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Off The Charts

A look into the idiosyncratic world of chart geeks

Amit Gurbaxani Aug 30, 2012
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These days, following the charts is probably considered an uncool thing to do. Unless you’re a recording industry suit of sorts, caring about what song is No.1 is the diagonal opposite of keeping track of which new album has got a 10 out of 10 score on Pitchfork. I confess, I have no clue about Pitchfork’s highest ranked album of 2012 so far, but I can name all the songs that have topped the Billboard Hot 100 this year. 

Contrary to what some might believe I can’t tell you what was No.1 on the day you were born but if you were born after 1987, there’s a good chance I can tell you what the most popular songs were around the time of your birth. Following music charts, specifically the US and UK singles tallies, are somewhere between a long-time hobby and an unhealthy obsession for me. But it’s not one I’m ashamed of – simply because I wouldn’t have the range and depth of knowledge of music I have if it wasn’t for this unusual habit.

A habit is actually the best description of something I’ve been doing for 25 years now. I started listening to and tracking the charts of both countries, as a nine-year-old with precious little to do in the Dubai of the late-1980s. The sole FM station in the Emirates at the time, Dubai FM 92 would air the American Top 40 hosted by Casey Kasem and the Network Chart, which was a countdown of the UK’s Top 30 best-selling singles produced by the London-based Capital FM. 

In one of the many cruel twists of fate my life has seen, one of the earliest is that of my being blessed with a great love for music without any sort of musical talent whatsoever. To my nine-year-old self, the idea of hearing an entire countdown show of pop music was musical heaven. (After all, before I moved to live with my parents in Dubai, my only source of pop music was those annual Grammy Awards broadcasts on Doordarshan that I suppose now only those on the wrong side of 30 remember). 

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Since the internet was almost a decade away from most people’s hands, I would listen eagerly each week to find out which song would be No.1. Soon, I started writing down the Top 40 as it was aired, in my “chart books.” I’d put arrows and blocks to signify whether a song was moving up or down or staying put that week (a symbolism I copied from the weekly TV show Chart Attack that would air on Dubai’s Channel 33). For a brief while, I even made my own chart predictions of yes, the entire Top 40. I even started making – albeit intermittently – my own personal Top 40, which gradually whittled down to a top 10, and top 5, before finally disappearing altogether about half-a-decade ago. Thanks to the internet, I found out (many years later of course) that there are other freaks like me in the world.

At the time however, my friends were both amused and amazed by all this – but the nice chaps they were (and still are), they thought it was a neat party trick that I could identify almost every song on the radio. And that I suppose was the main difference. When I got hooked on to the charts, pop music wasn’t the narrow, producer-dominated genre it is today. I liked songs by Madonna and Iron Maiden, by REM and Pet Shop Boys. To my nine- or ten-year old self, I didn’t know or didn’t care that one was pop music and the other was metal, that one was rock and the other was dance music. It was just music, and I liked what I heard.

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Then the decade turned, US radio got genre-lised, American Top 40 ceased to exist in its original form. I still followed the charts (still do, via Billboard.com) but I realised that all the music I wanted to hear was not on there. For instance, one of the favourite bands of my 15-year-old self, Pearl Jam had yet to score any Top 40 hits. I could however watch them on MTV because, remember, in the early 1990s, MTV was still playing music.

When I moved back to India in the mid-1990s, I tried in vain to find Indian charts. Even Bollywood charts would do. Sadly, I found no authoritative equivalent but I still kept track of the few I could find, on radio and TV. Today, charts are easy to find anywhere if you look – Radio One 94.3 FM airs two US countdowns, Vh1 has its own top ten, and if you browse the Bombay Times on Fridays, or watch MTV on the weekend you might come across a somewhat hard-to-believe ranking of the top 20 most popular Hindi film songs of the week. In this column, I plan to explore the idiosyncratic world of chart geeks like myself, sharing with whoever might be interested, my thoughts on both the past and present Top 10s, Top 20s and Top 40s of the US, UK, India, examining why they matter, why they don’t and what makes them so fascinating for people who are so fascinated by them.

Amit Gurbaxani is the senior editor of www.mumbaiboss.com. He has been writing about music for over a decade.

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