that pop music can be more than bad novelty singles but can be only that at the same time. There’s got to be a place for that somewhere.
Even if it’s only twice a year.
Image: Top of the Pops LOGO via Wikimedia Commons