ONE WEEK IN AMERICAN POP

by Chris Schmidt

In one of the more poignant scenes of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa stand upon a rocky beach gazing forlornly at the washed-up carcass of the once impressive, still dreadful kraken. “That's a sad commentary in and of itself,” says Jack. “The world used to be a bigger place,” observes Barbossa. “World's still the same,” replies Jack. “There's just less in it.”

For many, growing old is a huge, horrifying sea monster, pursuing them from port to port. But, as you age, you realize the passing of years is not the truly scary part. Rather, it’s the sense of loss, the degradation of those things you hold dear, as a once beloved, now unrecognizable radio program. Standing upon the shores of popular culture, gazing sadly upon the lifeless, festering corpse of a world that used to make sense to me, I’m struck by the notion that cool hasn’t changed, there’s just less of it.

In the 80s, when life was simple, and I was undeniably cool, Casey Kasem broadcast the weekly American Top 40 radio countdown. It was the sort of event for which you would cancel other events. Music lovers and simply admirers of a just and ordered society would gather around their radios to listen to a compilation of the world’s most talented musicians as they delivered heartfelt renderings of their love, their craft, their art.

American Top 40 is still around. It’s now hosted by Ryan Seacrest; a sad commentary in and of itself. The format is arguably the same, in that the show delivers a countdown of contemporary hits, but the substance has changed. That is to say it hasn’t any. The program, and indeed pop music as a whole, now boils down to a hugely nepotistic popularity contest. The same six or ten “artists” just keep churning out the same generic drivel, and they’re making billions at it. These days names sell albums, not talent, nor passion, nor a predilection for music.

Am I jealous? Who wouldn’t be. Though if I’m going to be rich and famous I’d rather do so creating something worthwhile, not simply because I convinced Drake to mumble a few words on my album. Envy notwithstanding, a simple comparison of the top 10 songs from this week thirty years ago, and what just passed for the top ten on Seacrest’s show should at least partially vindicate us.

Here is the Billboard Top Ten for September 10, 1983, from which Kasem compiled his countdown:

  1. “Maniac” Michael Sembello

  2. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”  the Eurythmics

  3. “The Safety Dance”  Men Without Hats

  4. “Puttin’ On The Ritz”  Taco

  5. “Tell Her About It”  Billy Joel

  6. “Every Breath You Take”  the Police

  7. “She Works Hard For The Money”  Donna Summer

  8. “Total Eclipse of the Heart”  Bonnie Tyler

  9. “Human Nature”  Michael Jackson

  10. “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”  Culture Club

What is immediately striking about the 80’s list, besides how it’s 100% awesome, is the number of prolific artists present. Okay,”Puttin On The Ritz” may have been the high-water mark for Taco, and Michael Sembello never became a household name, but Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, the Police? 80’s musicians knew how to make an impact with their music. True, Annie Lennox and Boy George were intriguing individuals, but they were also extremely talented, and they will be revered and remembered for it. Wonder if the same will be said about the current generation of performers. I doubt many of them care.

Ryan Seacrest also follows Billboard’s list, so, as distressing as the results are, he’s not to blame. Darn it all:

  1. “Blurred Lines” Robin Thicke, featuring Pharrell and T.I.

  2. “Love Somebody” Maroon 5

  3. “Clarity” Zedd, featuring Foxes

  4. “Radioactive” Imagine Dragons

  5. “I Need Your Love” Calvin Harris, featuring Ellie Goulding             

  6. “Same Love” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, featuring Mary Lambert

  7. “Treasure” Bruno Mars                

  8. “Safe And Sound” Capital Cities

  9. “Cups” Anna Kendrick

  10. “We Can’t Stop” Miley Cyrus

Several items jump from the contemporary list; the frequent appearance of the word featuring, for instance. Duets and compilations can be wonderful. Who didn’t love the 80’s hit, “Suddenly” by Olivia Newton-John and Cliff Richard? But, Cliff and Olivia both had successful musical careers before coming together. Nowadays people are becoming famous for appearing with other people who are only famous because they performed with other famous people.  Foxes, Pharrell, Robin Thicke? Macklemore & Ryan have one album and every song on it features someone else. And Robin Thicke’s most profound accomplishment is being molested by Miley Cyrus.

And that’s another substantial failing of the current top 10 list. Miley Cyrus is on it. A few years back, Miley embarked upon a promising acting and singing career, and produced a few endearing shows and songs. However, Miley is presently in the top 10 because she can’t keep her clothes on. “We Can’t Stop” is not an awful song, but it is not one of the ten best songs in the world. But, that’s not what the top 10 represents anymore, anyway. Granted, “Maniac” reached #1 because it was in that movie most of us pretended not to like, but for the most part Casey Kasem’s top 40 was a collection of the most exemplary work of the day’s most talented artists. What we have today is muddled regurgitation by a handful of pseudo-stars who manage to convince the public that they are supposed to be popular.

Ask a kid to name any other song by Zedd. Ask them to sing even one single song lyric from T.I. What you’ll get is the kind of dismissive stare that’s laced with far more anger than is warranted, which can only come from someone much younger than you who couldn’t appreciate how cool you used to be.

And we were cool. Even the kids who listened to Taco. It was cool to care about and actually listen to music. More than the artists we took interest in the art. Okay, we papered our walls with posters of Simon Le Bon, but we also payed attention to things like tune and tone, and lyrics, and harmony. It mattered what a song sounded like, and it was cool to expect a certain quality of entertainment. Thirty years later, poor, dearly departed Mr. Kasem rests fitfully in his grave. His empire, a weathered shell rotting on a rocky beach. The aged stand beside the crashing surf and reflect upon the sad commentary that the world may not have been bigger place, but it’s certainly not the same.

Special thanks to EchoesInTheWind.net, whence we pulled the 1983 top 10 list. One would think old Billboard charts would be easier to come by, especially in a world where I can still find my freshman yearbook picture.

Christopher Schmidt is a bartending bon vivant who is often found writing about dating, Disney, and vodka.