Readers who either had young children or were children themselves in the 1980s will recall the Um Bongo jingle. The advert assured us it was drunk in the Congo. A survey published last week to mark the 60th anniversary of British television advertising showed that no fewer than 32 per cent of the total sample of 2,000 people remembered the tune. This compared to only 20 per cent who identified Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
We might attribute this to the failures of our educational system to promote grand culture. But despite Justin Bieber selling more than 15 million albums and having almost 70 million Twitter followers, only 19 per cent of those polled could name his recent number one hit. In contrast to both high and low music culture, Um Bongo has seared itself into the brain cells. The failure of four out of five people to remember even the name of the Bieber song could perhaps be due to the age profile of his target audience. But their parents can hardly fail to be aware of him, in the same way that they knew of a drink which few of them actually consumed.
A potential reason for the differences is that the turnover in popular cultural markets has speeded up decisively in recent years. Attention spans have shortened. The changes in technology have made it very hard to make direct comparisons over the history of popular music charts since the early 1950s. But the trend was already apparent when the New Musical Express charts, introduced in 1952, were discontinued in 2006. The early and mid 1960s were a highly innovative period, with the emergence of for example the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. There were also many one-hit wonders seeking to emulate their success. At this time, in terms of the Top 75 in the NME charts, around 300 songs featured during the course of each year. By the mid-1980s, this figure has doubled to some 600, and in the mid-2000s it was around 1,000. So the turnover had risen sharply even a decade ago. Songs were getting less and less time to imprint themselves on memories. And there were many more of them which did become popular, even for a short time, so the competition to capture memory intensified.
A dramatic rise in ‘churn’, the speed at which relative popularity changes, can also been seen since 2000 in the choice of baby names, both here and in the United States. Baby names may seem frivolous, but the polymath American psychologist Stephen Pinker emphasises their cultural importance. The choice of name “encapsulates the great contradiction in human life: between the desire to fit in and the desire to be unique”. In the last decade or so, the latter has strengthened dramatically. The Houston anthropologist Alex Bentley and I have published papers showing that turnover in popularity was steady for most of the 20th century, but has since risen fivefold.
Attention spans have shortened, with important consequences for our society and economy. But, for some at least, Um Bongo lives forever.
As published in City AM on Wednesday 30th September