Why Do We Keep Having the Same Debates About Pop Songs?




A YEAR OR TWO AGO, the Seattle rapper Macklemore had a huge hit with “Thrift Shop.” Billboard named it the number one R&B/hip-hop song in the country, but also noted a strange wrinkle: R&B radio stations weren’t playing it. Part of the issue was that Macklemore is white and most urban contemporary music hits are made by and targeted toward African Americans. But related to this was a business story: “Thrift Shop” had been promoted first to alternative rock radio, then crossed over from there into Top 40; R&B stations were an afterthought, not courted at all. The question that Macklemore’s success raised, then, was definitional: is the essence of music what it sounds like or the people that it attempts to represent?

That tension, between pop as music and pop as encapsulated identity, explains why if you get older listening to commercial music you realize we constantly have the same debates about it. Our parsing of Miley Cyrus’s trainwreck isn’t so different from how we once analyzed Britney Spears — after Spears melted down, a South Park episode even predicted Cyrus would be next. If we’re concerned about country bros multiplying, how distinct is that from when Miley’s dad Billy Ray was in a cohort of “hat acts” 20 years ago? And if it was a story that Iggy Azalea, a white female rapper from Australia, parodied black Southern slang on “Fancy,” or Taylor Swift ironically invoked twerking, can we not relate that to, oh let’s see, American Bandstand teen idols circa 1960, blue-eyed soul circa 1970, the disco backlash bleaching charts in 1980, Vanilla Ice in 1990, and a global pop industry built on the R&B techno-beats of New Jack Swing cementing Britney herself by 2000? Pop spins us round like a record used to.

But part of why we keep repeating ourselves is that the way we conceptualize music, performance by performance or scene by scene, has little to do with how pop works. To move forward, we need to learn from the most disparaged groups in the category: radio stations and record labels. More specifically, we need to understand a concept that everybody in commercial pop considers and almost nobody outside that universe does: formats.

Formats, a term that can apply to any packaging of a product, from the MP3 format of downloadable recordings to the format of a variety program like Nashville’s venerable Grand Ole Opry, became central to American radio starting in the 1950s. Television had stolen away all the syndicated network programming. In response, radio invented Top 40: the format of all the hits all the time, with madcap DJs like Wolfman Jack, short songs, and crazy promos and giveaways. Then the 1960s happened, and one effect was that music became more ideological — hippie counterculture fed into rock, black power fed into soul, white conservative resistance fed into country music. Music formats adapted in the 1970s, retooling Top 40 approaches to specific genres on FM radio, though crossover categories like Top 40 and adult contemporary flourished too. And that, essentially, remains the underpinning of nearly all commercial pop. Even in our internet era, studies show that radio remains the most important first step in introducing Americans to new hits. The various categories of music formats, mostly decades-old now, have defined the mainstream of American music — but as not one but multiple mainstreams. And the battle between these rival centers has driven pop’s cyclical spiraling ever since.

Think about the preset buttons on a car radio. Each, depending on your taste, represents not a unique station but a version of a music format: Top 40, adult contemporary, rhythm and blues, country, rock, Spanish language. Each broadcaster plays, consistently, proven hit records, whose basic qualities a regular listener can anticipate even before pushing the button. The identity of listeners varies as much as the music does, to let advertisers target different consumer segments. The audience comes first, not the sounds: these are not music genres. Business comes first, not art. But formats have to build large enough publics to be profitable — that makes them social forces. They give groups who are never dominant in media discourse — African Americans, white Southerners, working women, etc. — a place to feel central to the conversation. Formats don’t just sell music: they normalize it. Formats don’t just sell products: they legitimize categories of consumers.

Formats fascinate me as the opposite of what serious music fans value. We have long debated “rockism” and “poptimism” — the idea of commercial pop as a brain-dead wasteland that only the best, most authentic artists resist, or, conversely, the rejoinder that pop offers pleasures that rock bigots miss. The bigger story, it seems to me, is how the range of hits produced by the stifling structures of radio and records effortlessly — and without idealism required — generate such a range of sounds, artists, and audiences. Can one account for this, but also for the fact that so much formatted diversity has been met with such scorn?

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“This song put me in the middle of the road,” Neil Young famously wrote about “Heart of Gold,” his 1972 hit. “Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I met more interesting people there.” With formats steering the conversation, however, a reasonable question would be how did “Heart of Gold” put Young in MOR, or middle of the road music, the adult pop format? On Billboard’s Easy Listening chart, the song crested at number eight. MOR, a format of Frank Sinatra types, now incorporated baby boom counterculture, becoming adult contemporary: not the stuff of anthems like “Hey Hey, My My,” but consequential for all music informed — leisure choices and fashion; gender, sexuality, and manners; a notion of the good life turning from swinger urbanity to the singer-songwriter’s contemporary casual.

Formats let music occupy a niche in capitalism. AC and Top 40 are crossover spaces, with no single dominant genre. A trickier category is music, like country and rock, with format and genre identity, making for something more porous than honky-tonk or Bruce Springsteen fans might prefer. Black-oriented pop divides between R&B, a format, and soul or hip-hop genres. Rock became the “Uncola” of formats: posing as a rebel genre. Top 40, like the jukeboxes that preceded it, can encompass many varieties of hits or group a subset for a defined public. It makes culture more universally appealing (some would argue simplistic) than the scenes that launch it. It welcomes some listeners and shuts out others. Every playlist is inclusive, if you are being played or played to, or an affront if you are being ignored.

Any time you hear somebody complain about music being ruined by radio, use format thinking to figure out which musical styles — and by extension what sorts of listeners — are instead being helped. For example, during the late 1950s, when the Top 40 format system caught on as a programming style, it was accused of watering down the primal sounds of rock ’n’ roll. But later commentators noticed an opposite effect: Top 40 let girl group music in, and men like the Beach Boys, singing in feminized styles.

By the late 1960s and 1970s, as multiple formats permeated radio, the results got messier. Aretha Franklin singing “Respect,” a number one R&B and number one Top 40 song in 1967, connected women’s, black, and youth liberation. Aretha Franklin singing “Break It to Me Gently” 10 years later, again a number one R&B song but only 85 on the Hot 100 pop chart, might indicate racial division. Or it could reflect formats answering different needs. Within R&B, the ballads given the subformat designation Quiet Storm serenaded black communal identity. Disco, featuring many black singers, used crossover Top 40 to parade alternative identities: e.g., drag performer Sylvester’s identity questioning “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Franklin complained 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 values used genre ideals to disparage disco’s format appeal. Opposing entrenched power, she also represented it.

The commercial imperative that made radio formats, and the music they implanted, suspect, made them trailblazers for approaches left out by all that genre certainty. The safe radio pop that commentators have reviled for so many valid reasons opened as many doors as it closed. The middle of American culture turns out to be a place as complicated, diverse, and surprising as the margins.

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Where radio stations have long lived quarter to quarter, recalibrating feverishly with each new Arbitron ratings survey, to look back over the decades at the world format pop made, with the advantage of history, is to see some striking continuities as well.

Rhythm and blues, to start there, has always built on what Adam Green calls “selling the race”: marketing that acknowledges the separate and far from equal status of African Americans. A group like Cincinnati’s Isley Brothers grew up in the 1950s with gospel entertainment, Ebony magazine, black-oriented radio stations and record labels. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, with their T-Neck label, they tried to own the process, but settled for affiliation with the major label Columbia, for whom they recorded structured LPs with bedroom ballads and material aimed at an equally structured “urban contemporary” R&B radio. White listeners came and went, but black music as a division of multinational capitalism endured: not the biggest format, and subject to wrenching rises and falls in market share, but more stable than black film or TV and able, eventually, to create titans such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West.

Country music, R&B’s eternal unacknowledged relative, took a different path with a similar problem: the debased status of white Southern voices in national popular culture. Country pushed Dolly Parton, for instance, into romantic ballads, quintessentially “I Will Always Love You,” a perfect platform because Nashville used radio formats to recreate the rural as an outer-ring suburb. But long before Taylor Swift left country, Parton had to as well — not so much because country couldn’t sustain a huge star (Garth Brooks soon showed it could), but for format reasons. Women in country flirt with adult contemporary and Top 40, a line that Nashville is unwilling to see blur too far. Men in country flirt with rock, which is much less of a threat in radio terms.

That’s because rock radio narrowcast itself into a frustrated howl. The first stations called themselves freeform, meaning free of format, and a notion that the best rock resisted conventions made popular performers suspect and critical favorites averse to the pop process. A station like Cleveland’s creatively formatted 1970s and 1980s powerhouse, WMMS, which blended Top 40 energy with rock audience loyalty, foundered on contradictions between blue-collar fanship and advertisers wanting yuppies, between hits 18–34 men could bellow and broader appeal material that was heard as a sellout. Rock radio now rarely exists to innovate new music: it’s stuck in a perpetual Led Zeppelin or Metallica solo.

But new rock is still part of the mix on crossover formats that advertise hits, not genres: Top 40, adult contemporary, and “Hot AC” are in-between agewise. If Top 40 was the first hits format, and a gateway for the young, it also furthers certain kinds of performers. Consider Elton John, who placed songs in the American Top 40 for a record 30 years: 1970–1999. A later part of the British Invasion, John’s path led to the globalization of pop: the transnational backgrounds of performers big (Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Daft Punk) and small (Nico & Vinz, Zedd). As a closeted gay man at first, John’s coded anthems were part of a mainstreaming of queerness echoed in George Michael and these days the out, but still identity-airbrushed, Sam Smith. And in embracing flash and glitter, not to mention disco, John showed how Top 40 commercialism could make rock or rap purism seem straitlaced: a lesson for Lady Gaga, CeeLo, and many others. Instead of complaining about the compromises Top 40 makes, or the race and gender implications of some booty anthem, we’d do better to recognize that this format has to be the one where all that is musically solid melts into air — and all that is socially airy starts to solidify.

Adult contemporary, the most lucrative of radio formats, is a more stable structure, and generates the biggest albums of all, from Carole King’s Tapestry to Adele’s 21. Embraced by women 25–54, AC has long registered a climactic social shift: the entry of middle-class adult women into the workforce and the pressures it created to balance career and family. If AC strikes detractors as timid and safe, I’d suggest that its making music a technology of self-maintenance was sensible, even heroic: sounds to program a gym workout one moment, handle a breakup in another, survive the office in a third. To follow the history of a label with constant mainstream successes, like A&M Records, is to see how the turbulent runs of performers like Herb Alpert, the Carpenters, or Peter Frampton, halted precipitously by rocker scorn rooted in sexism, evolved into the thicker-skinned AC careers of performers such as Sting and Sheryl Crow.

Taking the long view lets us see whole what formatting registered: freedom movements confronting niche marketing; rock, soul, hip-hop, and country ideals tempted by pop possibilities. Formats imperfectly met lasting needs, for performers, sellers, and listeners alike. They were centering guides as Americans moved through history, differentiated to the extent that not everybody was on the same journey.

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Yet what does this amount to politically? Top 40 formats rarely challenge political or economic structures. But their multiplicity and centrism ratify quite different answers to what it’s normal to feel and be. Crossover channels closet identity: gay performers and immigrants put sonically airbrushed versions of their lives on top of the pops. Middle of the road performers show, with quick rises and spectacular falls, a powerlessness to define who they are. Every format on the dial offers a choice not between mainstream and underground but between rival mainstreams, refashioning and multiplying the center to serve their needs.

Pop music encompasses two valid, sometimes connected, but more often opposed impulses. Formats match a set of songs with a set of people: their proponents idealize generating audiences — particularly new audiences — and figuring out what people want to hear. Genres match songs and ideals: music as artistic expression, group statement, and coherent heritage. The incorporation of genre by formats proved hugely successful from the 1970s to 1990s. Categories of mainstream music multiplied. 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. Was this true diversity, or a simulation?

Chronology matters, because the use of formats as identity and crossover categories 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 prosperity. The multiple formats system succeeded because spreading affluence justified accommodating different collective identities. Yet trends after the 1970s widened wealth gaps and favored tinier elites.

Music formats got stuck in the process. So, for example, as recently as 10 years ago it appeared that radio chains had mainstreamed hip-hop styles like crunk, as Clear Channel battled the black-owned Radio One Network for primacy in R&B. Since then, the format has faltered, reflecting declines in black wealth, with R&B performers apart from a few superstars struggling for Top 40 crossover. In country, the “Southernization of America” seemingly proven by Garth Brooks’s 1990s triumphs proved equally reversible as new issues again set the South apart, and big cities like New York and Los Angeles went long stretches without a country station at all. Notably, it’s Top 40 itself, the template for all the targeted spinoffs, that has done best in recent years, suggesting that, far from the internet atomizing us into niches, the role of formats that may prove most enduring is assimilating diversity.

Music formats can’t be accused of corrupt commodification, since it is only through commercial processes that they achieve viability. The role they revert to involves an entertainer from a somehow emergent group using the star-making machinery to reach a larger audience whose composition is never completely clear. You may love or hate its products, but in arguing about them it would help to understand why they take the shape they do. The format system has provided a stable means for groups left on the margins of public discourse to sing and feel things together. We should argue about what gets communicated — we can’t stay quiet about it — but the importance of the channel is evident. It is, by nature, central.

When a bunch of songs sound alike, for a time, that is not a problem — it’s a history lesson. When a format cycles back and forth over an unresolved issue that returns again and again, that is proof that history isn’t as quick as a pop tune. We can, of course, bemoan aspects of what makes it onto the charts; that’s a national and now global pastime. Yet we should be glad that music created so many paths for the sounds of different cities, different parts of the same city (and suburb), to rise to the top. And we should never lose sight of the trap that a manufactured Top 40 democracy sets for all critics: our antipathy to packaged sound, to format callousness, always seems to spring from self-congratulatory entitlement. If we get frustrated with radio, is the issue that it’s corrupt or that its buckshot form of address unsettles us? And when we confess to guilty pleasures, or sing karaoke, isn’t that about the recognition that a commercialized packaging of identity turned out to capture something intangible about who we are?

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Eric Weisbard is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama.


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