I’m not sure when “popular” and “mainstream” became derogatory terms for music, but I will guess that somewhere around this time music consumers became aware of what I call the “Top 40 Formula.” My theory is this: at any specific cultural moment, there exists a formula through which anyone could create a song and successfully gain mainstream popularity. I qualify with “could” to acknowledge the influence of promotional methods in the recording industry that essentially determine which songs play on the radio and, in turn, which songs top the all-knowing charts.
Recording artists’ success is often decided by their ability to place on the Billboard lists of popular songs. These lists are determined by a combination of record sales and radio play, with radio as the most significant factor. And radio play is very often determined by “independent promoters” who pay radio stations in the form of promotional funding to play songs by the record companies who employ them. This is not to say that radio stations no longer choose songs based on what their listeners will like. My point is, just as Klosterman argued that laugh tracks have undermined society’s ability to distinguish personal humor opinions, the promotional tactics of the record industry have hindered the masses’ ability to discern their musical taste and so provided them with a formula by which to judge enjoyment.
Let me give you an example. Given the bass-heavy, techno-hip hop that dominates Top 40 radio stations, I argue that this moment’s cultural Top 40 Formula is comprised of a loud, persistent (synthesized) bass line and a catchy, auto-tuned hook, repeated indefinitely (somehow auto-tuning has become more popular regardless of singers’ actual talent. This reveals either some fascinating, technological fetish among my generation, or a general ignorance of what singing sounds like). Given this formula, I present the Black Eyed Peas’ song “Boom Boom Pow.”
Listen to this song on YouTube (with the lyrics so graciously provided) and consider the main idea. Essentially, the song is about the song itself, and how closely it adheres to the Top 40 Formula. The Black Eyed Peas are blatantly pointing out how well they can produce music that fits perfectly within mainstream expectations, while attempting to convince the listener that they are somehow innovative. Consider these lyrics:
They try to copy my swagger,
I’m on that next shit now.
I’m so 3008,
You so 2000 and late…
The aggressive accusation that other artists are imitating their style yet lagging drastically behind seems preposterous in this light. But this is the genius of the Black Eyed Peas; they are latching onto the formula, whether consciously or unconsciously (although I prefer to give them the credit), and claiming it, thereby securing their dominion of mainstream taste. And it worked—“Boom Boom Pow” reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 and remained on the chart for 22 weeks.
The presence of this song on the chart does not necessarily signify popular opinion, but it is interesting to consider the idea of “popularity” not as something that is well-liked by a lot of people, but something that a lot of people are told is well-liked by other people. Here I could delve into the reactionary “indie” movement placing value in pure obscurity, but I’ll avoid turning a blog post into an essay (#Englishmajorproblems). Just as the laugh track is the television industry’s way of saying “normal people don’t have enough confidence to know what they think is funny,” the Black Eyed Peas provide normal people with the formula for enjoying music. Gotta get that…