In 1988, a British band who'd later become most famous for burning £1 million of their own money wrote an informative self-help book called The Manual: How to Have a No. 1 the Easy Way. It purported to help anyone reach the summit of the charts irrespective of talent as long as they followed "the golden rules." Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty of the KLF had achieved the feat themselves when they had a number 1 in the UK earlier that year with "Doctorin' the Tardis," released under the nom-de-guerre The Timelords.
Discordian pranksters that they are, the KLF deleted their entire back catalogue when they retreated from the pop game in the 90s, though thankfully "Doctorin' the Tardis" survives on YouTube. As you can see, in 1988 you could take seemingly incongruous elements—the theme from Doctor Who and now-convicted paedophile Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll"—weld them together, then just film a 1968 Ford Galaxie police car careening around the escarpments of Westbury for the video and—voila!— a number 1. Amazingly the next year, Austrian band Edelweiss proved the formula was no fluke when they sold 5 million copies of "Bring Me Edelweiss," mashing up Abba's "SOS" with some yodelling. They'd followed the German translation of The Manual to the letter.
So, would it be possible to follow 1988's "golden rules" in 2017 and still have a hit? In the time since The Manual was published 29 years ago, pop music has changed immeasurably, from its availability to perceptions about authenticity (that used to really matter back then for some reason). But maybe things aren't that different after all. Here's our 21st-century reinvention of the advice in How to Have a No.1 the Easy Way, based on a completely scientific data analysis of its key points as compared to this year's biggest hits.
Advice then: "Watch Top Of The Pops religiously every week and learn from it."
Now: Obviously Top of the Pops doesn't exist anymore. And the next best thing these days, Later… With Jools Holland, is for fifty-somethings who read the Sunday Times and listen to Bon Iver. So what do you do? Follow a dangerous amount of people on Instagram in order to get inspired. You'll be able to come up with the right look on stage as well as off it, because Instagram is a candid tool that honestly represents all the facets of an artist's life (unless they suddenly delete all their photos and start uploading pictures of snakes for promotional purposes). Alternatively you could watch old Top of the Pops on YouTube and steal a vintage look from the 80s.
Then: "You must be skint and on the dole."
Now: If you're broke and underemployed in 2017 then you might be an armchair expert on the intricacies of televised antiques auctions , but you'll have bugger all chance of getting to number 1. Being working class was as compulsory to becoming a pop star in 1988 as art school had been in the 70s. Now four little words will get you to the top: Sylvia Young Theatre School. That's where Adele, Amy Winehouse and Rita Ora all went, and recent number 1 artist Dua Lipa is a former alumna too. The JAMs believed you couldn't do a job or go to college and devote yourself fully to the cause, but Clean Bandit, who've had two number 1s this year, met at Jesus College, Cambridge. Even salt-of-the-earth ginger everyman Ed Sheeran (from leafy Framlington with an art curator father and jewellery designer mother) nearly had his eye out when Princess Beatrice tried to ironically knight him at a soirée at James Blunt's castle. 2017's version of "you must be skint and on the dole" is "you must be very posh and extremely fucking loaded."
Then: "When you have drunk your tea and had a look out the window (just to check the world is still there) you are going to have to decide which of the possible studios you are going to commit to."
Now: Literally fuck a recording studio into the ground! If you want to be answerable to some flatulent old industry hasbeen who once engineered "Star Trekkin" by the Firm then be our guest. If you're throwing money at someone in order for them to press a record button and then press a stop button repeatedly for £80 an hour for the next five days, then chances are you are also very posh, extremely fucking loaded and almost certainly a bit dim. If you don't have money to burn then get a computer, get some software and start recording yourself, ffs.
Then: "It has to have a groove that will run all the way through the record that the current 7" buying generation will find irresistible."
Now: Oof, where to even begin here? The equivalent of the "7"-buying generation" today is probably people who subscribe to the RapCaviar Spotify playlist and buy merch but not physical records. In 2017, the best way to intepret this is "steal grooves from old records and pass them off as your own but just don't get caught". That is unless you're Robin Thicke. If you're Robin Thicke then it will cost you $7.3 million.
Then: "It must consist of an intro, a verse, a chorus, second verse, a second chorus, a breakdown section, back into a double length chorus and outro."
Now: "New Rules" by Dua Lipa, like so many songs in this post-Max Martin era, makes a mockery of the above formula by not having a chorus at all. It's 2017, lads, songs structured as 'hook after hook with a sort of chorus' can top the charts now. In fact, whether number 1s have become more or less formulaic over the last 15 years is a moot point, because aside from Greg James does anybody actually know what's been in the chart for the last 15 years?
Then: "Lyrics. You will need some, but not many…"
Now: "So, rockabye baby, rockabye, I'm gonna rock you / Rockabye baby, don't you cry, somebody's got you," sings Anne-Marie on the chorus of "Rockabye Baby," a song by Oxbridge graduates Clean Bandit about being a skint single mother. Sean Paul spits some extra bars looking like he's just come from Spike Island, but the overall effect is of simplicity. From a lyrical perspective, perhaps the most surprising hit of the year is "Despacito." Foreign language number 1s were extremely rare in the 80s but they're happening now with greater frequency because of internet video proliferation (Luis Fonsi holds the most YouTube visits ever, K-pop sensation Psy has been pushed into third). For the record, lyrically Fonsi is no Cervantes. A quick translation of the hit's lyrics: "I want to undress you with kisses, slowly… Hop on! Hop on!" If it works, it works.
Then: "We recommend you don't bother with an instrumental unless you can get Jimi Hendrix to do it."
Now: In the 1970s bands lived by the assumption that music listeners would like nothing more than to listen to the lead guitarist wang on for six minutes while pulling tortured facial expressions and thrusting in a creepy manner on every song in their repertoire. Punk apparently did away with all that nonsense, but it was still de rigueur in the 80s to get a famed instrumentalist to drop some stardust on your record if you yourself were famous enough. See: Stevie Wonder and his harmonica on famous records by Chaka Khan, Eurythmics, Elton John and many more besides.
Pop stars are less inclined to invite Eddie Van Halen along to the studio to tear the track a new arsehole with his axe these days, like Michael Jackson did on "Beat It," but the lists of guest vocalists and guest rappers on modern number 1s read like ensemble casts. Take DJ Khaled's "I'm The One" featuring Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper, Lil Wayne and some extravagantly overbearing vocoder all on the same record. To have a chart-topper these days, you must get as many other artists onto the record as possible and make sure one of them is Justin Bieber. DJ Khaled is inventing golden rules of his own, becoming a "living meme" and a genuine internet sensation. He proves decisively that you don't need talent in 2017 either.
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