"Forget the canonical version of pop's past and learn to think like a radio, that surprisingly persistent force in shaping our listening lives. It can tame and it can maim, but it adds a jostling vitality that crackles with the tensions of history. Weisbard is a wide-viewed, big-eared, provocative analyst of how it's all worked via fickle formats, tuned-in stars who've never received such smart critical attention (Dolly! Elton! The Isleys! Herb Alpert!), ‘record men,’ meathead rock jocks, and more. There's a fact or insight on every page that will spin your dial. So you better do as you are told: you better read about your radio." – Carl Wilson, author of Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste
The Logic of Formats
Nearly every history of Top 40 launches from an anecdote about how radio station manager Todd Storz came up with the idea sometime between World War II and the early 1950s, watching with friends in a bar in Omaha as customers repeatedly punched up the same few songs on the jukebox. A waitress, after hearing the tunes for hours, paid for more listens, though she was unable to explain herself. “When they asked why, she replied, simply: ‘I like ’em.’ ” As Storz said on another occasion, “Why this should be, I don’t know. But I saw waitresses do this time after time.” He resolved to program a radio station following the same principles: the hits and nothing but the hits.
Storz’s aha moment has much to tell about Top 40’s complicated relationship to musical diversity. He might be seen as an entrepreneur with his ear to the ground, like the 1920s furniture salesman who insisted hillbilly music be recorded or the 1970s Fire Island dancer who created remixes to extend the beat. Or he could be viewed as a schlockmeister lowering standards for an inarticulate public, especially women —so often conceived as mass-cultural dupes. Though sponsored broadcasting had been part of radio in America, unlike much of the rest of the world, since its beginnings, Top 40 raised hackles in a postwar era concerned about the numbing effects of mass culture. “We become a jukebox without lights,” the Radio Advertising Bureau’s Kevin Sweeney complained. Time called Storz the “King of the Giveaway” and complained of broadcasting “well larded with commercials.”
Storz and those who followed answered demands that licensed stations serve a communal good by calling playlist catholicity a democracy of sound: “If the public suddenly showed a preference for Chinese music, we would play it . . . I do not believe there is any such thing as better or inferior music.” Top 40 programmer Chuck Blore, responding to charges that formats stifled creative DJs, wrote, “He may not be as free to inflict his musical taste on the public, but now, and rightfully, I think, the public dictates the popular music of the day.” Mike Joseph boasted, “When I first go into a market, I go into every record store personally. I’ll spend up to three weeks doing interviews, with an average of forty-five minutes each. And I get every single thing I can get: the sales on every configuration, every demo for every single, the gender of every buyer, the race of every buyer. . . . I follow the audience flow of the market around the clock.” Ascertaining public taste became a matter of extravagant claim for these professional intermediaries: broadcasting divided into “dayparts” to impact commuters, housewives, or students.
Complicating the tension between seeing formats as pandering or as deferring to popular taste was a formal quality that Top 40 also shared with the jukebox: it could encompass many varieties of hits or group a subset for a defined public. This duality blurred categories we often keep separate. American show business grew from blackface minstrelsy and its performative rather than innate notion of identity —pop as striking a pose, animating a mask, putting on style or a musical. More folk and genre-derived notions of group identity, by contrast, led to the authenticity-based categories of rock, soul, hip-hop, and country. Top 40 formats drew on both modes, in constantly recalibrated proportions. And in doing so, the logic of formats, especially the 1970s format system that assimilated genres, unsettled notions of real and fake music.
Go back to Storz’s jukebox. In the late 1930s, jukeboxes revived a record business collapsed by free music on radio and the Great Depression. Jack Kapp in particular, working for the US branch of British-owned Decca, tailored the records he handled to boom from the pack: swing jazz dance beats, slangy vernacular from black urban culture, and significant sexual frankness. This capitalized on qualities inherent in recordings, which separated sound from its sources in place, time, and community, allowing both new artifice — one did not know where the music came from, exactly — and new realism: one might value, permanently, the warble of a certain voice, suggesting a certain origin. Ella Fitzgerald, eroticizing the nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” in 1938 on Decca, with Chick Webb’s band behind her, could bring more than a hint of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom to a place like Omaha, as jukeboxes helped instill a national youth culture. Other jukeboxes highlighted the cheating songs of honky-tonk country or partying &B: urban electrifications of once-rural sounds. By World War II, pop was as much these brash cross-genre jukebox blends as it was the Broadway-Hollywood-network radio axis promoting Irving Berlin’s genteel “White Christmas.”
Todd Storz’s notion of Top 40 put the jukebox on the radio. Records had not always been a radio staple. Syndicated network stations avoided “canned music”; record labels feared the loss of sales and often stamped “Not Licensed for Radio Broadcast” on releases. So the shift that followed television’s taking original network programming was twofold: local radio broadcasting that relied on a premade consumer product. Since there were many more records to choose from than network shows, localized Top 40 fed a broader trend that allowed an entrepreneurial capitalism — independent record-label owners such as Sam Phillips of Sun Records, synergists such as American Bandstand host Dick Clark, or station managers such as Storz—to compete with corporations like William Paley’s Columbia Broadcasting System, the so-called Tiffany Network, which included Columbia Records. The result, in part, was rock and roll, which had emerged sonically by the late 1940s but needed the Top 40 system to become dominant with young 45 RPM – singles buyers by the end of the 1950s.
An objection immediately presents itself, one that will recur throughout this study: Was Top 40 rock and roll at all, or a betrayal of the rockabilly wildness that Sam Phillips’s roster embodied for the fashioning of safe teen idols by Dick Clark? Did the format destroy the genre? The best answer interrogates the question: Didn’t the commerce-first pragmatism of formatting, with its weak boundaries, free performers and fans inhibited by tighter genre codes? For Susan Douglas, the girl group records of the early 1960s made possible by Top 40 defy critics who claim that rock died between Elvis Presley’s army induction and the arrival of the Beatles. Yes, hits like “Leader of the Pack” were created by others, often men, and were thoroughly commercial. Yes, they pulled punches on gender roles even as they encouraged girls to identify with young male rebels. But they “gave voice to all the warring selves inside us struggling.” White girls admired black girls, just as falsetto harmonizers like the Beach Boys allowed girls singing along to assume male roles in “nothing less than musical cross-dressing.” Top 40’s “euphoria of commercialism,” Douglas argues, did more than push product; “tens of millions of young girls started feeling, at the same time, that they, as a generation, would not be trapped.” Top 40, like the jukebox before it and MTV afterward, channeled cultural democracy: spread it but contained it within a regulated, commercialized path.
We can go back further than jukebox juries becoming American Bandstands. Ambiguities between democratic culture and commodification are familiar within cultural history. As Jean-Christophe Agnew points out in his study Worlds Apart, the theater and the marketplace have been inextricable for centuries, caught up as capitalism developed in “the fundamental problematic of a placeless market: the problems of identity, intentionality, accountability, transparency, and reciprocity that the pursuit of commensurability invariably introduces into that universe of particulate human meanings we call culture.” Agnew’s history ranges from Shakespeare to Melville’s Confidence Man, published in 1857. At that point in American popular culture, white entertainers often performed in blackface, jumping Jim Crow and then singing a plaintive “Ethiopian” melody by Stephen Foster. Eric Lott’s book on minstrelsy gives this racial mimicry a handy catchphrase: Love and Theft. Tarred-up actors, giddy with the new freedoms of a white man’s democracy but threatened by industrial “wage slavery,” embodied cartoonish blacks for social comment and anti-bourgeois rudeness. Amid vicious racial stereotyping could be found performances that respectable theater disavowed. Referring to a popular song of the era, typically performed in drag, the New York Tribune wrote in 1853, “ ‘Lucy Long’ was sung by a white negro as a male female danced.” And because of minstrelsy’s fixation on blackness, African Americans after the Civil War found an entry of sorts into entertainment: as songwriter W. C. Handy unceremoniously put it, “The best talent of that generation came down the same drain. The composers, the singers, the musicians, the speakers, the stage performers —the minstrel shows got them all.” If girl groups showcase liberating possibility in commercial constraints, minstrelsy challenges unreflective celebration.
Entertainment, as it grew into the brashest industry of modernizing America, fused selling and singing as a matter of orthodoxy. The three-act minstrel show stamped formats on show business early on, with its songand-dance opening, variety-act olio, and dramatic afterpiece, its interlocutors and end men. Such structures later migrated to variety, vaudeville, and Broadway. After the 1890s, tunes were supplied by Tin Pan Alley sheet-music publishers, who professionalized formula songwriting and invented “payola”— ethically dubious song plugging. These were song factories, unsentimental about creativity, yet the evocation of cheap tinniness in the name was deliberately outrageous, announcing the arrival of new populations —Siberian-born Irving Berlin, for example, the Jew who wrote “White Christmas.” Tin Pan Alley’s strictures of form but multiplicity of identity paved the way for the Brill Building teams who wrote the girl group songs, the Motown Records approach to mainstreaming African American hits, and even millennial hitmakers from Korean “K-Pop” to Sweden’s Cheiron Studios. Advertisers, Timothy Taylor’s history demonstrates, used popular music attitude as early as they could —sheet-music parodies, jingles, and the showmanship of radio hosts like crooner Rudy Vallee designed to give products “ginger, pep, sparkle, and snap.”
The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, a Top 40 forerunner with in-house vocalists performing the leading tunes, was “music for advertising’s sake,” its conductor said in 1941.
Radio, which arrived in the 1920s, was pushed away from a BBC model and toward what Thomas Streeter calls “corporate liberalism” by leaders like Herbert Hoover, who declared as commerce secretary, “We should not imitate some of our foreign colleagues with governmentally controlled broadcasting supported by a tax upon the listener.” In the years after the 1927 Radio Act, the medium consolidated around sponsor-supported syndicated network shows, successfully making radio present by 1940 in 86 percent of American homes and some 6.5 million cars, with average listening of four hours a day. The programming, initially local, now fused the topsy-turvy theatrics of vaudeville and minstrelsy —Amos ’n’ Andy ranked for years with the most popular programs —with love songs and soap operas aimed at the feminized intimacy of the bourgeois parlor. Radio’s mass orientation meant immigrants used it to embrace a mainstream American identity; women confessed sexual feelings for the likes of Vallee as part of the bushels of letters sent to favored broadcasters; and Vox Pop invented the “man on the street” interview, connecting radio’s commercialized public with more traditional political discourse and the Depression era’s documentary impulse. While radio scholars have rejected the view of an authoritarian, manipulative “culture industry,” classically associated with writers such as the Frankfurt School’s Theodor Adorno, historian Elena Razlogova offers an important qualification: “by the 1940s both commercial broadcasters and empirical social scientists . . . shared Adorno’s belief in expert authority and passive emotional listening.” Those most skeptical of mass culture often worked inside the beast.
Each network radio program had a format. So, for example, Kate Smith, returning for a thirteenth radio season in 1942, offered a three-act structure within each broadcast: a song and comedy slot, ad, drama, ad, and finally a segment devoted to patriotism —fitting for the singer of “God Bless America.” She was said by Billboard, writing with the slangy prose that characterized knowing and not fully genteel entertainment professionals, to have a show that “retains the format which, tho often heavy handed and obvious, is glovefit to keep the tremendous number of listeners it has acquired and do a terrific selling job for the sponsor”— General Foods. The trade journal insisted, “Next to a vocal personality, a band on the air needs a format —an idea, a framework of showmanship.”
Top 40 formats addressed the same need to fit broadcast, advertiser, and public, but through a different paradigm: what one branded with an on-air jukebox approach was now the radio station itself, to multiple sponsors. Early on, Top 40s competed with nonformat stations, the “full service” AM’s that relied on avuncular announcers with years of experience, in-house news, community bulletins, and songs used as filler. As formats came to dominate, with even news and talk stations formatted for consistent sound, competing sonic configurations hailed different demographics. But no format was pure: to secure audience share in a crowded market, a programmer might emphasize a portion of a format (Quiet Storm &B) or blur formats (country crossed with easy listening). Subcategories proliferated, creating what a 1978 how-to book called “the radio format conundrum.” The authors, listing biz slang along the lines of MOR, Good Music, and Chicken Rock, explained, “Words are coined, distorted and mutilated, as the programmer looks for ways to label or tag a format, a piece of music, a frame of mind.”
A framework of showmanship in 1944 had become a frame of mind in 1978. Formats began as theatrical structures but evolved into marketing devices — efforts to convince sponsors of the link between a mediated product and its never fully quantifiable audience. Formats did not idealize culture; they sold it. They structured eclecticism rather than imposing aesthetic values. It was the customer’s money —a democracy of whatever moved people.
The Counterlogic of Genres
At about the same time Todd Storz watched the action at a jukebox in Omaha, sociologist David Riesman was conducting in-depth interviews with young music listeners. Most, he found, were fans of what was popular— uncritical. But a minority of interviewees disliked “name bands, most vocalists (except Negro blues singers), and radio commercials.” They felt “a profound resentment of the commercialization of radio and musicians.” They were also, Riesman reported, overwhelmingly male.
American music in the twentieth century was vital to the creation of what Grace Hale’s account calls “a nation of outsiders.” “Hot jazz” adherents raved about Louis Armstrong’s solos in the 1920s, while everybody else thought it impressive enough that Paul Whiteman’s orchestra could syncopate the Charleston and introduce “Rhapsody in Blue.” By the 1930s, the in-crowd were Popular Front aligned, riveted at the pointedly misnamed cabaret Café Society, where doormen had holes in their gloves and Billie Holiday made the anti-lynching, anti-minstrelsy “Strange Fruit” stop all breathing. Circa Riesman’s study, the hipsters Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac would celebrate redefined hot as cool, seeding a 1960s San Francisco scene that turned hipsters into hippie counterculture.
But the urge to value music as an authentic expression of identity appealed well beyond outsider scenes and subcultures. Hank Williams testified, “When a hillbilly sings a crazy song, he feels crazy. When he sings, ‘I Laid My Mother Away,’ he sees her a-laying right there in the coffin. He sings more sincere than most entertainers because the hillbilly was raised rougher than most entertainers. You got to know a lot about hard work. You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly. The people who has been raised something like the way the hillbilly has knows what he is singing about and appreciates it.” Loretta Lynn reduced this to a chorus: “If you’re looking at me, you’re looking at country.” Soul, rock, and hip-hop offered similar sentiments. An inherently folkloric valuation of popular music, Karl Miller has written, “so thoroughly trounced minstrelsy that historians rarely discuss the process of its ascendance. The folkloric paradigm is the air that we breathe.”
For this study, I want to combine subcultural outsiders and identity-group notions of folkloric authenticity into a single opposition to formats: genres. If entertainment formats are an undertheorized category of analysis, though a widely used term, genres have been highly theorized. By sticking with popular music, however, we can identify a few accepted notions. Music genres have rules: socially constructed and accepted codes of form, meaning, and behavior. Those who recognize and are shaped by these rules belong to what pioneering pop scholar Simon Frith calls “genre worlds”: configurations of musicians, listeners, and figures mediating between them who collectively create a sense of inclusivity and exclusivity. Genres range from highly specific avant-gardes to scenes, industry categories, and revivals, with large genre “streams” to feed subgenres. If music genres cannot be viewed —as their adherents might prefer —as existing outside of commerce and media, they do share a common aversion: to pop shapelessness.
Deconstructing genre ideology within music can be as touchy as insisting on minstrelsy’s centrality: from validating Theft to spitting in the face of Love. Producer and critic John Hammond, progressive in music and politics, gets rewritten as the man who told Duke Ellington that one of his most ambitious compositions featured “slick, un-negroid musicians,” guilty of “aping Tin Pan Alley composers for commercial reasons.” A Hammond obsession, 1930s Mississippi blues guitarist Robert Johnson has his credentials to be called “King of the Delta Blues” and revered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Rolling Stones questioned by those who want to know why Delta blues, as a category, was invented and sanctified after the fact and how that undercut more urban and vaudeville-inflected, not to mention female, “classic” blues singers such as Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, and Bessie Smith.
The tug-of-war between format and genre, performative theatrics and folkloric authenticity, came to a head with rock, the commercially and critically dominant form of American music from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Fifties rock and roll had been the music of black as much as white Americans, southern as much as northern, working class far more than middle class. Rock was both less inclusive and more ideological: what Robert Christgau, aware of the politics of the shift from his first writing as a founding rock critic, called “all music deriving primarily from the energy and influence of the Beatles—and maybe Bob Dylan, and maybe you should stick pretensions in there someplace.” Ellen Willis, another pivotal early critic, centered her analysis of the change on the rock audience’s artistic affiliations: “I loved rock and roll, but I felt no emotional identification with the performers. Elvis Presley was my favorite singer, and I bought all his records; just the same, he was a stupid, slicked-up hillbilly, a bit too fat and soft to be really good-looking, and I was a middle-class adolescent snob.” Listening to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones was a far different process: “I couldn’t condescend to him — his ‘vulgarity’ represented a set of social and aesthetic attitudes as sophisticated as mine.”
The hippies gathered at Woodstock were Riesman’s minority segment turned majority, but with a difference. They no longer esteemed contemporary versions of “Negro blues singers”: only three black artists played Woodstock. Motown-style format pop was dismissed as fluff in contrast to English blues-rock and other music with an overt genre lineage. Top 40 met disdain, as new underground radio centered on “freeform”— meaning free of format. Music critics like Christgau, Willis, and Frith challenged these assumptions at the time, with Frith’s Sound Effects the strongest account of rock’s hypocritical “intimations of sincerity, authenticity, art — noncommercial concerns,” even as “rock became the record industry.” In a nation of outsiders, rock ruled, or as a leftist history, Rock ’n’ Roll Is Here to Pay, snarked, “Music for Music’s Sake Means More Money.” Keir Keightley elaborates, “One of the great ironies of the second half of the twentieth century is that while rock has involved millions of people buying a mass-marketed, standardized commodity (CD, cassette, LP) that is available virtually everywhere, these purchases have produced intense feelings of freedom, rebellion, marginality, oppositionality, uniqueness and authenticity.” In 1979, rock fans led by a rock radio DJ blew up disco records; as late as 2004, Kelefa Sanneh felt the need to deconstruct rock-ism in the New York Times.
Yet it would be simplistic to reduce rockism to its disproportions of race, gender, class, and sexuality. What fueled and fuels such attitudes toward popular music, ones hardly limited to rock alone, is the dream of music as democratic in a way opposite to how champions of radio formats justified their playlists. Michael Kramer, in an account of rock far more sympathetic than most others of late, argues that the countercultural era refashioned the bourgeois public sphere for a mass bohemia: writers and fans debated in music publications, gathered with civic commitment at music festivals, and shaped freeform radio into a community instrument. From the beginning, “hip capitalism” battled movement concerns, but the notion of music embodying anti-commercial beliefs, of rock as revolutionary or at least progressive, was genuine. The unity of the rock audience gave it more commercial clout: not just record sales, but arena-sized concerts, the most enduring music publication in Rolling Stone, and ultimately a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to debate rock against rock and roll or pop forever. Discursively, if not always in commercial reality, this truly was the Rock Era.
The mostly female listeners of the Top 40 pop formats bequeathed by Storz’s jukebox thus confronted, on multiple levels, the mostly male listeners of a rock genre that traced back to the anti-commercial contingent of Riesman’s interviewees. A democracy of hit songs, limited by its capitalist nature, was challenged by a democracy of genre identity, limited by its demographic narrowness. The multi-category Top 40 strands I will be examining were shaped by this enduring tension.
Pop Music in the Rock Era
Jim Ladd, a DJ at the Los Angeles freeform station KASH-FM, received a rude awakening in 1969 when a new program director laid down some rules. “We would not be playing any Top 40 bullshit, but real rock ’n’ roll; and there was no dress code. There would, however, be something known as ‘the format.’ ” Ladd was now told what to play. He writes bitterly about those advising stations. “The radio consultant imposed a statistical grid over the psychedelic counterculture, and reduced it to demographic research. Do you want men 18–24, adults 18–49, women 35–49, or is your target audience teens? Whatever it may be, the radio consultant had a formula.” Nonetheless, the staff was elated when, in 1975, KASH beat Top 40 KHJ, “because to us, it represented everything that we were trying to change in radio. Top 40 was slick, mindless pop pap, without one second of social involvement in its format.” Soon however, KAOS topped KASH with a still tighter format: “balls-out rock ’n’ roll.”
Ladd’s memoir, for all its biases, demonstrates despite itself why it would be misleading to view rock /pop or genre /format dichotomies as absolute divisions. By the mid-1970s, album-oriented rock (AOR) stations, like soul and country channels, pursued a format strategy as much as Top 40 or AC, guided by consultants and quarterly ratings. Rock programmers who used genre rhetoric of masculine rebellion (“balls-out rock ’n’ roll”) still honored Storz’s precept that most fans wanted the same songs repeated. Stations divided listeners explicitly by age and gender and tacitly by race and class. The division might be more inclusive: adults, 18–49; or less so: men, 18–34. The “psychedelic counterculture” ideal of dropping out from the mass had faded, but so had some of the mass: crossover appeal was one, not always desirable, demographic. And genre longings remained, with Ladd’s rockist disparagement of Top 40 symptomatic: many, including those in the business, quested for “social involvement” and disdained format tyranny. If AOR was formatted à la pop, pop became more like rock and soul, as seen in the power ballad, which merged rock’s amplification of sound and self with churchy and therapeutic exhortation.
Pop music in the rock era encompassed two strongly appealing, sometimes connected, but more often opposed impulses. The logic of formats celebrated the skillful matching of a set of songs with a set of people: its proponents idealized generating audiences, particularly new audiences, and prided themselves on figuring out what people wanted to hear. To believe in formats could mean playing it safe, with the reliance on experts and contempt for audiences that Razlogova describes in an earlier radio era: one cliché in radio was that stations were never switched off for the songs they didn’t play, only the ones they did. But there were strong business reasons to experiment with untapped consumer segments, to accentuate the “maturation” of a buying group with “contemporary”— a buzzword of the times —music to match. To successfully develop a new format, like the urban contemporary approach to black middle-class listeners, marked a great program director or consultant, and market-to-market experimentation in playlist emphasis was constant. Record companies, too, argued that a song like “Help Me Make It through the Night,” Kris Kristofferson’s explicit 1971 hit for Sammi Smith, could attract classier listeners for the country stations that played it.
By contrast, the logic of genres —accentuated by an era of counterculture, black power, feminism, and even conservative backlash — celebrated the creative matching of a set of songs and a set of ideals: music as artistic expression, communal statement, and coherent heritage. These were not necessarily anti-commercial impulses. Songwriters had long since learned the financial reasons to craft a lasting Broadway standard, rather than cash in overnight with a disposable Tin Pan Alley ditty. As Keightley shows, the career artist, steering his or her own path, was adult pop’s gift to the rock superstars. Frank Sinatra, Chairman of the Board, did not only symbolically transform into Neil Young, driving into the ditch if he chose. Young actually recorded for Reprise Records, the label that Sinatra had founded in 1960, whose president, Mo Ostin, went on to merge it with, and run, the artist-friendly and rock-dominated major label Warner Bros. Records.
Contrast Ladd’s or Young’s sour view of formatting with Clive Davis, who took over as president of Columbia Records during the rise of the counterculture. Writing just after the regularizing of multiple Top 40 strands, Davis found the mixture of old-school entertainment and new-school pop categories he confronted, the tensions between format and genre, endlessly fascinating. He was happy to discourse on the reasons why an MOR release by Ray Conniff might outsell an attention-hogging album by Bob Dylan, then turn around and explain why playing Las Vegas had tainted the rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears by rebranding them as MOR. Targeting black albums, rather than singles, to music buyers intrigued him, and here he itemized how he accepted racial divisions as market realities, positioning funk’s Earth, Wind & Fire as “progressive” to white rockers while courting soul nationalists too. “Black radio was also becoming increasingly militant; black program directors were refusing to see white promotion men. . . . If a record is ripe to be added to the black station’s play list, but is not quite a sure thing, it is ridiculous to have a white man trying to convince the program director to put it on.”
The incorporation of genre by formats proved hugely successful from the 1970s to the 1990s. Categories of mainstream music multiplied, major record labels learned boutique approaches to rival indies in what Timothy Dowd calls “decentralized” music selling, and the global sounds that Israeli sociologist Motti Regev sums up as “pop-rock” fused national genres with a common international structure of hitmaking, fueled by the widespread licensing in the 1980s of commercial radio channels in countries formerly limited to government broadcasting. In 2000, I was given the opportunity, for a New York Times feature, to survey a list of the top 1,000 selling albums and top 200 artists by total US sales, as registered by SoundScan’s barcode-scanning process since the service’s introduction in 1991. The range was startling: twelve albums on the list by Nashville’s Garth Brooks, but also twelve by the Beatles and more than twenty linked to the gangsta rappers in N.W.A. Female rocker Alanis Morissette topped the album list, with country and AC singer Shania Twain not far behind. Reggae’s Bob Marley had the most popular back-catalogue album, with mammoth total sales for pre-rock vocalist Barbra Streisand and jazz’s Miles Davis. Even “A Horse with No Name” still had fans: America’s Greatest Hits made a top 1,000 list that was 30 percent artists over forty years old in 2000 and one-quarter 1990s teen pop like Backstreet Boys. Pop meant power ballads (Mariah Carey, Celine Dion), rock (Pink Floyd, Metallica, Pearl Jam), and Latin voices (Selena, Marc Anthony), five mellow new age Enya albums, and four noisy Jock Jams compilations.
Yet nearly all this spectrum of sound was owned by a shrinking number of multinationals, joined as the 1990s ended by a new set of vast radio chains like Clear Channel, allowed by a 1996 Telecommunications Act in the corporate liberal spirit of the 1927 policies. The role of music in sparking countercultural liberation movements had matured into a well-understood range of scenes feeding into mainstreams, or train-wreck moments by tabloid pop stars appreciated with camp irony by omnivorous tastemakers. The tightly formatted world that Jim Ladd feared and Clive Davis coveted had come to pass. Was this true diversity, or a simulation? As Keith Negus found when he spoke with those participating in the global pop order, genre convictions still pressed against format pragmatism. Rock was overrepresented at record labels. Genre codes shaped the corporate cultures that framed the selling of country music, gangsta rap, and Latin pop. “The struggle is not between commerce and creativity,” Negus concluded, “but about what is to be commercial and creative.” The friction between competing notions of how to make and sell music had resulted in a staggering range of product, but also intractable disagreements over that product’s value within cultural hierarchies.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 4-15 of Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music by Eric Weisbard, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)