Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: Notes on a ding dong

By | Published on Tuesday 16 April 2013

Wizard Of Oz

I still vividly remember the day Margaret Thatcher resigned. I was ten years old and just leaving the classroom as the school caretaker excitedly came to tell us that the then Prime Minister had stood down. My classmates and I all grinned and leapt around, happy in the knowledge that change was coming.

Well, maybe that wasn’t exactly what we thought. I’m pretty sure we didn’t really know what it all meant, but we did dance around the place. All I knew was that nobody liked Mrs Thatcher. Or, as far as I was aware, I’d never met a person who liked her. And, then having only a vague knowledge of how elections worked, I was pretty sure there was no chance I would ever meet one.

Up to that point in my life, Thatcher was the only Prime Minister I’d ever known. As far as I knew she was the only one there had ever been – some kind of monster who existed only to make people angry. I don’t know exactly how I thought leaders came to power, but presumably my assumption was that we lived in some sort of dictatorship.

Speaking to various people over the last week, I’ve found that many had similar childhood experiences, though opposition and support of Margaret Thatcher and her policies are interchangeable in the stories. The only other position I’ve come across is “oh, I’m too young to remember”, but for my contemporaries, who generally do, no one seems to recall there being a middle ground.

The other memory I have of that day is watching Thatcher’s resignation speech on the news. It struck me that this woman, who had been such a grand and foreboding force throughout my entire childhood, suddenly appeared meek, clearly shaken by being told that, actually, the people around her would rather she went away now.

That, for me, was when she died. Getting into a car and driving away, stripped of her power, she was no longer of concern (I was ten, so my attention span was quite short). Occasionally she turned up on the news in the intervening years, but she was no more than a curiosity. Someone who used to be someone.

But if last week showed anything, it’s that for an awful lot of people that isn’t the case. More than 20 years after that day, she still has the power to entirely polarise opinion. Which is how, in a bizarre turn of events, I ended up on Sky News this weekend talking about a song from a 1939 musical.

Since the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death there has really been a battle of narratives. News reports made constant reference to what a “divisive” figure she was, but didn’t really focus on the fact that two distinct groups had come forward in the wake of her demise – one which would like history to record that she was the worst thing to ever happen to Great Britain, the other that would like history to tell future generations that she was the best (during peacetime anyway). And each would rather that the other not be mentioned, thank you very much.

It’s this strength of feeling that caused ‘Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead’, from the soundtrack of ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, to begin rising up the charts, almost as soon as the news of Thatcher’s passing came in. Much was made of this macabre chart race being led by a Facebook campaign but, while that was partly true, very few of the people who bought it (or railed against) actually engaged with the Facebook page that first suggested it.

But it doesn’t actually take that many sales to get to the lower reaches of the iTunes Top 40, and once there the resulting media coverage (mainly outrage from the right-leaning taboids) created the perfect storm. The song’s title was almost too perfect for those who wanted to register a vote for the ‘Thatcher was bad’ camp, anyone could immediately understand the sentiment of the download campaign without having to listen to any lyrics (as was required when it came to actual anti-Thatcher protest songs from the era).

This form of ‘chartjacking’ – as it now seems to be known – only became possible, of course, when the Official Charts Company began counting single track download sales in the main singles chart in 2007 – meaning a track which is no longer available on CD, or was never released as a single in the first place, can get into the top 40.

Though that said, perhaps what occurred last week was actually different from the Rage Against Cowell campaign that first made chartjacking headline news, and was actually closer in kind to what happened after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, and the subsequent rise of Elton John’s reworked ‘Candle In The Wind’ to the top of the chart, something rapidly achieved even though it was still the era of the CD.

Obviously on one level ‘Ding Dong’ and ‘Candle’ are opposite stories, the latter an effort to praise someone’s life, the former to criticise it. But both were reactions to a highly public figure’s passing, and both – I feel – were motivated by something similar: a desire by a sizable number of people to make a tangible statement about how a major public figure made them feel. In the past such moments in history would probably have been marked by groups of people singing songs, today they unite by buying them.

It’s that immediate instinctual reaction that ultimately drove ‘Ding Dong’ to number two in the chart, and which was highlighted in the oddness of the late-in-the-day pro-Thatcher response campaign.

You have to wonder if anyone attempting to get The Notsensibles’ 1979 single ‘I’m In Love With Margaret Thatcher’ into the chart actually stopped to think about or even listen to the song’s lyrics. It’s far from a pro-Thatcher song, more a punk band’s attempt to come up with the most ridiculous idea they could imagine – in this case the idea that anyone could possibly find her attractive.

And even if it had been written in the spirit it was seemingly taken by Maggie fans last week, is the lasting message that they want to send out, and permanently record in the charts, that they found her sexually attractive and always blushed when she came on TV? Casual misogyny is an accusation made against the ‘Ding Dong’ camp (and in a wider sense regarding responses to Thatcher’s death), but arguably this song is an even worse example of that.

People will often claim that the singles chart is no longer relevant, because “people no longer buy singles”. While ignoring the fact that single sales are booming, that statement also completely fails to acknowledge what the chart is. It’s not just a record of what songs sold the most during any particular week, it’s a record of the soundtrack to our collective lives. It’s an historical document that, at a glance, can tell you about the state of our culture and public feeling at the time.

Whether it be ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ or ‘Candle In The Wind’ or ‘Killing In The Name’, these songs and their rise up the charts say something about who we were.

Sure, ‘Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ sold nothing like the quantities those songs did, last week having been a reasonably low sales week for singles. However, that fact shouldn’t be used to completely malign its rise to number two. Most of these campaigns have a long lead up – getting Rage Against The Machine to number one ahead of ‘X-Factor’ winner Joe McElderry took months of work enthusing people to take part, convincing them that there was even a chance.

This took less than a week from a completely standing start. Yes, there were a small number of people primed for it when Thatcher’s death finally came, but most were not. Also, the controversy surrounding the song choice would likely have put off many people who might have otherwise taken a punt – the divide between people who thought it was in bad taste or just a bit of fun was almost as polarised as that between supporters and opposers of Margaret Thatcher herself.

So, during a busier sales week it would not have reached such a high position (while ‘I’m In Love With Margaret Thatcher’ may not have managed to chart at all, let alone reach number 35 after just two days of campaigning), but nor would it have been such a good record of the feeling in the country about someone who had not been in power for more than 20 years. It’s a chart position now set in stone that will always elicit a reaction, positive or negative, and will therefore reflect all that went on last week rather well.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU

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