One of my father’s favorite quips is, “In the 60s and 70s people learned to play before they made records.” I dream of those days, when music was an art and not a product, and when the Top 40 actually represented the best music out at the time. Flashback 40 years, and you’ll find the Top 40 list of 1969 sprinkled with time-honored hits like Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” The Zombies’ “Time of The Season,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner,” The Beatles’ “Get Back.” The list goes on and on.
You know what’s on the list now? I’ll give you a hint; the lyrics go like this:
You’re a womanizer, oh
You’re a womanizer baby
Wait it gets better…
You, you, you are
You, you, you are
Womanizer, womanizer, womanizer.
If you haven’t guessed by now, the song is “Womanizer” by Britney Spears, and its unabashed delivery of pre-fabricated, uninspired radio garbage is a slap in the face to people with ears everywhere.
The saddest part is that, against the other Top 40 competition, Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” starts to sound like the most genuine attempt at song craft available. But while my roommate and I pretend to be giddy over Miley’s endless product line (we have a life-sized cut out and matching Hannah Montana lip gloss rings), it’s really just a nauseating joke to cover up my true disdain. If Disney’s tween star is the best thing our modern, consumerist culture has to offer, I’m officially leaving the planet.
Who decides the Top 40? The vast majority of people I know share my loathing for what the list has to offer, and yet there it stands—a glaring monument of proof that those songs are full-blown, screaming fans popular. Is this the case of some big wig exec milking the naiveté of the masses, recklessly pulling the reigns of the bandwagon and culturally blindfolding everyone who hops on? In my mind, he also smokes cigars and has an evil mustache. This is probably not the case.
In reality, however, over 81% of the market is controlled by four major labels. Warner, EMI, Sony-BMG, and Universal are sitting pretty in the warm comfort of oligopolistic control, and I’d bet two front row tickets to a Jonas Brothers concert their CEOs don’t listen to the stuff they produce.
To be fair, the big four are so huge, they actually do manage to put out some good music by real artists, but those acts are flown so low under the radar few ever get noticed.
In a music forum at abovetopsecret.com, the user “Theneo” offered this pearl of wisdom:
Music is now the preserve of people that have
no talent but massive ambition. They sing and
dance and model and parade around and are
more famous for how they dress than their
It seems beauty trumps talent in the age of digitized everything and bona fide not- so-much. The hair is fake, the tan is fake, the boobs are debatably fake; why not the music too? New pitch correction technology makes it possible for good looking people to get into the music industry for that reason alone, and apparently a pretty face on an album cover is easier to sell than a mind-blowing guitar solo. But, and it’s a big but, we’re the ones buying into it.
Some mornings, as I lay in bed, listening to my neighbor wail through our thin apartment walls to the cookie cutter sounds of Rhianna and Lady Gaga, I have to wonder: Is there really value in the music coming out of the Top 40 factory? Do people genuinely like this stuff?
Yes, I did own the Spice Girls’ first album, and I turned up the volume far louder than my mother could stand when Hanson’s “Mmmbop” came on the radio. But that was when I was nine, not 15, and certainly not 20.
Up until that point practically everything I had been exposed to was spoon-fed to me by parents, teachers, or Saturday morning cartoons. It only made sense to be spoon fed music by the pop demigods of major record labels and their PR deals with MTV (which my father devotedly refers to as “The Devil”).
But I also focused my attention on 90s gems like TLC’s Crazy Sexy Cool, The Cardigans’ First band on the Moon, and No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. (The first three albums I ever bought, in order.) While these aren’t exactly masterpieces, they did come from talented people with relatively meaningful messages to share—AIDS awareness, heartache, feminist anti-oppression. It was pop, but I was learning something, man. And, by the way, I still enjoy those entire albums today.
If I was force fed what the music machine is doling out now, I’d grow up with a world view entirely devoted to big asses and expensive champagne, and I wouldn’t remember a drop of it by next week. The product of music has become as expendable as Q-tips and paper clips, and just one more thing to throw on top of our heaping, socio-cultural pile of garbage.
Phew... that felt good.