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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

The Day Top 40 Died

Some changes happen quickly. Others take longer for us to realize what happened. When Casey Kasem died on June 15, it brought home a chance to notice how the landscape has changed. Kasem is most well known for hosting American Top 40. For thirty-nine years he announced – and played – the forty most popular songs in the country according to Billboard magazine. You might think that would be a boring program. Other than those directly affected, who really would care what song was number one and what dropped to number 8? However, this was an exceedingly well listened to show, to the point where separated couples would let each other know that they were thinking of each other by requesting that Kasem play a “Long Distance Dedication” to the other half.

While part of what made this radio show different was the ability – yes, once again – to get information about a topic in the pre-Internet days – now you can’t even have an NFL draft pick that going to be announced in a minute remain unleaked. No way that the top 40 list wouldn’t be known to all days in advance – the fact is that even if everyone agreed to keep this secret, there’s no way that another show like this could ever become popular. It’s not so much that the way of learning about Billboard’s charts has changed as that no one cares about them anymore.

This is a site that has 5 (or so) seconds of every number one hit until 1992. If you listen to it, you might notice something. For the first few decades, there is incredible diversity in what songs reach the summit. Take 1968 for example. The funk of Archie Bell & The Drells “Tighten Up” was replaced by Simon and Garfunkle’s “Mrs. Robinson.” The jazz instrumental “Grazing in the Grass” was followed by The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.” The country ditty “Harper Valley PTA” and the long singalong of “Hey Jude” were consecutive entries. Even the Muzak-esque instrumental “Love is Blue” spent five weeks on top of the charts. The interest wasn’t just for fans of a particular band but that of entire genres. When rock and roll and disco were at war, when punk rock was gaining fans, the charts were validation of people’s tastes.

While probably undeserved, I place the blame for the change on Whitney Houston. Around the time that her ballads started taking over, the variation in songs drastically decreased. Maybe it was the Internet allowing for too many smaller bands to get press preventing mid level ones from being able to hit the edges of the charts. Perhaps it was the beginning of the Napster era leading to sales for more interesting genres stagnating. For whatever reason, pop music stopped being a description and started being a genre. Unless you have a teenaged child, follow the celebrity world, or just happen to be a fan of the style of songs, it’s never been easier to follow music and be completely oblivious to what is making the charts.

While I’m perfectly happy to live in my genres and sub-genres (e.g. JamGrass bands that came around in the last 5 years) that never would have been likely to make any sort of chart at any time, there has been something lost. The decline of the top 40 as an interest, as something so fascinating that people would devote hours of their time to find out which song moved up the charts and which one got stuck, is yet another example of the loss of common culture. I prefer the world where I can easily listen to songs that move me and don’t have to have whatever is currently appealing to the masses be the only option for music, but it’s nice to have those references that we all know. For decades Casey Kasem brought that world to the masses. His time might have passed, but it’s great that it existed at all.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and his Create Space store.

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