How American Top 40 Expanded My Musical Horizons: A Reply to Scott Timberg

Since Casey Kasem’s death on June 15, media of all sorts have been flooded with pieces celebrating his work on American Top 40. Perhaps the most intriguing is the provocatively titled Casey Kasem, Ronald Reagan and music’s 1 percent: Artificial “popularity” is not democracy penned by Scott Timberg for Salon.com.

He takes issue with a common theme in the pieces about Casey and AT40, arguing that the show was fundamentally a mouthpiece for the music industry and not an effective representation of what music had to offer. It’s a well-written, thought-provoking piece, and I encourage anyone interested in music and chart history to read it here. That said, Timberg runs away with his thesis and makes a fundamentally flawed assumption. I tried to craft a comment to reply on the Salon site, but realized that I needed more space to explore my objections — hence this post.

Timberg makes three basic points. The first two are pretty straightforward. First, the “best” music is not necessarily the most popular. I certainly agree with that, although his implication that popularity and quality are mutually exclusive doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. (Four lads from Liverpool rather effectively debunk that theory…) I will point out that Casey never claimed to present the best music, however, relying on phrases like “the biggest hits,” “best-selling,” and “most played.”

His second, most central point is that best-seller lists — which is what AT40 fundamentally was — are inherently corporate publicity tools. Again, there is some real truth to that. Companies promote what they think will sell, so it was easier for Elton John to make the Top 20 in 1982 than Haircut 100. I would argue that the relationship is a bit more nuanced than Timberg allows. Take Eurythmics haunting debut single, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). It had limited corporate backing until it’s long, slow chart climb proved the duo were promotable. Even conservative industries are looking for the next big thing as well as the sure-fire draw.

The conclusion that Timberg draws from these two points, however, rings completely false. This passage from the latter part of the article sums his point up nicely:

The heyday of Kasem’s show may’ve been, as most remember it, a sweet passage in their youth. It certainly was for mine. But “American Top 40” worked – like the best-seller lists and the now-ubiquitous Monday-morning movie box office reports, Reagan’s tax cuts, and “American Idol,” whose Ryan Seacrest now helms Kasem’s old show — as a mechanism for the winner-take-all-society. It shines attention on the artists and the songs who need it least, and ignores those who need it most.

It is fundamentally untrue that AT40 played no role in opening up new musical doors for its listeners. I’m the perfect example.

My radio listening options were extremely limited and conservative. I was a casually regular AT40 listener from 1973 to some time in 1980 and became what could best be described as obsessive from 1980 to the fall of 1984 when I headed to college. During that time, every chart week included at least five or six songs that I only heard on AT40. Many of these became favorites and led me to seek out the source albums, expanding my musical experience even further. A couple of examples nicely underscore the disconnect between my daily listening options and my chart-based window to broader horizons.

The first time I ever heard Rick James was Super Freak [#16, 1981] on AT40. I’m not a fan of the song anymore — the fact that it’s one of his least misogynistic songs is damning it with the faintest of praise — but it was a massive hit that has been included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When I actively requested that my local station play it, I was given the classic “not on our playlist” line. I even asked why and was told that it was “too urban” for the market. It doesn’t take much effort to decode that reasoning and to imagine what other music wasn’t going to show up on my airwaves.

Let’s take a look at two bands that Timberg specifically mentions as mistreated by the AT40 model, the Clash and Talking Heads. For weeks, the only place I heard the biggest hit by either band — Rock the Casbah [#8, 1983] and Burning Down the House [#9, 1983] respectively — was Casey’s countdown. Sure, Casbah’s source album, Combat Rock is no London Calling, but I only learned about — and bought — the classic album because I learned about the Clash on AT40.

In the long run all three of these songs eventually got airplay in my hometown, but only after they broke into the Top 20. Previous Top 30 hits by all three acts never made the cut and my less consistent chart listening kept me from ever hearing them when they were singles. Many other songs that tickled the Top 40 never got that extra push and were only available to me once a week.

I come from a solid middle-class background. I grew up in a mid-sized town (population around 30,000 when I graduated high school) with a large public university less than 20 minutes away. Despite these relative advantages I had very limited listening options. I lived outside of town, surrounded by farmland, so we didn’t have cable TV and the moderate advantages of MTV access. I can only imagine what kids in smaller, more isolated towns must have faced when looking for music. In my case, American Top 40 was a lifeline, opening a door to a lifelong love of music of all sorts.

Timberg is careful not to blame Casey for what he sees as the corporate awfulness of AT40, which is kind. But in assuming that every radio listener had equal access to a broad range of options, he ignores his own relative privilege and demeans the real value that the show offered to thousands of kids like me. His list of alternative sources of musical information are wonderful:

The other side of things – old-school rock critics, college radio, smaller independent stations where the jocks pick their own music, record stores where the clerks pushed the stuff they loved, zines and alternative weeklies – helped build a parallel track in the early ‘80s that allowed a more expansive range of music to flourish.

But none of that matters if you don’t have access to it. An “alternative” record store finally came to town my senior year, but I only knew where to start because of the musical education I got from AT40.

My feet were already firmly on the ground. For four hours a week the musical diversity I got from Casey — however limited it may have been — helped me reach for the stars.

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