Sorting laundry this morning, I thought I’d watch a little VH-1, their weekly top twenty program. Getting a sense of what records the kids these days are spinning on their phonograph machines. First song up, Maroon Five. Second, Matchbox Twenty. Third, No Doubt: (I thought they were dead!) And all the songs were, wow, generic pop tunes. The Maroon Five song sounded like all the other Maroon Five songs–I think there were goldfish in the video. The Matchbox Twenty song had an okay guitar riff, but otherwise seemed sort of vaguely misogynist–there was a fashion model in the video. The No Doubt song seemed to be about trucks.
As a certified ‘get off my lawn’ aged geezer, I suppose it’s required that I make disparaging remarks about the music of today, pointing out the insipid lyrics and forgettable tunes and unmemorable personalities of what’s on the radio these days, assuming people have radios and listen to music on them. We baby boomers are particularly obnoxious in that regard. I’m reading a book right now about Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic records, and the guy who discovered, signed and promoted, oh, Buffalo Springfield and Sonny and Cher and Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones and heck, I’m still only on chapter four. You’ve probably seen those internet memes dissing Justin Bieber, comparing his dumb lyrics with those of Frank Sinatra or Bob Dylan. I mean, we baby boomers, we single-handedly ended the War in Vietnam, solved racism, invented rock and roll and landed on the moon. Take that, kids nowadays.
Yeah. Except it’s all nonsense. Vietnam was exceedingly popular among my age group in the 60s, the civil rights movement began in the 50s, and the 26th amendment, giving young people the vote, resulted in a landslide win for Richard Nixon, who the newly enfranchised kids voted for nearly 2 to 1. As for pop music, it’s worth pointing out that this song, and not, you know, “Stairway to Heaven” was Ahmet Ertegun’s first big hit with Atlantic. “Splish Splash” as recorded by Bobby Darin.
We love to falsify history, we love to revise it, with particular emphasis on our own supposed heroism or nobility or coolness. This is particularly true of the history of popular music. It wasn’t all Abbey Road and Live at Leeds. The songs of my youth were certainly not all masterpieces.
I thought I’d take a glance at the Billboard Top 100 for 1968, just to see what was popular back then. I was twelve that year, and had just discovered radios and the music to be found on them. I listened a lot that year. And I mean, ’68, the year of the Chicago Seven, probably the Beatles’ greatest year. I bet pop music was amazing in ’68.
And it was. The number one song on the Billboard top 100 for 1968 was this, the Beatles singing “Hey Jude.” Top that, other years. So what was number two? This. “Love is Blue,” Paul Mauriat and his Orchestra. Okay, okay, not a half bad tune, not exactly a classic, but not too shabby. How about number three?
“Honey.” Bobby Goldsboro, singing “Honey.” I can’t say definitively that “Honey” is the worst song ever recorded. It certainly faces stiff competition. But it’s got to be in the running. It’s got it all: a syrupy heavenly chorus, idiotic lyrics, appalling sexism bordering on abusive misogyny.
How about ’69? Big year for music, ’69, what with Woodstock and all. Big year for Creedence Clearwater Revival, big year for Sly and the Family Stone, big Stones year. Elvis did “Suspicious Minds” that year. So guess, just guess, what the number one song in America was in 1969? I’ll give you a hint: they didn’t play at Woodstock. Here, guess, then click on this link, see how you did. I’ll wait.
That’s right. The Archies, singing “Sugar Sugar.” Same year as Woodstock.
Jump ahead a few years, to 1972, my first year in high school. Great year for music, 1972. Wow, was it ever. Led Zeppelin Four came out that year, probably their best album. “Stairway to Heaven” was on that album. The Rolling Stones had a good year as well, with Exile on Main Street: “Let it Loose,” “Torn and Frayed,” “Tumblin’ Dice.” Often considered their greatest album. Jethro Tull came out with Aqualung that year; Elton John, with “Rocket Man,” The Moody Blues with “Nights in White Satin,” Don Maclean with “American Pie.” Great year for music, ’72.
Billboard number one: a darn good one, Roberta Flack with “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” Number three, another good song, “American Pie.” I love numbers two and five, though. Gilbert O’Sullivan with “Alone Again, Naturally” and Sammy Davis Jr. with “Candy Man.”
As for nowadays, sure, some dumb songs are on the top forty today. Absolutely. That’s always, always been true. But Iron and Wine is a fantastic band, as good as anyone in the sixties. Adele is better than Janis Joplin. There, I said it, and I stand by it: she’s flat better. Bon Iver is amazing. I don’t know any band, from any era, I would rather listen to than Arcade Fire. The Civil Wars is a great band. It’s not all Justin Bieber.
And is Justin Bieber any more obnoxious than, oh, any other pretty boy with a soulful voice popular with thirteen year old girls? Like, say Tommy Roe, Bobby Sherman, Donnie Osmond, Leif Garrett, Shaun Cassidy?
I’ve been lucky enough to grow up surrounded by terrific music. Kids today are equally blessed. No one generation gets to be coolest.