Pop Playground
The Stagnation of the American Charts

if you’re a normal American, at one time or another you’ve probably said to yourself: “God, if I have to hear this song one more time I’m gonna kill someone!” Now, let me guess. You’ve probably been in the car, listening to the top 40 radio station, either by design or by accident. As I worked at UPS during the past spring and summer, I felt much the same way about Nelly’s ubiquitous “Hot in Herre”. The song would just not go away. Case in point: while going out to dinner in late November, “Hot in Herre” came on the top 40 radio station. If my memory serves me right I leaned over to the passenger in the car and said, “Not quite an early winter jam, is it?”


Alas, it’s the curse of American radio, you say. Driven by greed they’ll stop at nothing to run something good into the ground, most notably Neptunes produced tunes- not that they were doing us any favors by slowing down for a minute last year (witness an entire mix on the hip hop radio station of Neptunes produced material). But I’d say it’s something else that’s driving the stagnation of the radio- and it has been for a long time. The Billboard charts. With a quick rundown of the charts we can see the obvious problem here: there isn’t one single that hasn’t been on the charts for less than three weeks. The charts are filled with- about 80%- songs that have been on the charts for longer than ten weeks. Instead of first week wonders, we have songs that climb ever so slowly- gaining widespread public acceptance and support- and finally get to the top.


This is a far cry from the fast moving excitement of the British charts, in which, more often than not, the nation’s top single is one that is in its debut week. Songs rarely have the time to grow and gain an audience. Rather, the tracks are judged entirely by their first week output and generally fall off from there. The number one single in England is rarely in that position for long, as someone inevitably comes in and knocks them off in the next week. In fact, it’s a rare phenomenon that a song will remain number one for more than three weeks and in the charts much longer than that. It’s this intense shuttling and switching of the zeitgeist that keeps the English charts exciting and fun to watch as it’s usually hard to predict who will be at the top spot next- and for how long.


In contrast, the American charts remain a plodding and slow entity that have an air of inevitability about them, as songs continually rise ever so closer to the top spot. Following the charts in America is much like watching the baseball standings in the newspaper day after day during the regular season. The cream always rises to the top eventually, with a few surprises along the way. But following it day to day is a tedious activity rarely worth the time or energy that the English charts demand.


So what’s the point here? Disposability, I suppose. We need turnover, we need excitement, we need now. You’ve listened to that Eminem single a couple of times? Great. Buy it and move on. Let’s get something new and fresh in here. Let’s let things get shaken up a bit. Besides, there’s always something better around the corner.


By: Todd Burns
Published on: 2003-02-10
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