What Can We Learn from #1 Songs?

Posted on April 27, 2011 at 8:00 am

Jessie Rifkin listened to every number one song in the history of the pop charts, from Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” up through this week’s “ET” by Katy Perry and wrote about it for the Washington Post.  He notes that “The first 100 non-instrumental No. 1’s were performed by 38 solo acts and 62 groups, but the most recent 100 were performed by 91 solo acts and nine groups” and that George Harrison and Elvis Presley had number one hits after they were not at the top of their careers.  “And only 19 instrumentals have reached the top spot, none after 1985’s synth-percussion-fest “Miami Vice Theme” by Jan Hammer.”  Perhaps most significantly,

What is remembered as the defining music of an era and what actually sold the most at the time are very different. Imagine the 1960s without Bob Dylan, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix; the 1970s without KISS, the Who and Led Zeppelin; the 1980s without Bruce Springsteen, Journey and Run-DMC; the 1990s without Nirvana, Green Day and Public Enemy; the aughts without John Mayer, Linkin Park and Taylor Swift. None of these giants have had a No. 1 song — at least not yet.

Get your own sense of what Jessie Rifkin listened to with these wonderful compilations of five seconds from every number one song on the top 40.  If you are as old as I am, it is the aural equivalent of seeing your life pass before your eyes.  What is the first pop song you remember?  What is the first one you ever bought?  What’s your favorite one-hit wonder?

 

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Music Understanding Media and Pop Culture

7 Replies to “What Can We Learn from #1 Songs?”

  1. What “Number One” means has changed twice over (or more) in the last 60 years.

    In the beginning, a “number one” song was driven by sales of singles – vinyl 45 RPM records, purchased a song at a time.

    Then, starting approximately at “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, and ramping up through the widespread acceptance of CD’s, music sales became album driven. “Number One” status became dependant on radio airplay, and through the 80’s, MTV video play.

    Then, Internet music sharing and iTunes flipped things around again – downloads a song at a time. But, as the book “The Long Tail” documented, music sales were no longer constrained by the limitations of the size of a retail store, where you might be able to pick from 4000 or so “hits”, to virtual Internet stores, where people can (and do) pick from a million songs.

    With overall music sales down, it doesn’t take as much to be “Number One”.

    One other note, at the risk of dating myself: I can recall 45rpm singles retailing for about 99 cents – and iTunes charges about the same now.

    1. Thanks for a wonderful comment, Kevin! I well remember the days of buying single 45 records for 99 cents. But you had to have one of those plastic pieces for the middle so it would fit on an LP-player’s spindle!

  2. I still have the inserts, and a pile of 45s to play on my stereo (which I also have).

    I expect that these days #1 means the most downloads, and not necessarily the most in-store purchases. Also each genre seems to have its own #1, so I wonder how valuable the information is.

    In many ways calculating this is like calculating the #1 movie. All there is to go on is the $ spent in total. I have yet to see anything that states the # of “units” sold; whether that represents downloads plus actual discs, or # of movie tickets sold. Given the variety in pricing in each area and source, that would offer a more clear indicator of the most popular, which I thought is what #1 was intended to mean.

  3. Apparently you can learn quite a bit, according to this piece in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/26/science/26tier.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=narcissism%20song%20lyrics&st=cse#):

    The new study of song lyrics certainly won’t end the debate, but it does offer another way to gauge self-absorption: the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The researchers find that hit songs in the 1980s were more likely to emphasize happy togetherness, like the racial harmony sought by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder in “Ebony and Ivory” and the group exuberance promoted by Kool & the Gang: “Let’s all celebrate and have a good time.” Diana Ross and Lionel Richie sang of “two hearts that beat as one,” and John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” emphasized the preciousness of “our life together.”

    Today’s songs, according to the researchers’ linguistic analysis, are more likely be about one very special person: the singer. “I’m bringing sexy back,” Justin Timberlake proclaimed in 2006. The year before, Beyoncé exulted in how hot she looked while dancing — “It’s blazin’, you watch me in amazement.” And Fergie, who boasted about her “humps” while singing with the Black Eyed Peas, subsequently released a solo album in which she told her lover that she needed quality time alone: “It’s personal, myself and I.”

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