Music critics these days love to argue about “rockism,” the unexamined prejudices we bring to our musical judgements, and “poptimism,” an effort to celebrate commercial stuff that some think goes way too far. My book, Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, aims to get us out of that endless back and forth by focusing on the key place songs become pop: radio, which, beginning on AM with Top 40 in the 1950s and then moving to FM in the 1970s, gave music its deepest connection to Americans. Radio made new tunes and styles familiar, perennial, memories. And unlike movies or TV, radio was structurally segmented: Different formats like country, R&B, rock, Top 40 and Adult Contemporary targeted different audiences.
The Rival Mainstreams of American Music
That’s formats, not genres: Radio sold listeners to advertisers, not music to fans, and that meant being pragmatic about the tastes of groups highly defined by age, gender, race and class, not vaunting musical standards. True believers could fume all they wanted, and they have, from Elvis Costello attacking “Radio, Radio” in his punk days to Public Enemy‘s Chuck D questioning black radio’s blackness. But the cynicism of lowest common denominator formats was good, I argue in my book, because even idealistic gatekeepers like music snobs are inherently narrow minded. In catering to chunks of everybody, not everybody all at once, what I call Top 40 democracy produced a pop scene of striking diversity, armored by commercialism. Think of the Grammy Awards, which routinely dwarf the Oscars in the number of categories represented and in demographic range. Normal, in music, became a bunch of different, simultaneous, normals: parallel and jostling mainstreams, rather than everybody forced to fit into the same blockbuster formula or accept marginal status.
How do you tell that radio format history, let alone assess its impact? I used case studies, letting The Isley Brothers tell the tale for R&B, Dolly Parton for country, and Elton John for Top 40, with a radio station, Cleveland’s WMMS, representing the rock format, a record label, A&M, representing adult contemporary and a final chapter on formats in the 21st century. It’s a lot to reckon with, so I’m grateful to get the chance to discuss my findings with three writers versed in the music I cover and attuned to questions of mainstream pop and its cultural role. For the discussion below, I asked Maura Johnston, Jason King and Michaelangelo Matos to each take portions of the book for us to focus on. Pick a mainstream, any mainstream …
Part One: Was 1984 The Greatest Year In Top 40 History Or The Beginning Of The End?
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Michaelangelo Matos: Last September, Rolling Stone‘s website asked Maura and I to help determine and write up a list of 1984’s greatest Hot 100 hits. (I requested a sequel of the 100 best non-Hot 100 hits, but no dice. It could be done, easily.) That was a fecund time, and certainly a world-building year as music fan for, I would imagine, everyone here to one degree or other.
A while back I came across a year-end playlist for KQRS-FM, the AOR/classic-rock warhorse of Minneapolis/St. Paul: The Top 92.5 Songs of 1984. It featured, for surely the first and last time since the very early seventies, at least, actual contemporary black music, and not just “Purple Rain” — a song that, as Alan Light reveals in his new Let’s Go Crazy, Prince played after calling up Neal Schon, just to make sure he wasn’t accidentally ripping off a Journey song. That shift happened at WMMS-FM in Cleveland, as well. That chapter almost uncannily mirrored my memory of every major rock-radio shift through the late Nineties.
But the early-to-mid-Eighties particularly interest me, across Democracy‘s chapters. Right after the big post-disco crash of the record business in late 1979, when what had previously been described as a “recession-proof” business had overextended itself, radio buttoned up. The most exciting new music around was post-punk (broadly defined) and hip-hop (still in its pre-Run-D.M.C. days), but you wouldn’t hear either on rock or R&B radio for a long time, except as the occasional novelty.
What I recall from that period — and this is undoubtedly down to being around people with fairly tame musical tastes, which isn’t a judgment — is a lot of AC (adult contemporary), and a lot of country crossover. So Dolly Parton’s shrewdness in mass-marketing herself (“TV appearances became the most complete way to experience Parton’s multiplicity,” Eric writes) and negotiating the mainstream market (her producer, Gary Klein, “represents the middlebrow middleground in our business,” said an exec) resonated. So did the utter whiteness of pop radio pre-Thriller, as Eric reports in his Isley Brothers chapter; black hits constituted a paltry one-tenth of the Top 40 by 1982.
Anyway, there’s a lot to pull out of this book, and there’s a particular interest of mine that the book doesn’t address at all — dance music. Much of the backlash against the term “EDM” has come from the way it collapses distinctive styles that might have much in common: Deep house is very different from dubstep. (And both “deep house” and “dubstep” have wildly different meanings based on era and audience. Just like all the categories in Eric’s book — hmmm.)
But it’s foolish to think of EDM as a genre, because as Eric demonstrates using five very different and longer-lasting musical areas, it is instead a format. You go to a festival like Electric Zoo in New York, or TomorrowWorld in Atlanta, and you get X amount of progressive house plus X amount of deep house plus X amount of trance — ad absurdum. It’s no different than programming a radio station, because a formula is calibrated and then tweaked in more-or-less real time, or at least as often as the books allow. With festivals it’s a lot of wheeling and dealing — and a lot more names than on a typical radio playlist, even one as wide as Top 40 at its broadest. Format is precisely right.
Eric, as you wrote the book, I wonder if you remembered any time frame differently than the way you found yourself describing it. Did the book correspond to (any of) your memories of specific eras?
Eric Weisbard: Thanks, Michaelangelo, I’m eagerly looking forward to reading your book The Underground Is Massive this spring, which will finally give us the history of EDM that we’ve been looking for. EDM, as you point out, despite its long history, is the new commercial pop sound of the 2010s, aided in particular by Top 40 embracing its sonics, and in return diminishing hip-hop as a textural underpinning for hit records.
I’ll add a note about Top 40. Going back to its 1950s start, the quintessential crossover format has risen and fallen every single decade, hurt at different times by hard genre sounds it struggled to package: hippie rock, heavy metal, rap, etc. That hasn’t happened in the 2000s: Top 40 radio has kept winning. The ongoing primacy of Top 40 resists the myth of internet-fostered “long tail” undergrounds succeeding. Top 40 wins as a movement of a different kind: a global force for all kinds of migrant sounds and migrant identities.
As for the late 1970s, early 1980s: Yes, that’s a key moment for Top 40 democracy, because it’s when much of the economic progress that had fueled the format system when it extended to all these different categories in the late 1960s — stations targeted different populations because now blacks, working class kids, southerners, and the like had money to spend — froze in place forever. Yuppies, that minute group of people, became a radio obsession, because 25-54 is the quintessential ad demographic and advertisers stopped believing, for a time, in the social outsiders. This is a periodic pendulum shift in radio, with huge consequences for music. Advertisers and programmers had this loss of faith in the format system: Top 40 abandons R&B and hard rock, for songs that started in country and AC, which were both whiter and — no small thing — connected to upward economic categories, the Sun Belt and white collar women workers. Rock radio flirts with Top 40 and black artists for a second, thanks to MTV, then splits into classic rock for those aged 25-54 and modern rock for … who exactly? This is where your question about memories and research comes in. I remember the early 1980s as the moment when new wave hits on MTV and modern rock radio led me to college radio and I felt part of a vanguard. Now, I think of us as a conquering elite, unaware of how our contempt for format pop justified contempt for the non-collegiate U.S.A.
Jason, for me one of the most gratifying parts of this book was telling, in detail, the story of The Isley Brothers, whose hits from the 1950s to 2000s defined R&B, their main format but at times also — from their perspective, as a group that wanted to reach all kinds of listeners, but did best within the corporate confines of a black-oriented major label subdivision — their prison. R&B flourished, but was not exactly Black Power. Do you see that glass as half full, half empty, or something else?
Part Two: The Isley Brothers And The Prison Of Crossover Success
Jason King: Let me start by saying that Eric’s Isley Brothers chapter happens to be the most skillful essay ever penned on the band (admittedly, there are not many essays on the band), and I’d vote for it as one of the most thoughtful essays on 20th century R&B I’ve come across.
It’s also a timely read. Just a couple of weeks ago, enigmatic Frank Ocean uploaded a stark cover of the Isleys’ 1976 “At Your Best (You Are Love) to his Tumblr. The cover was in tribute to Aaliyah on the anniversary of what would have been her 36th birthday: The felled singer previously covered the song in 1994 for her debut Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number. Ocean’s cover caused a minor generational stir, at least that’s what my ever-contentious Facebook timeline and Twitter feed tells me. Nonmillenial R&B fan/purists delivered critical beatdowns/history lessons to millennials who had incorrectly tweeted and status-updated Ocean’s rendition as an “Aaliah cover” rather than an “Isley Brothers cover.” The slight, decidedly benign on the scale of pop appropriation, does reaffirm how the Isley Brothers time and again get eclipsed in the historical narrative of the music they themselves create. The 1959 hit “Shout,” a subversive update on the slavery-era ring shout, becomes misremembered as caricature thanks to white frat sleeper Animal House; the 1961 smash “Twist and Shout” becomes quickly overtaken by The Beatles‘ more famous cover. Eric, you demonstrate the complexity of those erasures/appropriations, and you do a good job tracking the Isleys’ wily recalcitrance as musical journeymen over the longue durée. It’s fascinating to consider the larger cultural and political changes that informed black life in America through the lens of the Isleys and conversely, to consider how the Isleys themselves, by way of commercial radio and records, helped inform those changes too — even if they’re sometimes dismissed as thirsty-capitalist musicians rather than benevolent civil rights crusaders.
Though the Isleys have long been a beloved group in and for black communities, their initial success did not start on the black charts but on the Top 40. In the 1950s, the band aimed for the vanilla success of the Mills Brothers before careening into mainstream success at the earliest outset of soul with “Shout.” The Isleys became an R&B staple exactly at the moment that black-oriented radio formats — the kind that ultimately birthed singular talents like DJ Frankie Crocker — came into fruition. Critics endlessly debate the politics of black artists like The Supremes and Michael Jackson and Prince crossing over — that is to say, those artists’ desire to reach beyond a formative niche audience. But the Isleys’ story, as Eric lays it out, is eyebrow-raising because the band crossed back into a segregated R&B format rather than over. And that alternative journey is reflective of the multi-decades story of R&B itself.
The Isley Brothers story gets even more improbable as the decades roll by; in the ’80s the band has its “Caravan of Love” moment (I often ponder how their classics have become decontextualized TV commercial and movie soundtrack fodder in the branding- and licensing-aggressive 21st century) and their 1975 “Fight the Power” screed becomes Public Enemy fodder in Spike Lee’s monumental 1989 Do the Right Thing. Later, the Isley Brothers’ 1983 steamer “Between the Sheets” (currently the title of Chris Brown’s postponed tour, FYI) morphs into an infamous 1990s Biggie sample; and, in the same decade, R. Kelly, who produced the Aaliyah cover, rebrands lead singer Ron Isley as Mr. Biggs in (and beyond) his “Down Low” song/video cycle.
Manning Marable once wrote that racism produced twin responses in African American communities: the push to assimilation and the push to self-segregation/cultural protectionism. Sometimes seen as warring impulses, both responses are equally valid and justifiable, given the terrorizing reality of structural racism. The Isleys worked both sides of that coin. In the mid 1950s, as Eric notes, the band members didn’t hide their disdain at being classified as rock and roll: Despite the popularity of the emergent genre, they, like some other black artists of the era, aspired to more than association with a rebellious culture defined by transitional teen music, indie labels, and novelty singles. After The Beatles lay waste to early ’60s biracial pop utopia, the Isleys signed to Motown and rode high on the boho-inclusiveness and corporate soul message of “Its Your Thing” — the song’s call-to-freedom in turn set the tone for multiple identity movements in the late ’60s and ’70s. Play it alongside the Afro-Latin groove and studio experimentation of 1973’s “That Lady,” the tumescent Quiet Storm of 1975’s “For the Love of You” and the black power fervor of “Fight the Power.” Those shifty moves add up to a compelling story of shrewd careerism in black pop: the will to succeed, the hustle that we admire/recoil from in restless spirits like Diddy and Kanye. Nonpareil journeyman R. Kelly — who’ll croon with Celine Dion while writing Chi-Town steppin’ tunes in his sleep and scandalizing ears with X-rated tracks about black panties — and relative newbie Frank Ocean — who is openly gay and nakedly ambitious — have both followed in Isleys Brothers’ ultra-careerist footsteps (in the dark).
Reading about the Isleys’ fifty-plus year journey in pop and soul made me think about the also-canny Pointer sisters, who moved through a series of genres and formats throughout the course of their singular — and critically overlooked — multi-decades career, and Queen as well, given that I’m currently writing about their work. I’m also thinking about 1990s neo-soul — that return to classic soul popularized by artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, Maxwell and Jill Scott. In early press interviews, some of those artists took great umbrage with the neo-soul classification, seeing it as a straitjacket rather than as a strategic umbrella that might usefully distinguish their work from, say, then-popular new jack swing or the hip-hop soul of Mary J. Blige (herself an R&B stalwart, bopping in and out of formats and genres) and allow them to be expressively free. Part of that resistance, I think, has to do with the struggle against institutional repression itself, the fight to emerge as cosmopolitan and not be pegged as any one particular thing or another (that you didn’t create for yourself.) You can’t be free if you’re relegated to the back of the bus. But ultimate freedom doesn’t necessarily mean sitting at the front but exercising the right to sit anywhere you want to, including the front or the back. The whole bus is yours, and no better way to prove that than by shifting into a lot of different seats on your journey — just like the Isleys did.
Eric Weisbard: Wow, you covered so much there, Jason! The reason I started my case studies with the R&B format is that it predates Top 40: Black-listener-oriented radio started in 1948 on Memphis’s WDIA, before all-hits radio was a thought, then Billboard started its Rhythm & Blues chart the next year, not coincidentally. R&B radio recognized black America as urban and urbane, gave musicians a platform to leap from and a home to return to (lacking in movies and TV). But it was still, always, the worst funded, most inequitable portion of the radio world. And hallowed WDIA is now part of the iHeartRadio chain: the former Clear Channel. You can see that as a sad parable for innovative radio and black cultural aspirations. But I think that, ultimately, cultural formations should be judged by what their worst tendencies accomplish, not just the idealistic, canonical exceptions. The Isley Brothers, chasing every trend, were — like Dolly Parton, like Elton John — the kind of performers who are not, fundamentally, driven by aesthetics — they want results. Those sorts of artists never do well when histories are written; they’re too slippery and their works too varied in quality. But as you put it so beautifully, they sure do find their way to every part of the bus!
Maura, I know you’ve been one of the few critics to champion new mainstream rock in the 21st century: Funny how what’s still the biggest category of music as a genre never made peace with its role in the format system. What do you make of rock’s struggle to get new sounds on radio that can be three impossible things at once: popular, appealing across different demographics, and still considered rock by hardcore fans? Is rock an outlier, or reflective of other challenges that Top 40 democracy has faced in recent years?
Part Three: Modern Rock Is Kind Of A Mess
Maura Johnston: Earlier this decade, Metallica — the kings of thrash — decided to cash in on their capital with metal fans by throwing a festival called Orion Music + More. It might have had the most backyard-barbecue feel of all the American festivals I’ve attended over the past few years; each member of the band had a pavilion devoted to his interests. But what most impressed me about it was its booking, which cast a wide net around the idea of “rock” instead of going down-the-middle with artists who would be expected to appeal to Metallica fans. Country chronicler Eric Church, garage triumphalists Hot Snakes, transcendental metallurgists Liturgy and the bleak post-punkers Arctic Monkeys were on the first year’s bill, while year two had the stomping Dirtbombs, metal-gazers Deftones, scorching Dead Sara and mad scientists of the Dillinger Escape Plan, as well as a stage devoted to EDM. It was, in a lot of ways, my platonic ideal of a festival, thanks to its wide remit; it also completely tanked, and ended after two years.
Orion came to mind a few times while I read Eric’s chapter on rock radio and The Buzzard, the one-time counterculture beacon that helped define both Cleveland’s and this country’s idea of rock and roll. The genre known has “rock” has a wide definition that could be seen as alternately intimidating and incoherent — look at the outcry that occurs whenever someone whose career path lists just a little bit too close to “pop” (itself a nebulous term) gets on the short list for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The business needs of radio, as outlined in Top 40 Democracy, require a certain amount of narrowcasting in order to sell demographics to advertisers; but it becomes more boundary-drawing than anything else, overt decrying of certain influences even while certain signifiers creep into the sounds being played.
In a lot of ways my taste evolution mirrors that old story told by the late Jani Lane on the Behind The Music, about Columbia records swapping out a giant poster of the ogling hard rockers Warrant for one featuring the doom-and-gloom Seattleites Alice In Chains; my taste for spectacle-heavy hard rock gave way to artists who were swept up in the “alternative” boom. Sonically, the bands existed on more of a continuum than some histories claim; I heard Soundgarden’s squalls, Mother Love Bone’s smudged-eyeliner take on glam and Alice In Chains’s thousand-yard staring on Headbanger’s Ball, after all. But the mental visual that was provided by the idea of alternative sweeping aside Sunset Strip-bred leather boys with electric toys by sheer force of their Realness was too tempting for those people who fancied themselves rock purists to not eat up, at least theoretically. That privileging of “real” even persists today; WZLX, the classic-rock station up here in Boston, has let a bunch of bands birthed 25 years ago into its canon, and you can bet that more of them were known for wearing flannel than Aqua Net.
But I still listen, because I feel comfort in rock, or at least ZLX’s idea of it, even though it doesn’t have a lot of women and I’d much rather hear “Down Boys” than late-period Chili Peppers. I fully admit that my halcyon era for commercial rock radio was that blip during the ’90s when bands like Veruca Salt and The Breeders — who had women in roles that went beyond “token bass player” — were butting up against Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam. It was an era that felt fairly open to possibility, as close to the freeform-yet-commercial ideal espoused by Boomers as I could have imagined. It was still exceedingly white in a way that presaged the “ironic hip-hop cover” scourge; it was also a lot shorter-lived than the institutional memory would like to think. But it was still interesting enough to prove itself as commercial suicide, ushering in the era of ladies being splintered off to Lilith Fair and Limp Bizkit and their breaking-stuff brethren taking over rock radio.
Rock, in 2015, is kind of a mess, with multiple mainstreams — and that’s still true if you remove a) bands like Fall Out Boy and Paramore who have graduated to a place in the pop firmament and b) those listeners whose idea of “new music” stops at the latest discs by classic-rock mainstays. The two largest mainstreams are somewhat divided by class, or at least ideas of such. On one side you have both the music-for-its-own-sake types championed by “indie” labels and those artists who specialize in what I call “sync-core” — tasteful recordings that could soundtrack a morning at the office or a coolly cheerful car ad. On the other are the strivers, whether they’re the still (righteously) pissed bands of dudes touting their alienation or those bands who spend their summers pressing the flesh at Warped Tour. (A few acts dance between the two poles — Arctic Monkeys and Queens Of The Stone Age, two of my favorite acts, come to mind immediately. Like I said, this split is a very rough one.) One of these mainstreams is disproportionately covered by the press, especially if you count ad agencies among “press.” The other is looked down upon almost reflexively and dismissed — in 2014 two of my favorite albums were by artists who had fronted formerly popular bands from the latter side (Brody Dalle, formerly of Distillers, and Gerard Way, ex-My Chemical Romance) and the lack of critical notice those records received would have probably been more galling if the reasons weren’t so obvious.
The squabbling over the idea of what rock means in 2015 — guitar-drums-bass? no synthesizers? keyboards only if they aren’t electronically amplified? — is absolutely indicative of the struggles listeners have with figuring out what they like, mostly because of how much time they have to do so. (Spoiler: Not a lot.) A rock station in 2015 aesthetically could absolutely encompass the pugnacious spirit of Paramore, the last-call gloom of Arctic Monkeys, the sparkle-flecked gauze of Silversun Pickups and even the more guitar-heavy offerings of the constantly striving Miguel and the harder tracks by Eric Church; the tricky part comes when the commercial imperative is introduced, the delicate art of balancing the needs of the market’s iron fist with the desire to be entertained by rebellion, or at least the notion thereof.
Eric Weisbard: I think my favorite sentence in my book is: “Rock radio had narrowcast itself into a frustrated howl.” But one of the reasons I looked closely at rock, the ENEMY in so many poptimist narratives, is that, as a format rather than an ever-so-touchy and fragmented genre, it wasn’t so oppressive. In fact, it was arguably the biggest loser in the format game. For one, advertisers in the age of the yuppie and afterwards through our moment’s upper class hipsters distrusted its heavy metal leaning, working class, “earthdog” fans. But also, those fans crapped on success with a romanticization of anti-format and anti-commercial styles. Even Metallica could not be seen as, precisely, pop — and this the band with the biggest selling album of the SoundScan era! If that’s not pop, what is? Rock, the format, stopped being able to break new bands regularly after the 1970s. The grunge of the early ’90s that you recall so fondly was an aberration: At the Buzzard, they brought back the program director from the glory days of the 1970s, then fired him when it became clear there was no coming back. And yet: One looks to the continued success of KROQ in Los Angeles, doing what WMMS did in the 1970s, which is to say making new rock commercially attractive without apology and raking in big audiences and big profits. Why can’t other stations pull off the same feat?
Maybe, with huge thanks to my three interlocutors, that’s a good place to end this journey through the music that formats made. I’d question one phrase of Maura’s: To me, “the market’s iron fist” is an abstraction — better to look at specific markets at specific times, discovering along the way how, from the 1970s onwards, music formats have revamped the age-old role of the theater set up alongside the marketplace in the spirit of communal festivity and the spending of coin. Every time music consciously sells itself to one format category and not another it puts the taste of that audience ahead of the taste of an artist or aesthetes. Something is lost in the exchange, but something is also discovered: about what that collective group of people needs, what calls they respond to. It’s a long story by now, informing each of the now-hallowed format representatives you’ll see performing at the Grammys. All will seem utterly normal — that’s the point. Yet think, as you watch, about how category-by-category those musical norms, and the listeners attached to them, are also strikingly different. Top 40 democracy is as messy as any other form of democracy, but it means that when it comes to music we’re not all left trying to carve a piece of the same pie.