HIT OR MYTH?
60% of chart acts in 2010 attended public school, compared to 1% in 1990.
Over the last couple of years, you may have heard this ‘fact’ mentioned. It is still regularly repeated every time anyone wishes to make a point about a supposed shift in social background of our pop stars. Jarvis Cocker typified a commonly held view on the subject in an interview with The Guardian published on October 16, 2011. “It has changed now,” he said of the music scene. “The big rock bands now are from slightly monied or privileged backgrounds.”
“He’s right about that,” agreed the author of the piece, Decca Aitkenhead. “In 1990 just 2% of artists in the UK top 10 had been to public school. In October 2010 it was 60%”
A few weeks later, the gap had widened further. In The Guardian on November 5, 2011, Emine Saner mentioned “That extraordinary statistic last year – 60% of the people in the charts had been to public school, whereas in 1990 it was 1%.”
So can this really be true? A 6000 per cent increase in privately educated chart-toppers over a 20 year period?
In short: No.
Its total nonsense. And here’s why:
This story originally began spreading far and wide after a Sunday Times article on 5 December 2010 was seized on by The Daily Mail the following day. “A survey in The Word magazine has calculated that at least 60 per cent of chart pop and rock acts are now former public school pupils,” The Mail reported, “compared with just 1 per cent 20 years ago.”
The Word ‘survey’ was actually published a few weeks earlier in the December 2010 issue of the always entertaining music monthly. The author was the highly readable Independent On Sunday rock critic Simon Price, who wrote:
“The perception that poshoes are colonising the charts isn’t an illusion. It’s demonstrable fact. The official UK Top 40 of the week ending 20 October 1990 contained 21 British acts. Of these, 16.5 went to their local state school as children.”
He then says ‘it’s safe to assume’ that another four whose origins he couldn’t pin down, did too. Only half of one act in that week’s charts – Pet Shop Boys’ Chris Lowe – attended public school, he claims.
By contrast, he points out: “Of 17 British acts in the corresponding week’s chart in 2010, two attended top private schools (Taio Cruz and Eliza Doolittle) and three went to fee-paying stage schools (Brit School alumni Adele and Katy B, and Italia Conti pupil Pixie Lott) A further two were grouped with mixed educational backgrounds: The Saturdays (two stage school, one Surbiton high) and The Wanted (at least one of whom attended Sylvia Young theatre school).”
To be fair to Mr. Price, he didn’t calculate or mention the ‘60%’ figure. And he is probably fully aware that it is a distortion of the actual facts he found.
The newspaper stories based that figure on the fact that only seven out of 17 ‘acts’, by Price’s reckoning, were ‘unassisted by privilege or patronage’. So 58.8% of those acts included one or more members (crucial detail, bear that in mind) who had some sort of paid education.
By the time this bombshell reached The Daily Mail, though, the figure had not only jumped slightly to ‘at least 60 per cent’, but they reported it as if it was over 60% of all the individuals that made up those chart acts.
In fact, the British acts in the October 2010 chart analysed by Price was actually made up of 30 individuals in total, nine of whom had public school or stage school educations, and 21 of whom didn’t. So in fact, the correct figure that should have been quoted from Price’s survey was 30%, not 60.
The newspaper stories then managed to come up with a figure for the 1990 chart of 1% from Price’s survey of one identified fee-paying individual out of 21 acts, some solo, some duo, some groups. More shonky maths, but that’s a minor quibble compared to some much more significant flaws in the ‘survey’, which reduce the much-vaunted 60% figure even more. Such as:
1) Price erroneously assumed The Brit School is fee-paying – it isn’t. Pupils are awarded scholarships to the government funded college (from age 16 – most will have been to a conventional school beforehand) on the basis of auditions, so you can hardly call it a private school. Since two of the acts Price cites – Katy B and Adele, won scholarships to the Brit school after comp educations elsewhere, that reduces the true figure from his survey to seven paid-educated people out of 30 in the chart from October 2010. If we take those two out, then, the true figure of privately educated individuals in his 2010 chart should have been… just 23%
However, you might argue that it doesn’t negate the wider point he makes – that there are way more people from privately-educated backgrounds in the charts now than 20 years ago. Unfortunately, that crumbles into dust when you compare two rather wider samples of hit-makers from 2010 and 1990.
“An inconclusive snapshot? Perhaps,” admits Price of his survey, sampled from one week in October and the corresponding one 20 years earlier.
But it’s not just inconclusive – it’s totally misleading.
To get a truer picture Let’s look at the 40 top selling singles from the whole of 1990 and the whole of 2010.
In this list we find that 36 different individuals from the UK and Ireland were involved in those hits. Eight of them had a paid education (four public school, four stage school).
Meanwhile, back in 1990, 43 individuals were involved in the top 40 best selling singles.
I could not identify the educational origins of all of them, but at least seven had a paid education, six at public school, one at stage school. And while that makes for a slightly lower percentage, bear in mind that 15 of those state-schoolers from 1990 were from two acts – UB40 and The Beautiful South.
And it’s not just that sample that offers up this picture. If we look at the artists making the upper reaches of the charts that year, we find way more than just Chris Lowe with public school backgrounds.
Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, Reigate Grammar School boy Quentin ‘Norman’ Cook of Beats International, his stage school bandmate Lindy Layton, along with drama school kid Sonia. James’s Tim Booth, New Order’s Stephen Morris, Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross, Del Amitri’s Justin Currie, Boarding School girl Sinead O’Connor, boarding school boy Youth (one half of Blue Pearl and schoolmate of The Orb’s Alex Paterson) Prep School graduate Timmy Mallett of Bombalurina, and that friend of Prince Andrew, Nellee Hooper of Soul II Soul. Oh, and guess who had the year’s best-selling album? Why, it was another stage school survivor – Mr Phil Collins.
And those were just the ones I could identify. It was impossible to trace the schooling of many of the lesser known hit artists, and the law of averages suggests a couple of them will probably have had the same backgrounds too.
So in fact, in 1990 there were an uncannily similar number of privately educated people in the charts than there were in 2010.
I’m sorry to disappoint class warriors everywhere who have used these lies, damned lies and statistics to back up claims that pop has lost its proletarian soul, but pop’s just as posh – or not posh, depending on the way you look at it – as it ever was.
This is an edited version of an entry in my 2012 book Mind The Bollocks. Available at all good… erm, actually, Amazon’s your best bet.