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Your music snobbery is all wrong: How top-40 radio made the mainstream as interesting as the margins

The history of top-40 radio is really the story of class, race and gender in 20th century America


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Eric Weisbard
December 8, 2014 12:30AM (UTC)
Reprinted with permission from "Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music"

Let’s begin with the radio in the 1979 Chevy Nova my grandma Cele gave me. A volume knob, a tuning knob, and five preset buttons for cementing a relationship with AM radio—that was it. At one point, driving, I came upon a venerable Top 40 DJ from Philadelphia who called himself the Geator with the Heater. Later, after hauling the indestructible green machine to the West Coast, I wondered at the Quiet Storm shows on KDIA that took Oakland soul listeners into sleep. In those same Bay Area years, circa 1989–92, Hot New Country was flourishing on my Nova. For an indie rocker who’d spun records on college radio by groups with names like Butthole Surfers, this country stuff beamed in from another planet. But as a captive to the Garth, Trisha, Clint, and Wynonna flow, I learned to hear another format on its own terms: the small rebellions and innovations that made sense when set against a constancy of sound and attitudes.

Keep those car buttons in mind for a bit longer. Each potentially represented a separate music format: Top 40, adult contemporary, rhythm and blues, country, or album-oriented rock. And each station played, consistently, proven hit records, whose basic qualities a regular listener could anticipate even before pushing the button. The identity of those listeners varied as much as the music did, to let advertisers target different consumer segments. In the 1950s, Top 40 had emerged as a programming style to help radio compensate for television’s absconding with syndicated network shows. By the mid-1970s, the format system I will focus on offered different musical flavors of Top 40, rooted in divisions of age, gender, race, region, and economics but also blurring and crossing between those rival categories. The result was a particular model of commercialized cultural pluralism: a formatting of publics.

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Radio formats created, I’ll argue in this book, multiple mainstreams: distinct, if at times overlapping, cultural centers. While songs could not offend, and cause listeners to punch a different button, they were equally obliged to stir feeling, to strike a chord that would resonate more with repeat exposure—a process connecting listeners as a group. “Hound Dog,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Dream On,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Say My Name”: each of these hits from different decades, for those who had the radio on, still generate emotional allegiances. The objective of formats was to garner ads and sell records, but a flow of songs and banter had to be shaped and polished, an audience had to be defined. Formats did not just sell music—they normalized it. Formats did not just sell products—they touted categories of consumers.

Formats fascinate me as the opposite of everything that serious music fans value. I started this book with a particular goal: to understand the history not of rock and pop but of what has been called “rockism” and “poptimism”—the idea of commercial pop as a brain-dead wasteland that only the best and most authentic artists could resist, or, conversely, the rejoinder that pop offered pleasures that rock bigotry utterly missed. I’d hated rock orthodoxy of another kind in my days as a music critic, championing bands that sold few records but still mattered as much, creatively, as the Woodstock gang. The bigger story, it seemed as I began conceptualizing, was a mainstream one, how the range of hits produced by the supposedly stifling corporate structures of radio and records effortlessly—and without an ounce of idealism required—exceeded rock in its range of sounds, artists, audience, and creativity. Could one account for this, but also for the fact that so much eclecticism had been met with so much scorn?

Only, I have come to believe, by expanding how we hear music. DJs who rely on segues learn to notice how records begin and end; crate-digging hip-hop producers fixate on beats to sample. But one can also register songs as winners or losers in an endless recalibrating of formats—as on or off the soundtrack of their invented communities. “This song put me in the middle of the road,” Neil Young famously wrote about “Heart of Gold,” his 1972 Top 40 chart topper. “Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I met more interesting people there.” In Young’s rhetoric, it’s better to burn out than to fade away, and rock and roll can never die. With formats steering the conversation, however, a reasonable question would be how did “Heart of Gold” put Young in MOR, the adult pop format? Billboard’s Easy Listening chart has the song cresting at number 8. “A Horse with No Name,” by America, did better, hitting number 3 with a similar post-hippie mellowness. The middle had shifted: MOR, a format of Frank Sinatra types, now stretched to incorporate baby boom counterculture. MOR was becoming adult contemporary (AC): not the stuff of anthems like “Hey Hey, My My,” but consequential for all that music informed—leisure choices and fashion; gender, sexuality, and manners; a notion of the good life turning from jazz’s swinger urbanity to singer-songwriter rock’s contemporary casual.

Formats let music occupy a niche in capitalism and—as with Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, with its monologue and interviews structure and MOR appeal—connect music to other show-business realms as well. Genres are different. Ordinary people don’t proudly identify with formats, but some do identify with genres. One can have a hit song that goes “I was born country”; probably not “I was born adult contemporary.” Music formats like MOR, AC, and Top 40 were crossover spaces, with no single dominant genre. A trickier category is music, like country, with both format and genre identity, making for something more porous in definition than honky-tonk, soul, or that Bruce Springsteen fans might prefer. Black-oriented pop divided between rhythm and blues (R&B), a format, and soul or hip-hop genres. Rock, in its 1970s form, was the Uncola of formats: a lucrative format posing as a rebel genre. Music genres, more inherently ideological, chafe at formats, with their centrist, commercial disposition.

Yet the very commercial tendencies that made radio formats, and the music they implanted in our consciousness, suspect aesthetically also made them trailblazers for the sounds, artists, and listeners left out by all that genre certainty. Formats, radio, and pop music deserve a much bigger place in the history of American culture than accounts rooted in genre and isolated records have afforded them. Their homogenizing tendencies popularized and routinized each eruption from the countercultural 1960s and 1970s and MTV 1980s to the grunge, gangsta, and new country 1990s. But equally important was this center’s ability to redirect music as a social force: from “serious” fans who were often straight, white, male, and affluent to listeners less vocal and coherent but no less invested in what they heard. That tension structures this book. The safe radio pop that so many commentators have reviled for so many valid reasons opened as many doors as it closed.

My hope in what follows is to convince you that we can benefit from learning to think about music in the manner of the radio stations feeding sound into my old Chevy Nova and the record industry that generated the songs those stations needed for airplay: in terms of formats and the artists and publics who embodied them. The payoff would be this: we’d rediscover the middle of American culture as a place at least as complicated, diverse, and surprising as the margins.

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.

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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 R&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.”

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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 song-and-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.

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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 R&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.

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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.”

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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 rockism 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.”

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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.”

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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.

Top 40 Democracy in a Consumers’ Republic

Clive Davis’s invocation, above, of black power ideology impacting soul music merchandising is a reminder of the epochal history that formatting both reflected and skewed. The rise of Top 40, with its ties to black music, paralleled not only civil rights but also the companion notion of “selling the race.” Ebony, a lifestyle magazine, launched in Chicago in 1945; Memphis’s WDIA became a black-oriented radio station in 1948; Billboard renamed its race records section “Rhythm & Blues” in 1949. “Black radio made the ‘Negro market’ into a national reality,” one study concludes, and Detroit’s Motown Records, with innumerable Top 40 hits, defined black pop entrepreneurship exceeding the Negro market. Soul and funk rendered “Black Is Beautiful” something to show not tell, hitting on both black-oriented and Top 40 stations in a late sixties moment that
saw dramatically expanded advertising aimed at African Americans.

Still, the independently black-owned Motown, which signed the Jackson 5 in 1969, would not enjoy the greatest of jackpots: Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. That was Davis’s CBS, whose black-music division had come to dominate R&B by offering ambitious performers the corporate heft to cross over on levels Motown had only dreamt about. Racially packaged music that no longer symbolized black enterprise had far different connotations: a ghetto, or in crossover a whitewashing. The 1987 NAACP Report “The Discordant Sound of Music” argued, “No other industry in America so openly classifies its operations on a racial basis. . . . The structure of the industry allows for total white control and domination.” Motown was sold to a multinational rival of CBS in 1988. Given this history, did formatting disperse black cultural nationalism or steal its most covetable qualities?

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Chronology matters here, because the use of Top 40 for both identity and crossover categories, which began in earnest in the late 1960s and solidified by the mid-1970s, intersects two pivotal stories: the rise of new social movements (black power, hippie counterculture, feminism, gay liberation, the religious right), but also what Jefferson Cowie calls “the last days of the working class” as beneficiaries of industrial America’s postwar prosperity. The multiple-formats system succeeded because spreading affluence justified accommodating different collective identities. Yet postindustrial trends after the early 1970s worked to widen wealth gaps. Neoliberalism, the notion that privatization unleashed productivity, favored yuppie and New Economy ideals of personalized consumption. Here, one shopped to become different, not to validate a mass or group identity. Already divided against itself by genre/format and rock/pop dualities, the system of radio and records that peaked in the 1970s came under siege from these trends—advertiser insistence on reaching affluent buyers in the 25–54 category clashed with much of the pop music core audience. Top 40 itself, the mass-appeal approach of playing the widest variety of hits, was especially challenged, with stations abandoning the format at the onset of the 1980s and even more decisively in the early 1990s, but similar concerns faced black-oriented stations leery of playing hip-hop and rock stations whose heavy metal offerings were seen as blue collar in appeal.

Historians have debated the democratic legacy of consumerism for generations, with an initial, quite countercultural skepticism about advertising’s “captains of consciousness” manipulating American values giving way to accounts that viewed ad makers as “apostles of modernity” or asserted agency on behalf of workers and women’s leisure and spending choices. The revisionists then found their own revisionists, with Thomas Frank’s Conquest of Cool viewing consumer “choice” as a capitalist strategy unto itself, and Taylor’s history of music and advertising ending with the irony that what had been jingles written by the likes of Barry Manilow became, by the 1990s, the ad realm as hipster forum for Nick Drake revivalism and Moby licensing. Charles McGovern bemoans how “the conflation of democracy with spending” created “a consensual nation in which the quest for good became the pursuit of goods.” Lizabeth Cohen’s Consumers’ Republic, the most influential account of market segmentation in the era I am focused on, reaches pessimistic conclusions, finding a “tendency toward hierarchy and exclusion.” Cohen sees the entwining of consumer and citizen identities “accentuating what divided Americans and undermining common concerns.” Her chapter on “culture,” however, revolves entirely around the ways in which ads interpellated new subjectivities: the Pepsi Generation and youth culture, for example. Writing of marketing aimed at African Americans, she critiques it for diverting spending on black-owned businesses and making blacks not just “a more legitimate and lucrative market, but increasingly over the postwar era, a separate one.”

But commercial music was more than its marketing—the recurring anthems, cherished by listeners, which filled even tightly constructed formats demonstrated that. Culture itself deserves a stronger position in the study of consumer culture. An understanding of formats can help that process. This consumerism did not always follow divisive pathways: formats grouped audiences as much as it splintered them, with the sometimes faltering Top 40 hits approach rebounding decisively in the mid-1980s, the late 1990s, and most recently in an era of Portable People Meter technologies. The Top 40 system, as it multiplied, rigged commercial tallies of popularity to recognize demographic differences—to have many formats was to have many pop charts, so different groups achieved the illusion of majority status within formats that favored them. Yet success in a more differentiated chart often boosted crossover between categories. An R&B song that did well enough might earn Top 40 play, then airtime on AC. A fair accounting of Top 40 within the Consumers’ Republic and unchecked neoliberal capitalism must come back to particular music, particular formats, and the ways these aggregated as much as segregated publics.

Radio had led in the move away from mass broadcasting, as Michele Hilmes argues: “Radio became the place where those culturally excluded from television’s address could regroup and find a new identity.” But the segmentation of formatting was not limitless. Despite the plethora of subcategories, a few major music formats emerged by the 1970s and—with the important later addition of Latino-oriented programming—they still all remain dominant. Formats needed to convince advertisers that the public being addressed separately was commercially worthy. As Diane Pecknold has chronicled, the Country Music Association, founded in 1958, created the Country Music Hall of Fame and televised CMA Awards to demonstrate that a style originating with white working-class southerners now held national appeal. To fragment country any further would have hampered these efforts, and it has remained largely intact.

Because of this collective quality, formats produced not only parallel mainstreams but parallel modernization, meeting changing circumstances of American life with at times identical, at times contrasting, responses that owed much to their audience orientation and invented traditions. There was long history here, the tidal “hidden histories” that George Lipsitz evokes poetically in his argument for music as “a vitally important repository for collective memory.” The music that extended that history was textured more than programmatic—the grain of certain kinds of voices, emotions more than lyrics, instrument sounds as homology for group style. Lauren Berlant, writing about “intimate publics” in a manner that Jason Loviglio has connected to radio, notes that in this realm “consumers of its particular stuff already share a worldview and emotional knowledge that they have derived from a broadly common historical experience[;] . . . it is a place of recognition and reflection.” Yet what does this amount to politically? Berlant coins the term “juxtapolitical” for the resultant confusion: “People attached to each other by a sense that there is a common emotional world available to those individuals who have been marked by the historical burden of being harshly treated in a generic way and who have more than survived social negativity by making an aesthetic and spiritual scene that generates relief from the political.” Top 40 formats rarely challenged political or economic structures. But their multiplicity and centrism aligned to ratify quite different answers to what it was normal to feel and be.

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Consider a musical example that moves us from rockism and poptimism back to race and a broader sense of the messy ambiguities of Top 40 democracy. Aretha Franklin singing “Respect,” a number 1 R&B and number 1 Top 40 song in 1967, emblemizes that moment’s connecting of women’s, black, and youthful liberation. Aretha Franklin singing “Break It to Me Gently” ten years later, again a number 1 R&B song but only reaching 85 on the Hot 100 chart that measured Top 40 success, might indicate growing racial division. Or it might reflect two formats answering different needs. For R&B, the domesticated “vibe” of romantic ballads, now given the subformat designation Quiet Storm, extended soul’s imperative to normalize black communal identity. Disco, featuring many black singers, used crossover Top 40 to parade alternative identities, exchanging the genre and gender certainties of Franklin hits like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for the softness of a Barry White or drag performer Sylvester’s identity-questioning “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Franklin, like fellow titan James Brown, complained bitterly about disco, contrasting its ephemeral impact with “the permanent value and staying power of soul music.” She blamed the pop system: “Radio stations were shoving rhythm & blues back in the corner.” Franklin’s prose attacked marketplace racism. But her artistic values enacted rockism from a soul perspective, using genre ideals to disparage disco’s short-lived format appeal. While opposing entrenched power, she on another level represented it.

Given these intersecting claims, the impact of the radio format system, within a segmenting consumer culture, on issues of cultural and political democracy cannot be reduced to a rockist, poptimist, Consumers’ Republic, or racial paradigm. One discovers crossover channels that closeted identity: gay performers and immigrants putting sonically airbrushed versions of their lives on top of the pops; MOR performers whose quick rises and spectacular falls reflected a powerlessness to define who they were. And one finds genre channels that flaunted uninhibited identity, but in a “balls-out” or “natural woman” fashion that drew boundaries. In a format system that deployed genre, pop’s affect-driven, juxtapolitical, commodified crossover publics acted as counterpublics to the sanctioned normativity of genre publics. Every format, every station on the 1970s radio dial, offered a choice not between mainstream and underground but between rival mainstreams, operating in a way much as cultural studies has long described subcultures: refashioning the center to serve their needs.

When highly commercial formats operate like street subcultures, and citizens of genre worlds like Franklin complain as if reading from an Adorno screed, something is going on worth chronicling rather than assuming. Those details are where this history lives, but I’ll end this section with what seems to me a paradox, a bait and switch that Top 40 democracy sets for its critics. Every attempt to oppose a format mainstream, by renouncing capitalism or compromise, registers entitlement and privilege: middle-class, male, white, heterosexual, northern, hipster, genre, or some other form.

Reprinted with permission from "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.


Eric Weisbard

Eric Weisbard is assistant professor of American studies at the University of Alabama and the founder and longtime organizer of the acclaimed EMP Pop Conference

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