Regression to Segregation in Popular Music
I remember being a kid and the passion I had for music. Everything was new to me. I loved pop and rock music of the current time (’80s) and spent countless hours listening to top 40 radio where the diversity was fantastic. To hopefully prove my point, I’m going to right now open up a random page from my Billboard charts from 1984 and give you a list of the diversity of artists you could then find on top 40 radio (before the evil segregationists formatted radio in the 90’s).
Here is a list of artists that were in the top 40 for September 15th, 1984. Notice the diversity in music, not only stylistically, but also the ages, and cultural backgrounds of the artists.
- Tina Turner – R&B singer who reinvented herself for 80’s pop. Showed the world that it wasn’t only men that could be sexy as they aged. Love her!
- Cindy Lauper – At this time no one was going to be sure who would be the top female pop singer, Cindy or Madonna. I think we know who won out, but Cindy Lauper was really popular. She was quirky, wildly accessorized and wrote great pop music with lyrical depth and a lot of heart.
- Lionel Ritchie – He went from the wildly popular Commodores to being even more wildly popular solo artist. A great pop balladeer and songwriter.
- Huey Lewis and the News – I mention them for even more diversity. I rock band in the 80’s, but stylistically they were a throw back to 60’s R&B and Doo Wop. You think they are old-school now, they’ve always been old school!
- The Cars – The Cars are almost a category by themselves, they are new wavy, they are synthy, they hung out with Andy Warhol so I’m sure they had underground pop art cred. They were just different.
- Patty Smyth – Rock singer who happens to be female.
- Bruce Springsteen – Pure rock and roll heart on this guy. Wanted to take the visceral energy of Elvis and mix it with the social conscience of Dylan. If there is anybody who could pull off such a Herculean task, it is possibly the Boss.
- Prince – Holy “power” everything, Power Funk, Power R&B, Rock, Pop. The guy had/has it all and can do anything musically. Needs to drop that Jehovah’s Witness garbage, but other than that this guy is as good as they come.
- Stevie Wonder – Does anything need to be said about this guy? He’s a genius. Again, too bad about the religious thing.
- Chicago – Started as a rock band with great horn arrangements and interesting songs, ended up a tool for Peter Cetera’s schmaltz. Still ads diversity to this collection of artists.
- Julio Iglesias – Don’t know much about Julio other than when I was a kid he seemed like he came from the Barry Manilow School of Boring to me. But if anything proves my point about the musical diversity of pop music back then, I suppose it’s the fact that this guy could crack the top 40.
- Madonna – She was still building her empire in September of 1984, but I think even back then everyone had some idea about her power to thrill, entertain, create controversy, and make great music wasn’t really just a flash in the pan. She had it all.
- Ratt (L.A.) and Twisted Sister (Long Island) – Hard rock with screaming electric guitars. If you can find anything less than 12 degrees of separation between bands like Ratt and Twisted Sister on one side and Lionel Ritchie and Julio Iglesias on the other, you’re a better mind than me. And as I point out these two bands couldn’t be from farther parts of the country from each other, making the diversity of music back then not only different stylistically, but also regionally.
- Donna Summer – 70’s disco queen was still able to chart at a time when the country hated disco.
- Rick Springfield – Contrary to popular belief this guy was not a one-hit wonder, pretty-boy, soap star. He could actually rock and had a fistful of top 40 hits. And he wrote them all too (I think with the exception of “I’ve Done Everything For You” which was written by Sammy Hagar).
- Rod Stewart – Rod kept up with the ’80’s and scored a lot of hits. The guy was kind of like a musical chameleon and was able to keep his pulse of the musical times from the Faces counter-culture folkish rock, to his skin-tight disco pants of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”, to his skinny tie days of the 80’s. Amazingly the one constant for Rod was the spiky hair.
- Billy Joel – One of the great American songwriters in my opinion. But aside from my opinion he adds diversity to the list. When a lot of rock was guitar driven, he and Elton were sitting down rocking (much like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis bucked the trend in the 50’s).
- Elton John – Speaking of Elton John, ironically he happens to be right next to Billy Joel on the charts in September of 1984.
That list does not even include the diversity of hits that week from second tier stars and one-hit wonders. Here’s a short list of honorable mentions: John Waite (quasi-rock guy, power ballad singer); Sheila E. (80’s funk rock and lead singer/percussionist who added some Latin stylings to the music); Corey Hart (Canadian one-hit wonder rocker); Peter Wolf (lead singer of the J. Geils Band that started as a blues-based combo); Bananarama (British? girl group); Billy Squier (thought he was a rocker, but danced around in his underwear for a video and lost all cred); Night Ranger (rock); Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac guitarist); Spandau Ballet (British, New Romantic perhaps?); Billy Idol (punk-pop).
That is from one random week from 1984 in the top 40 (well random insofar as I picked 1984 to look into because I knew it would prove my point, but it’s random within that year 😉 ). When I was a kid listening to top 40 radio, I didn’t really make a distinction between the music of Lionel Ritchie, Tina Turner, Huey Lewis, or Bruce Springsteen. They were just all great artists making great music.
While, I’m not trying to make some grand statement how music could be the elixir for all complex social issues and race relations, I do believe there is a universal component about music that has the ability to shed some discrimination. Musicians have a long, proud history of desegregation, well before the rest of the country caught up (i.e. Jazz combos, big bands, Alan Freed mixed race events, etc.).
Perhaps also, there is a Universal Law of Diversity, where diversity is a necessary component to the health of an organism. Genetic diversity certainly is an important component to the health of species; as I hopefully have shown, diversity makes music at least more interesting and I would claim “better” (one example is that rock and roll comes from the blend of several genre influences and has continually evolved since its inception); I believe there is some evidence that diversity in work environments create more for more creative, effective results; and finally culturally diverse environments I believe are healthier, more interesting environments. I know that for me personally, I grew up in a relatively diverse suburb of Chicago and my white suburban boy life was made far richer from the multi-cultural interactions I had. So there, my personal anecdote proves it!
Luckily the top 40 these days is simply musically segregated and not racially segregated, but it continues to disappoint me that the richness and depth that comes from musical diversity is nowhere to be found in popular music these days. And that is coming from a guy who actually is enjoying pop music again for the first time in 20 years – an idea I will explore in my post Belief in Belief Part II: Jesus as an accessory.
So my hope is that popular music becomes more diverse and people playing music from all genres and backgrounds once again have a chance to make the big time. This hope is also a little selfish to my agenda with Skeptical Music, because perhaps if popular music regained some diversity, then there’d be room for some skeptical and maybe (gasp!) even some atheistic songs to gain mass popularity.