Casey Kasem, Ronald Reagan and music's 1 percent: Artificial "popularity" is not democracy

We all have sweet, nostalgic memories of "American Top 40." But some Kasem tributes misremember music history

Published June 22, 2014 11:59PM (EDT)

Casey Kasem   (<a href=''>s_bukley</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
Casey Kasem (s_bukley via Shutterstock)

Casey Kasem's death has coaxed all kinds of sweet memories from Americans who remember the DJ's countdown show; pop music, and a paternal-sounding voice, exert a strong nostalgic pull regardless of one’s generation or political tilt.

Nearly everybody seems to have a strong association with “American Top 40,” and I’m no exception: Decades ago, I was a kid crammed into a tiny Datsun, hurtling in the dark across Maryland suburbia, as my dad took my siblings and me from our mom’s house to his apartment. Kasem’s upbeat tone, as he described a hot new song climbing the charts, or offered a long-distance dedication to a listener missing someone special, took the gloom out of those divorce-inspired drives. Kasem’s enthusiasm was infectious. I can’t remember exactly what years these were, but most of my memories of Kasem’s show involve Kim Carnes singing “Bette Davis Eyes.” It's not a song I'm likely to play now, but I still have some warm feelings for it.

What’s striking about Kasem’s death – he passed, appropriately, on Father’s Day -- isn’t that he’s being remembered fondly. He deserves to be. It’s that he’s been drafted posthumously into a war he never fought, and become a symbol in a debate in which he never took a side. Several prominent Kasem appreciations have framed him as a cheery cultural gatekeeper, a guy who loved all kinds of music, a tender of record charts that served as pure meritocracy. If you're to believe these critics, America voted with its pocketbooks and wallets, they picked the very best, and Casey Kasem served it up – whatever the musical style, free from hype or influence -- in a friendly and appealing package. Man, those were the days. And this brings us back to Kim Carnes.

“Unconcerned by cool, and possibly unaware of what cool was, he was a clean-cut, sweater-wearing authority, somewhere between disc jockey and anchorman,” Sarah Larson wrote on the New Yorker’s site, “who could present KISS, Marvin Gaye, Toni Basil, the Oak Ridge Boys, or Color Me Badd as equally valid acts, by virtue of their presence on the Top Forty charts. His show was democratic, a great leveller.” It makes you wonder: “Elvira” as democracy? Maybe. but if so, it's a twisted democracy as gerrymandered and driven by corporate cash and elite interests as our own.

And here’s another slam at those mean people who try to tell you that there’s something to music besides how well it sells: “Casey Kasem was the original poptimist,” argues Slate’s Chris Molanphy, describing the school of pop-music critics who advertise their populist, Britney-is-better-than-your-favorite-indie-band point of view. Like them, Molanphy writes, Kasem believed “that a full range of popular music can be as important and worthy of appreciation as rock. He championed centrist pop even when it was unfashionable to do so.” Now that seems to be ascribing an ideology to Kasem he didn't hold. "Though he is constantly asked his opinion on music, Mr. Kasem is not necessarily a music fan," observed the New York Times in a rare late-life interview with Kasem in 2004. (Asked about rap, however, Kasem does note that "I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I had a feeling it was a reflection of what's been happening in the ghetto.'')

Listen closely to these tributes and you can hear something resembling what my Salon colleague Thomas Frank calls market populism: The belief that what sells is both a measure of the people’s will, and perhaps can even set the individual free.

What we’re also getting here is a blind championing of centrism, and the claim that it was bold or brave to stand up for, well, the most popular songs, and often the richest musicians in the country.

What we’re hearing a lot less about is the way shows like his work on the culture, how they seep into our psychology, how they change the playing field for musicians and other artists and craftsmen. The pop charts, especially back then, reflected the stale playlists of a few stations and the investments of a few labels and likely a lot of wink-wink under-the-table payola: They are not a pure vehicle for the people’s will, for good taste, or for anything other than record-industry marketing. You can take popular culture seriously, sure, but it’s another thing to tell us that what’s packaged and promoted most effectively is somehow democratic or virtuous.

(Compare the top songs of 1981 -- which we'll use randomly because it's when "Bette Davis Eyes" came out -- from Billboard magazine and from the Village Voice critics poll, and decide for yourself which list is more interesting, diverse and what you actually might want to hear today. Hint: I'll take the list without Kenny Rogers' "Lady" at No. 3, REO Speedwagon's "Keep On Loving You" at No. 10 and the "Greatest American Hero" theme at No. 11.)

You get a bare glimpse of the contradictions of popularity in some of the appreciations, though you typically have to read past a lot of good cheer. “Syndicated to hundreds of stations, ‘American Top 40’ — along with many other factors — worked instead toward homogenizing pop, playing the same tunes coast to coast for four hours a week,” Jon Pareles wrote, aptly, in his New York Times assessment. “And since airplay breeds airplay — until that odd moment when a ubiquitous hit suddenly outstays its welcome — the spread of ‘American Top 40’ tended to make hits national rather than regional, reducing the variety that makes American music so vital.” (There's clearly a poptimist on the Times copy desk: The headline on the piece makes the opposite argument. "Host in a big-tent era of pop music: Remembering Casey Kasem, D.J., for a more eclectic pop radio.)

There certainly were lively and eclectic strains in music back then, many from urban or college-town scenes, but "American Top 40" tended to be the absolute last place where you would hear them. So in the early ‘80s, while the show was (like the rest of the radio dial) playing a lot of Captain and Tennille and Kenny Rogers and Air Supply and REO Speedwagon and Survivor and Billy Joel’s heart attack-ack-ack and Christopher Cross’ “Sailing,” there were actually smart, vivid songs you probably didn’t hear. The Clash’s "London Calling" came out in the States in 1980, the same year Elvis Costello put out "Get Happy," The Jam released "Sound Effects," and the Pretenders dropped their debut. It was the era of the Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," U2's "Boy," Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Kaleidoscope," Kate Bush's "Never For Ever" and "The Dreaming," of the Cocteau Twins and King Sunny Ade, the English Beat and the Cure and the Funky Four Plus One. Not to mention what was happening in jazz or old-time music or the better singer-songwriters; Lucinda Williams' second record came out in 1980 and made no impression on the radio or the charts.

None of this stuff would catch on much in “American Top 40.” But you sure got to hear a lot of “Eye of the Tiger.”

Was this Kasem’s fault? Not really; it was just the way the show was set up, and the program made no pretense of covering what we would call, later, music’s “cutting edge.” But his show was the pop version of Album Oriented Rock format on the FM dial, pioneered by hacks like marketing guru Lee Abrams, which made sure listeners got to hear only the most obvious and overplayed songs from a tiny number of overexposed artists. To some poptimists, massive popularity equals democracy, just as libertarians tell you that deregulating the financial markets to destroy the middle class is liberating.

Problem is, when you only hear – or hear about -- a small batch of stuff, whether it’s music or books or movies or whatever, it’s easy to think that that’s all there is. An even bigger problem is the way charts and chart-related discounts or programs act like a regressive tax, a kind of reverse Robin Hood. Three years ago book critic Michael Dirda wrote about book best-seller lists for BookForum, calling them “bad for readers, bad for publishing, and bad for culture. Above all, despite appearances, the best-seller list isn’t populist; it’s elitist. If there are a dozen slots, six are filled by the same old establishment names. For every James Patterson novel on the list, that’s one fewer novel by someone else.” He continued:

The best-seller list functions, in essence, as a restraint of trade, a visible hand that crushes the life out of the literary marketplace. If one were to magically eliminate every form of the list, in print and online, as well as all those best-seller tables in Barnes & Noble, what would happen? People would spend more time browsing a bookstore’s stock, they would skim a page or two of various interesting-looking titles, and eventually they would plunk down their twenty dollars. In short, they would actively engage with a greater portion of our literary culture. Customers might even discuss their tastes with the shop’s owner or staff, who would actually recommend a few appropriate titles. Friends, neighbors, and colleagues might also suggest beloved novels, biographies, and poetry collections.

Without a best-seller list, authors would compete on something like a level playing field, while readers would buy the books that spoke most meaningfully to their particular interests and tastes rather than settling for the one-size-fits-all titles found in the back pages of the New York Times Book Review.

“American Top 40,” then, was like the best-seller list on steroids.

The other side of things – old-school rock critics, college radio, smaller independent stations where the jocks pick their own music, record stores where the clerks pushed the stuff they loved, zines and alternative weeklies – helped build a parallel track in the early ‘80s that allowed a more expansive range of music to flourish: Writer Michael Azerrad calls it a cultural underground railroad. But if you’re a poptimist, you’re ideologically dedicated to rejecting all of this as elitist, rockist, authenticity-obsessed nonsense. So Kasem, oddly, is being claimed as an icon the way critic Lester Bangs or British DJ John Peel might be for someone who champions less obvious music.

So back to "American Top 40." What matters about his show is what it did to our tastes and our sense of what was important. In the ‘80s – when I listened to his show the most, though it ran for many decades – we had a political and economic revolution, spearheaded by a one-time actor who was often massively popular, that did the same thing as Kasem’s show.

Some of those waxing fondly about Kasem say his storytelling and omnivorous passion helped them become music writers. That’s not what happened with me. There was too much bad music on his show, which became clearer as I got out of elementary school. A few years later, I discovered a station – a smart, mostly unformatted station near my not-terribly-hip hometown, far enough from a big city that what came across its airwaves seemed truly radical and inspiring. It was called WHFS, and you could hear a Jimi Hendrix song that wasn’t played to death on the AOR stations, alongside an early Bangles song, an oddball Prince cut and something gloomy and weird like Richard and Linda Thompson. And on Sunday nights you could hear DJ Tom Terrell sinking deep into rocksteady, rare groove, dub and lovers rock. It was WHFS, the Village Voice, a little record store called Sound Odyssey and some friends who showed me just how wide-ranging music could be, and how the good stuff wasn’t always the popular stuff.

The heyday of Kasem’s show may’ve been, as most remember it, a sweet passage in their youth. It certainly was for mine. But “American Top 40” worked – like the best-seller lists and the now-ubiquitous Monday-morning movie box office reports, Reagan’s tax cuts, and “American Idol,” whose Ryan Seacrest now helms Kasem’s old show -- as a mechanism for the winner-take-all-society. It shines attention on the artists and the songs who need it least, and ignores those who need it most. It’s the opposite of what journalism used to claim to do – to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

I don’t mean to blame poor departed Kasem; he was just one, fairly innocent part of a larger movement that picked up momentum in the '80s – the blind celebration of wealth and might and popularity. So rest in peace, and keep reaching for the stars. But please, let’s not turn him into a phony symbol of the wisdom of the crowd or the magic of the marketplace. Not while we’re still trying to forget Christopher Cross.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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