Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Death of "Top Forty"

By Stratton Rawson, Classical 94.5 WNED Sr. Producer

This past spring I turned 65. Now don’t smirk that way, it will happen to you too if it hasn’t already. So after a decade of seeing this question printed on a refrigerator magnet every time I reached for my pint of Cherry Garcia, “Are hot flashes a major cause of global warming?” I found a new magnet on the door. “Don’t fret, at 65 you’re still growing. That’s why God put hair in your ears! Now just turn up the volume.”
Yep… I’m a boomer, on the front line of a generation that started out as consummate idealists and is ending up as ideal consumers. Boomers are the first generation to endure the full, unmitigated effects of relentless marketing ; we’ve become trapped in a free market ideology as restrictive as any invented by our Puritan forefathers. I had the incredible bad luck, hard upon my 65th birthday to be required to interview about fifty teenage student musicians. After two months, 61 days of talking to 50 kids, you don’t feel old anymore, but ancient; not just out of touch or even out of date, but positively Jurassic.  
During the interview I would ask each student musician two questions. The first was, “Do you own an iPod or mp3 player?” The second question, a follow up, was, “If so what’s in it?” The answer to this first question was invariably “Yes!” And the answer to the second question always seemed to surprise me.
For example here is an answer to the second question from a 16 year old pianist. “What’s in your iPod?”
Him: “Everything.”
Me: “Everything?”
Him: “Everything of importance to me: I mean … at this time … in this space … for what I’m doing or what I intend to do! Yeah … That’s it.”
It was almost an answer that would have impressed Confucius. But all it did for me was to make me think of what I was listening to when I was his age almost fifty years ago. And what came to my mind horrified me. A song rose from the earthen basement of my psyche that I considered vulgar, wrongheaded and above all dangerous:”Roll Over Beethoven.” It wasn’t the original recording by Chuck Berry which was recorded in 55 or 56, but a recording by The Beatles meant to fill in their second album.
It horrified me because when I was 16 I was listening to Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio, and I thought Beethoven’s 9th Symphony the greatest piece of music ever written. I was teaching myself to read the score just so I could plumb (I hoped) its mysteries. How could anyone seriously “roll over Beethoven?” The song came to my attention because it was on the radio. In 1964 almost all radio simply played over and over again the Top Forty. You couldn’t avoid it no matter how deeply you sunk in other forms of music. The songs on the Top Forty were drilled into your consciousness, eventually to come to rest in the basement of your mind, to be there when all other thought had been removed or effaced. Top Forty radio amalgamated the boomer generation. Endless repetition of a core of “hits” helped to create a insatiable need to repeat the high that each “hit” delivered.
Top Forty radio happened because of two disasters. The first was the collapse of the record industry during the depression of the thirties. The industry was rescued by the invention and mass distribution of Jukeboxes. Each jukebox held forty records and once you deposited a nickel into the machine you could chose which of the forty records you wanted to hear. By collecting the information from thousands of Jukeboxes about which were the most played songs you had a pretty good list of what were the top forty records played across the USA.  The most popular music show on radio at the time did just that. It was called “Your Hit Parade”. Then in the 1950s radio ran into big trouble when its programming was taken over by TV. Radio was rescued by bringing the jukebox concept to the airwaves. And just as that was happening Rhythm and Blues, long on the sideline of mainstream popular music was becoming the most exciting of all song genres. Soon it would find its Galahad in Elvis Presley. By the time the Beatles arrived in North America, local forms of Top Forty radio dominated radio.
Technologies of personal choice and the need to diversify markets were slowly to wear away the consensus the Top Forty radio represented. Once the iPod was invented what others were listening to no longer mattered to an iPod owner. Given access to the Internet, the owners of an iPod were free to explore any kind of music that intrigued them. And what I was learning from my 50 student musicians was that they were determined to take advantage of that ability. Indeed they did seem to be listening to “Everything!” Still I report to you that chief among the everything was one group that they all listened to even if they came to the conclusion to listen to this group on their own. The Group: The Beatles! So roll over Beethoven.

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