Liner Notes: The Top Forty Paradox

Last week I sat down with BreakThru Radio’s DJ Wynn to discuss his Worldwide Hour program. During our conversation, we naturally slid a little off the International Music topic and delved deeper into the realm of ‘top-forty’ radio. We discussed everything from what it was, to how it has changed over the decades, to the purpose it serves in today’s ‘music-as-commodity’ industry.

When I asked DJ Wynn about his thoughts on America’s perpetual infatuation with pop music and what his thoughts were on our continuum to rank and file music by popularity, what he offered in response got me thinking. Here is what he had to say: “We both work in radio, we both know how ‘top-forty’ works…. If you want music like that [background noise with a catchy jingle or phrase], then listen to top-forty. Some of it even has its merits. Michael Jackson is ‘pop.’ That is ‘pop’ music. And even though pop has such a bad name, even if you go back to when Michael Jackson was the king of pop, I mean, his shit still holds up today, ya know?”

Yeah, I do know. Michael still reigns supreme; and he probably forever will (or at least he should). Regardless of the fact that ‘pop’ music was around long before Michael is a moot point. I am sure that most of our readers and listeners are aware that the term ‘pop’ is derived from an abbreviation for ‘popular’ and is something that has been around to describe any and all music that tops the charts in both sales and play count. However, this marketable categorizing creates an unfortunate paradox.

Historically, ‘pop’ is not a genre or style unto its own at all, but rather just a listing of what records were being played the most over the air (hence, were the most “popular”). In the late thirties and early forties, it was Billboard who set the trend and set the benchmark for the future role of popular music in both culture and capitalist economics, removing art right out of the form.

How did they do this? They began to collect data in three categories of music sales to better inform themselves about the demands of the public, and en masse listener taste. They achieved their goal by focusing on three categories of revenue stream for the albums which were being made, printed, sold, and played: 1) Record-store best sellers; 2) On-air disc jockey most played; 3) Café/dancehall/diner/bar jukeboxes most selected.

On July 20th, 1940 Billboard made a boardroom decision that would forever change the face of popular music and youth-culture around the world. They decided to publish and release to the public what had previously been insider-marketing material, calling it the Hot 100, and listing “I’ll Never Smile Again” by Frank Sinatra as Billboard’s first number one hit. Music by popularity would never be the same.

On August 4th, 1958, Billboard did away with the categorical listings and began displaying one main, all-genre single charts Hot 100. From that year forward, the songs that made this list were considered to be the most popular songs in both America and the UK (it should be noted that the American and UK lists were independent from one another).

The pop genre was born, and it had little to do with categorical sound. It ranged from rockabilly styled songs by Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley to country tunes by Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty. There were even folk tunes by The Kingston Trio and Lloyd Price.

The funny thing (or the ‘paradox’ that I was referring to in the previous paragraph) is that pop began a self-fulfilling prophecy. What was popular was on the list, what was on the list was popular. At the end of the day, it was the radio DJs who chose what the public should be listening to, and there is no doubt that a roll of dead presidents tucked inside the album jacket of a new ‘45 helped ensure the quality of the music and, ahem, guarantee the amount of air play. To put it another way, top-forty was top-forty because it was top-forty. The exposure for the public to make any other well-informed decision was simply not there. It makes one question the validity of the term popular.

For most people, especially those under thirty-five, we don’t listen to the radio through the radio anymore. However, how much has this changed the industry is difficult to say with any sort of concrete accuracy. No longer is someone out there in radio Ga-Ga land choosing your music for you. The Internet has awarded complete autonomy to the music fan. This is a good beneficial privilege to both musician and listener.

Since this is the case, one has to wonder what the point and/or function of gimmicks like Top Forty, Billboard Hot 100, MTV Music Video Awards, or even the Grammy’s are anymore. Musically? Nothing. Popularity-wise? Perhaps something.

Maybe rankings and awards like these are still an accurate way to say who is selling the most and nothing more. If that is the case, we should really consider changing the genre of ‘pop’ to ‘dupe,’ ‘obey,’ or ‘purchase’-music. The word ‘pop’ just seems like a bit of a misnomer in today’s digital, autonomous world.

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– Kory French


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