Two songs were vying for the top spot in the UK’s music charts last month. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, also the EU’s “Anthem for Europe”, and 17 Million Fuck Offs, by pro-Brexit comedian, writer and commentator Dominic Frisby.
The competition between these two pieces signified a much starker divide than a merely musical one. The melodic passage of the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – originally the setting for a vocal rendition of Friedrich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy – had been adopted as the European anthem by the Council of Europe in 1972 and in 1985 by the European Community. Pro-Europeans in the UK launched a campaign to get the song into the charts, settling on a recording by André Rieu, with the Johann Strauss Orchestra.
O friends, no more these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Meanwhile, Frisby’s song listed some of the more prominent Remain campaigners and told them all where they could go:
It was the greatest democratic turnout in British history,
I do not scoff
And when the time came to speak the British said fuck off.
Lyrically and tonally, the two pieces could hardly be further apart, Ode to Joy deriving from a widely acknowledged masterpiece of music in the western classical tradition in contrast to Frisby’s ukulele-driven ditty that, by his own account, was written “almost by accident”.
Ode to Joy pipped 17 Million Fuck Offs to the top of the singles download charts, and scraped into the Top 30 of singles overall, with Frisby’s song narrowly missing the Top 40. But the charts aren’t a fixed marker of musical style – and the music itself here was arguably a secondary consideration to the expression of a political point.
Expressing political views through music isn’t new, of course, and neither is this the first time the charts have been used for that purpose – although the competition between two such bluntly divergent tunes (politically and aesthetically) – and by opposing political campaigns – does represent further evolution in the coalescing of popular cultural and political practice.
It has its roots in popular music’s debates about authenticity and was given extra impetus by frustration at The X Factor’s domination of the top spot at Christmas in the mid-2000s. After an unsuccessful attempt in 2008 to supplant the TV competition winner Alexandra Burke’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah with Jeff Buckley’s version of the same song, a similar 2009 campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of – a sweary, angry, rock song – to the top of the singles chart for Christmas in place of X Factor’s Joe McElderry was a key success for online protest purchases.
The ideological objections of rock fans about what they deemed to be inferior pop are nearly as old as the music charts themselves. But they are both commercial forms, so these challenges were made easier by changes in the chart process. Once downloads started to count towards chart positions from 2004 and social media became ever more pervasive, these technological and market developments put a new tool into the hands of campaigners. It also vastly widened the choice of songs available to them, since they were no longer restricted to what was available in the shops.
This technique shifted from pop’s politics to party politics in 2013 when the death of Margaret Thatcher pushed into the limelight a hitherto obscure Facebook page geared towards getting the song Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, from The Wizard of Oz, into the charts to mark the occasion.
The combination of social media campaigning and the easy, instantaneous purchase of music from 1939, drove the song up the charts. It reached Number Two within a week of Thatcher’s death.
This caused problems for the BBC over how to respond in its chart rundown. The national broadcaster had to live up to its charter obligation to maintain “generally accepted standards” in the face of a song ostensibly celebrating the death of a major public figure. But at the same time it faced objections to it acting as a censor.
The difficulty, as academic researcher on music and censorship Martin Cloonan has noted, is that there were no generally accepted standards in a nation so divided on the death of Thatcher and around a song whose actual content had nothing to do with the matter in hand. The BBC fudged the issue in 2013 and played a snippet of the song in the middle of an explanatory news piece.
Anger and impartiality
In 2017, broadcasters took a more explicit line when a chart-oriented campaign pulled matters even further into the political realm in the middle of the general election campaign. Activist band Captain Ska re-mixed their 2015 broadside at David Cameron to feature the then Conservative prime minister Theresa May – using excerpts from her speeches and media appearances and weaving them into a chorus calling her a “Liar, Liar”.
The BBC and others refrained from playing it, on the grounds that to do so would be a breach of impartiality codes set out by the statutory regulator, Ofcom. Again, changes to the chart process in 2014 had helped the musical campaign, with streams now counting towards chart position, albeit that many more streams than downloads are required to make an impact.
And once more, accusations of censorship were levied against broadcasters, along with concerns that they were failing in their duty to represent public opinion.
If public opinion in the UK is divided about anything, it’s Brexit. The recent battle for chart supremacy, with rival campaigns, reflects that and is the latest step in what is becoming a part of the furniture in our musical and political culture.
Frisby’s portrayal of himself as “an ordinary bloke who wrote a tune with his mate one day, up against a European colossus” may be disingenuous – he’s an established media performer and published author who, at one point, was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the Brexit party. But this latest salvo in an ongoing culture war highlights the normalisation of the charts as a political tool, and just how at odds with itself Britain has become.