Saturday, July 14, 2012

Songs We Used to Sing (And Still Do): In Defense of Pop Music from the '70s

Click on just about any YouTube video of a pop, R&B, or country hit released in the previous century, and you're almost certain to come across multiple comments extolling the superior music from back in the day, and damning today's shallow, mindless pop pap.

Is vacuous pop music killing the industry?

It depends on how you look at it and what you like. To the millions of people who've embraced and downloaded Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," probably not. I mean, how can a song that's sold 4.3 million copies be accused of hurting the industry? Without such big, vacuous hits, there would be no industry. So in a sense, these songs are actually keeping the industry alive.

But what's the meaning of life if the main purpose of it is to make money, not to leave behind a legacy with some merit or value that isn't completely crassly commercial? According to a recent article on Billboard.biz -- "Vacuous Pop Music Was Never the Problem" -- there's never been much meaning to pop life or pop music, at least not the kind that sells well.

"But the truth is," the article claims, "most pop music hasn't aged well." It goes on to list the Top 3 songs of 1976 -- Wings' "Silly Love Songs," Elton John and Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," and Johnny Taylor's "Disco Lady" as back-up. It then goes on to cite Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" as a benchmark of quality pop in 1976 that ranked at a dismal (to them) No. 18 among the top 100 songs of 1976

"Bohemian Rhapsody" might not have even entered the discussion had it not been for RouteNoteblog, which compared it to Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)," which I suppose now represents the epitome of modern pop. RouteNoteblog's complaint: It only took one writer and one producer to create the Queen classic as opposed to the virtual community (six writers, four producers) credited on Beyonce's 2011 single.

Oh, the problems with RouteNoteblog's faulty comparison -- and so many of the points made in the Billboard.biz article!

First of all, being the No. 18 song of any year is a huge honor. "Bohemian Rhapsody" was a massive hit in the '70s (No. 1 UK, No. 9 U.S.), and it became an even bigger hit in the '90s after lead singer Freddie Mercury's death in 1991 (No. 1 UK) and when it appeared in the 1992 film Wayne's World (No. 2 U.S.). I can't imagine a high-quality song that goes so far against the grain being so popular today.

Second, commercially speaking, there really is no comparison between "Run the World (Girls)" and "Bohemian Rhapsody." The latter was a Top 10 single upon its initial release, and only 17 songs did better among Billboard's top 100 singles of 1976. That's a pretty big accomplishment for a song that was so out there at the time. "Run the World (Girls)," in contrast, peaked at No. 29 on the Hot 100, and many cite the weak kick-off single as the primary reason that Beyonce's 4 album did not do well. It's hardly the prime example of what sells in the 2010s.

As for the vacuous greatest hits of 1976, I think the Billboard writer is way off. Paul McCartney, Elton John and Johnnie Taylor are legends in their respective genres, and although those three No. 1 hits are indeed fast-food pop, McDonald's today doesn't taste quite the same as it did in the '70s. Regardless of what you think of "Silly Love Songs," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" and "Disco Lady," they are enduring classics that remain as beloved today as they were 35 years ago, perhaps even more so.

In the year 2047, will anyone be singing anything by Taio Cruz, or Flo Rida's "Wild Ones," or even "Call Me Maybe"? Adele's "Someone Like You," yes. Gotye's "Someone That I Used to Love," possibly. "fun.'s "We Are Young," possibly not. But I suspect that I'll see Carly Rae Jepsen and all the hits she manages to scrounge up before disappearing into oblivion fade from everyone's memory by the time I die -- or well before I turn 50!

And don't get me started on the article's dismissal of disco, the '70s genre that gave us Donna Summer, Barry White and Chic!

The one good point the article does make is the idea that it takes a village to create a hit nowadays. I think this is partly the result of technology. In the '70s, people had to be in the studio together when they were recording. Nowadays, you can pass tapes around from producer to producer on various continents and cobble together something that features input from numerous people but is hardly the vision of any one of them.

Then they all demand a songwriting credit! Also, with songwriting, you have powerful performers like, well, Beyonce, who demand a credit even when her input might be limited to changing a single word on one of the verses. Let's not forget the rampant use of samples today either. They further pad the list of songwriters for any given song.

So yes, there always has been vacuous disposable pop, but vacuous disposable pop from the '70s and '80s was a lot sturdier and more durable than vacuous disposable pop from the '90s on. If you want to hear proof, just listen to Billboard's top 100 singles of 1976 and the top 100 singles of 2006. Aside from the aforementioned songs, the 1976 hit list contains iconic songs by iconic artists like the Four Seasons, the Miracles, Paul Simon, Barry Manilow, and Diana Ross.

Meanwhile, every single on it lives on today (UK singer-songwriter Rumer just covered Hall and Oates' "Sara Smile" on her current Boys Don't Cry album), if not as a classic, in infamy. The most ridiculed song on the chart, Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight" at No. 17, remains a pop classic, and Starland Vocal Band is recognized today as having pretty much defined the idea of the one-hit wonder. (Incidentally, five years later, "General Hospi-tale" would be the lone Top 40 hit for an act called the Afternoon Delight.)

Flashing forward 30 years, not only was the 2006 list led by a one-hit wonder, "Bad Day" singer Daniel Powter, but I can barely remember at least a quarter of the songs -- "Ridin'" by Chamillionaire and Krayzie Bone, "Grillz" by Nelly, Paul Wall and Ali & Gipp, "Over My Head (Cable Car)" by the Fray, "It's Goin' Down" by Yung Joc and Nitti, "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" by Panic! At the Disco -- and 2006 was only six years ago. If you were music then or now, wouldn't you rather be a silly love song than "Promiscuous" or "So Sick."

Long live '70s pop!

"Kiss and Say Goodbye" The Manhattans (No. 6 of 1976)


"Love Is Alive" Gary Wright (No. 9 of 1976)


"Misty Blue" Dorothy Moore (No. 19 of 1976)

Post a Comment