Sunday, April 20, 2014

Why the Top of the Pops Is Losing Me

Thank God I wasn't born after my time.

If I were a tween today, what a different one I'd be from the one I was circa 1981, when my obsession with Billboard magazine's weekly charts pretty much ruled my world -- or at least my weekends. If I wasn't begging for a ride to Record Mart at Mill Creek Mall in Kissimmee, Florida, to check out the latest Billboard Hot 100 list that was always posted over the singles display (pre-Cassingles, when they were still in the 45-inch vinyl-record format), furiously writing down Nos. 1 through 40 so that I could copy them neatly to my loose-leaf folder at home, I was sending my big brother Jeff to do it for me.

Or I was hitching a ride to Newsstand, a books and magazines store in another strip mall that always stocked the latest issues of Billboard. (What a wonderful year 1984 was, for I had a subscription to Billboard and no longer had to depend on the kindness of family members with wheels.) Or I was spending three hours every Saturday and Sunday afternoon listening, respectively, to Bob Kingsley's "American Country Countdown" and "American Top 40," hosted by Casey Kasem, my childhood hero. No wonder they still call me "The Chart King"!

The music charts, particularly Billboard's Hot 100, were like another world back then, as exciting as the daytime soaps with which I was concurrently obsessed. (Casey Kasem sure knew how to spin a chart cliffhanger!) The charts were as suspenseful as the soaps, too: Would the latest singles by the biggest stars make it to the Top 10, or would they run out of steam before their arrival in the upper echelon, unsuspectingly leapfrogged over by some out-of-nowhere hit that nobody saw coming.

I still get goosebumps thinking about that Sunday in 1982 when "Heart Attack" by Olivia Newton-John jumped from No. 39 to No. 13, en route to No. 3. (Bonus points for anyone who gets the mathematical pattern of that scenario. Hint: 13 X 3 = 39.) Or the one that same year when "Sexual Healing" by Marvin Gaye was a Top 40 debut at No. 19 (also en route to No. 3).

Back then, pre-1991, when chart placings were determined not electronically via Nielsen SoundScan but by easily manipulated radio and retail reportage and therefore more vulnerable to record-label subterfuge, making them possibly as fictional as the soaps (though I had no idea at the time), superhuman jumps and sky-high debuts were far rarer than they are today. Every so often you'd have a "Physical" or a "Bette Davis Eyes" or an "Endless Love," songs that seemed to park themselves at the top of the Hot 100 forever (9 to 10 weeks), but usually there was enough turnover at the top to keep things engrossing.

What a difference three decades has made. If I were 30 years younger today, I'd probably take one glance at the Top 10 and demand, "Take me out to the ball game. Please!" Up until recently, I'd never let a Thursday go by without checking for the coming week's official charts as soon as they were posted. I gave up writing them down in loose-leaf folders decades ago, but I never stopped following them religiously. General Hospital may have fallen by the wayside for years at a time, but the Hot 100 never did.

Now that I am back on my GH kick, I've slacked off considerably on my chart watching. One is so much more compelling than the other. I sometimes don't bother to check the Hot 100 until the weekend, or a week later, and I often don't make it lower than the 30s. Unlike GH, if you miss an episode -- er, a week -- you hardly miss a thing. (I guess you can say it's sort of like Days of Our Lives that way, though I'm still loving Days a lot more.)

In recent years especially, the Hot 100 has become like the slowest-moving soap, with the same characters taking up all of the airtime and very little advancement of story. Back in 1981 when Foreigner's "Waiting for a Girl Like You" spent a record-setting 10 weeks at No. 2, held out of the top spot for nine of them by Newton-John's "Physical," which held down the summit for 10 weeks, it was a major event. Songs rarely spent that long at No. 1, much less at No. 2, making "Waiting" an instant classic.

These days, though, it seems songs regularly enter the Top 5 and take up residence there for months, occasionally trading positions with another track that's also been there for months. For the last four weeks, the Top 3 songs have been, in descending order, "Happy" by Pharrell Williams, "All of Me" by John Legend and "Dark Horse" by Katy Perry featuring Juicy J, and the entire Top 7 has been unchanged for three weeks, a record in the Hot 100's 55-year history. Once upon a time, an unchanged Top 3 for three weeks would have been ground-breaking front-page news. In 2014, it's just another three weeks in the Top 5.

So far this year, as of the chart week ending April 26, only four songs have reached the Hot 100 summit: "The Monster" by Eminem featuring Rihanna (2 weeks), "Timber" by Pitbull featuring Kesha (3 weeks), "Dark Horse" (4 weeks) and "Happy" (8 weeks and counting). Two of them are currently in the Top 3, making 2014 so far one of the most static years in the history of Billboard's Hot 100. It's a trend that's been developing for a while now. During the first four months of 2013, five songs topped the charts, compared with seven in 2011 and 2012. In 1980, 17 singles went to No. 1. Last year, only 11 did.

Meanwhile, over in the UK, the situation is the complete opposite. There's always been considerably more turnover in the UK singles Top 10, but this year it's been practically unrecognizable from week to week, and not just because there so little overlap with the U.S. Top 10. Almost all of the artists who have topped the charts in 2014 are ones that most people had never heard of at this time in 2013 (in contrast, only one U.S. chart-topper, Juicy J, was a first-timer) and most of them may very well be forgotten by the same time next year.

In three and a half months, up to the chart dated April 13, a whopping 10 singles hit No. 1, and only three of them ("Timber," "Happy" and "Tsunami [Jump]") featured artists with significant chart pedigrees. Alongside Pitbull, Kesha, Pharrell and Tinie Tempah (a guest artist on "Tsunami" by DVBBS and Borgeous, neither of whom were even active before 2012), we've had Sam Smith, 5 Seconds of Summer, Sigma and Jess Glynne, the featured artist on No. 1s by Route 94 and Clean Bandit.

Meanwhile, recent singles by established acts like Coldplay, Lily Allen and Kylie Minogue have struggled, peaking in the lower reaches of the Top 10 or just outside of it. It's like a daytime soap overrun by newbies while the vets languish on the backburner (see General Hospital's recent death of Nina Clay storyline). The UK singles chart sure could use some more star power at the top!


While this might make it easy for a geezer like me to tune out and focus on other things, I wonder about the future of today's musical youth. In 30 years, when they look back on 2014 and talk about the good old days of music, when artists were more exciting and so were the charts, will they still be talking about the 1980s?
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