Pop: It's the end of the world as we know it

Baby vs Ginger. B*witched vs Aguilera. Welcome to the pop apocalypse as Ben Thompson goes in search of the real music of the millennium

THIS TIME 1000 years ago, bizarre signs and portents of a world about to be turned upside down included sheep being born with two heads, giant hailstones with the face of Gloria Hunniford, and a labrador reciting St Paul's letter to the Ephesians in cockney rhyming slang.

Not to be outdone by its illustrious predecessor, our own pre-millennial epoch has already given us tabloid revelations about the male members of Steps getting paid more than their female counterparts (the idea of the egregious H getting paid anything is distressing enough), and an opinion poll with over half a million respondents ranking Jools Holland as the 12th-greatest jazz musician of all time.

Last Saturday night, the despairing tones of Bob Geldof ("And where is `Like A Rolling Stone' in that top 10??!!") echoed out from the debris of Channel 4's Music of the Millennium like a rock canonical Chicken Licken proclaiming that the sky was falling in on our heads. But as fin de siecle anxiety dissipates itself in farcical debates about the relative merits of Billie Holliday and Natalie Imbruglia, could it be that the real pop apocalypse is taking place under our very noses?

When Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception envisioned "a perpetual present made up of one continually changing apocalypse", few realised that the prophetic author was describing not only his own first mescalin experience, but also the British singles chart of October/November 1999. For in a month of pure pop drama, each week has brought happenings of enduring mythic significance in the struggle for the number one position.

It all began (like so many other of the great stories of our time) with B*witched. Would "Jesse Hold On" give the hyperactively wholesome Irish quartet a record-breaking fifth out of five singles straight in at number one? If the complacent demeanour of their promotional appearances was anything to go by, they plainly thought so, but for all the protestations that "Jesse" could be "anyone you want them to be", this arrogance proved horribly misplaced. The performance they gave on CD-UK, as it dawned on them that they'd been eclipsed by slinky Christina Aguilera, was so infused with bitterness that it caused the milk of an entire prize-winning Limerick dairy herd to turn to Yoplait.

B*witched had no real cause for complaint though. "Jesse" simply lacked the magic spark of, say, "Blame It On the Weatherman" and the public voted with their feet. A number one single can never be taken for granted. Having been made painfully aware of this by a series of high-profile near misses, Five's joy at their long-awaited embrace of the top spot with the deliriously catchy "Keep on Movin'" was all the more infectious. A welcome oasis of fecklessness and indiscipline in the boy band personality desert, their success benefits us all.

After the undercard, the heavyweight clash. Having got off to a slightly shaky start when her debut single - the unnervingly meta-textual Shirley Bassey pastiche "Look At Me" - was held off the number one spot by Ricky Martin, Geri Halliwell's solo career was already firmly back on track, thanks to the heady cod-latin euphoria of "Mi Chico Latino" and its saucy accompanying video.

In this context it was hard to know which was more disturbing - the idea that Geri Halliwell might actually be "in love" with Chris Evans, or the possibility that her determination to beat her former Spice campadre to the number one spot was such that she would be willing to let people think she was.

Either way, Emma Bunton's solo debut was going to have to be pretty special to outshine the Day-glo transcendence of Geri's "Lift Me Up". And there was something about the attitude of Baby's backing troupe Tin Tin Out that wasn't quite right; as if they thought it was they who were doing her the favour, rather than the other way round. She kept her end up well though, accepting defeat at Geri's hands with good grace and putting her supercilious instrumental time-servers firmly in their place on Top of the Pops with a regal "Thank you, boys".

The final - and most compelling - chapter in this month-long chart saga was supplied by Robbie Williams. Interviewed by CD-UK in his American hotel room shortly before the release of his new single "She's the One", Robbie was so obviously - and poignantly - in the grip of serious depression that even Cat Deeley noticed. The conjunction of huge personal turmoil and a beautifully judged soft-rock ballad would have been hard enough to resist, even without the superb video wherein Robbie's lovelorn ice- dancing coach steps in to the breach to produce a medal-winning performance. As it is, this richly deserved number one single is a pop moment he will do very well to surpass.

Excitement at this level cannot go on for ever of course and, just as the Blur vs Oasis singles duel marked the zenith of Britpop, it seems likely that the month just passed will turn out to be the historic high watermark of what someone with no regard for the English language might term "the post dad-rock pop revival". Band Aid sounded the death-knell of the great British pop upsurge of the early Eighties, and maybe the crazy all-star charity version of The Rolling Stones' "It's Only Rock 'N' Roll" currently setting its sights on the Christmas Number One position will do the same for this generation.

A vanguard of pre-teen revolutionaries has taken up arms (well, their pocket money) to drive out the shadow of Cast and now we must look to the future. As Britney Spears lumbered up to the podium for the fourth time at the MTV Europe awards in Dublin to thank the world for "accepting pop again" and a succession of award winners thanked `God, my record company and most of all the fans without whom I would not be here tonight', it was hard not to get excited about how annoying some young pretenders somewhere must be finding it. For those about to rock, we salute you.

`It's Only Rock'nRoll', featuring James Brown, Ozzy Osbourne, The Spice Girls, Mick Jagger, S Club 7 and others, is out 13 December

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