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What Can Radio 1 Teach Us About the Literary Canon?

Yesterday, I taught a lesson about the literary canon to Year 10. One of the ways I tried to explain how the canon functions, an idea inexorably abstract to a group of 14 year olds, is through the example of Radio 1. Now, this isn’t done out of any desire to increase engagement or play to the ostensible interests of the class (if it was I’d use TikTok), but because this is a genuinely interesting and revealing example.

Let’s begin then with the basics. What is the canon? Here’s a a conventional and traditional, once assumed ideologically neutral, definition of the canon: Those works that are perceived to hold artistic, aesthetic, cultural, historical and social importance above and in comparison to other literary works.

The obvious question then becomes, so how do some texts get designated as such and others not? Why and how are some literary works canonical but others are not afforded such status? There are two major ways of trying to answer this question…

  1. The canon is a neutral and disinterested list of those works that are simply *the* best. They are canonical by virtue of their superior and inherent quality. This is captured by Arnold’s view of the ‘best which has been though and said’ and more recently Harold Bloom.
  2. The canon is *not* neutral and is rather the product of a mesh of various ideological and social narratives. It is symptomatic of and a corollary to the dominant ideological pressures of the day. Not a neutral designation, but one inflected by societal and cultural concerns

Here, then, we arrive at what I promised at the start. How might Radio 1 help to exemplify and elucidate the mechanisms by which the canon comes to be constructed? In what possible ways might Radio 1 function as a microcosm for the canon?

Let’s think then about the iconic Top 40. This claims to be a neutral recording of the most popular songs of a given week, indexed for posterity. It’s disinterested, the best that has been played and heard. Sound familiar? But is it…? Is it simply a record of the most popular songs of the day? Why are these songs deemed better than the others in that given week and as enshrined by the Top 40? Thinking about this actually tells us a lot about the canon so let’s investigate.

A lot of what is played on Radio 1 is categorised according to three playlists, as below — A, B, and C. A song’s categorisation determines how much airtime it gets. For example, a song on list A, determined to be most popular at a given time, will also receive more plays.

Categorisation is decided by a committee who move songs up or down according to their popularity on a weekly basis, as explained below on the Radio 1 website. They might downgrade or upgrade a song or include an entirely new one. Again, this helps to inform how often a song is actually played.

Now, this is interesting because rather than being a neutral recording of those songs that are most popular, we begin to see the Top 40 is in some regards manufactured, a construct. Let’s imagine a song on List A…It’s played more and listened by more people and because of this it is bought more which further increases its popularity. It becomes self-perpetuating. Being on list A increases its airtime which increases its popularity which confirms it ought to be on list A and so on.

BUT its initial inclusion on list A, that helped to secure ongoing popularity and therefore its place in the Top 40, was a decision made by a committee. It might be based on data but it’s still a constructed decision, a ‘jigsaw’, according to the image used above.

And this is how the canon functions. Not a neutral list that happens to capture the inherently best texts, but rather something constructed. The equivalent of being on List A is being taught in schools, on exams, discussed by critics, in films, but the effect is much the same.

It’s popularity and significance becomes self-perpetuating and its canonicity seen as self evident. Like those in list A are listened to and heard more which secures their spot so too are these texts read and talked about more which secures their place.

It’s for this reason we see over time texts come and go, public opinion sway and the canon, even with greats like Shakespeare (who wasn’t always The Bard), shift. Certain texts might be exemplary but the canon, like the Top 40, is a construct, not for all time but for an age.

PS: I was slightly tongue in cheek about TikTok above, but actually it would also be a great example (as would Twitter!) as the popularity of the given clip (or tweet) often becomes self-perpetuating according to the likes or RTs that it gains, which then shapes its ongoing circulation and perceived ‘value’.


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