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Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music

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If you drive into any American city with the car stereo blasting, you’ll undoubtedly find radio stations representing R&B/hip-hop, country, Top 40, adult contemporary, rock, and Latin, each playing hit after hit within that musical format. American music has created an array of rival mainstreams, complete with charts in multiple categories. Love it or hate it, the world th If you drive into any American city with the car stereo blasting, you’ll undoubtedly find radio stations representing R&B/hip-hop, country, Top 40, adult contemporary, rock, and Latin, each playing hit after hit within that musical format. American music has created an array of rival mainstreams, complete with charts in multiple categories. Love it or hate it, the world that radio made has steered popular music and provided the soundtrack of American life for more than half a century. In Top 40 Democracy, Eric Weisbard studies the evolution of this multicentered pop landscape, along the way telling the stories of the Isley Brothers, Dolly Parton, A&M Records, and Elton John, among others. He sheds new light on the upheavals in the music industry over the past fifteen years and their implications for the audiences the industry has shaped. Weisbard focuses in particular on formats—constructed mainstreams designed to appeal to distinct populations—showing how taste became intertwined with class, race, gender, and region. While many historians and music critics have criticized the segmentation of pop radio, Weisbard finds that the creation of multiple formats allowed different subgroups to attain a kind of separate majority status—for example, even in its most mainstream form, the R&B of the Isley Brothers helped to create a sphere where black identity was nourished.  Music formats became the one reliable place where different groups of Americans could listen to modern life unfold from their distinct perspectives. The centers of pop, it turns out, were as complicated, diverse, and surprising as the cultural margins. Weisbard’s stimulating book is a tour de force, shaking up our ideas about the mainstream music industry in order to tease out the cultural importance of all performers and songs.


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If you drive into any American city with the car stereo blasting, you’ll undoubtedly find radio stations representing R&B/hip-hop, country, Top 40, adult contemporary, rock, and Latin, each playing hit after hit within that musical format. American music has created an array of rival mainstreams, complete with charts in multiple categories. Love it or hate it, the world th If you drive into any American city with the car stereo blasting, you’ll undoubtedly find radio stations representing R&B/hip-hop, country, Top 40, adult contemporary, rock, and Latin, each playing hit after hit within that musical format. American music has created an array of rival mainstreams, complete with charts in multiple categories. Love it or hate it, the world that radio made has steered popular music and provided the soundtrack of American life for more than half a century. In Top 40 Democracy, Eric Weisbard studies the evolution of this multicentered pop landscape, along the way telling the stories of the Isley Brothers, Dolly Parton, A&M Records, and Elton John, among others. He sheds new light on the upheavals in the music industry over the past fifteen years and their implications for the audiences the industry has shaped. Weisbard focuses in particular on formats—constructed mainstreams designed to appeal to distinct populations—showing how taste became intertwined with class, race, gender, and region. While many historians and music critics have criticized the segmentation of pop radio, Weisbard finds that the creation of multiple formats allowed different subgroups to attain a kind of separate majority status—for example, even in its most mainstream form, the R&B of the Isley Brothers helped to create a sphere where black identity was nourished.  Music formats became the one reliable place where different groups of Americans could listen to modern life unfold from their distinct perspectives. The centers of pop, it turns out, were as complicated, diverse, and surprising as the cultural margins. Weisbard’s stimulating book is a tour de force, shaking up our ideas about the mainstream music industry in order to tease out the cultural importance of all performers and songs.

30 review for Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    A longer version of this review appears https://kdhx.org/articles/music-news/.... Rush Limbaugh calls us LICs, the Low Information Crowd, the idea being that we filter, and nowhere is this more true than in our music, where our "tastes" become what the French called la politique des Auteurs or a politics of authorship. We block out the robust production that overwhelms us, or is beyond our understanding. The cultural politics runs that we make nescience a knowledge, an art (if not a science). So A longer version of this review appears https://kdhx.org/articles/music-news/.... Rush Limbaugh calls us LICs, the Low Information Crowd, the idea being that we filter, and nowhere is this more true than in our music, where our "tastes" become what the French called la politique des Auteurs or a politics of authorship. We block out the robust production that overwhelms us, or is beyond our understanding. The cultural politics runs that we make nescience a knowledge, an art (if not a science). So it is with genre in music; connoisseurship runs toward creating taste cultures around artist-bands in whose stock fans can see themselves as early adapters, risk-less investors. The pursuit of this kind of political clarity in consumption is very hip; the unhip, meantime, listen to the radio. Or at least that is a premise. On Eric Weisbard's account, radio formats operate so that those whose time will not permit such connoisseurship can hear a range of work within what Weisbard calls "the rival mainstreams": Top 40, Urban Contemporary (black modernist music), Country, Classic Rock, and Adult Contemporary [what used to be called Easy Listening, or middle of the road-- MOR]. Dial-flipping allows you to tune-in, across demographic lines. Weisbard's subjects are the genre-invaders The Isley Brothers, Dolly Parton, Elton John, the Cleveland classic rock station WMMS, and the MOR label, A & M. No artist, label, or format has more virtue in this conflict between genre and format; Weisbard's politics are with the poptimists, who dabble and do not collect. It has itself become a politics. Streaming has interrupted this politics, since it's possible to collect in a dabbling way on Spotify, or what have you. Moreover, in places like St. Louis, there's this thing called community radio, supporting the bands and the connoisseurship of Alt-Country, "heartland rock," singer-songwriter, and a million Spotify playlists. Techno-interruptus becomes a fetish among the young, allowing them to ignore "lifers" whose musiking is a spiritual gaming, a politique.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    The same problem that 90% of music critics have: a writing style that's more intended to show you how smart the author is rather than just convey information, which makes for a laborious read. In general, though there was some interesting stuff here, I really am not sure what the author was on about. The same problem that 90% of music critics have: a writing style that's more intended to show you how smart the author is rather than just convey information, which makes for a laborious read. In general, though there was some interesting stuff here, I really am not sure what the author was on about.

  3. 4 out of 5

    FunkMaster General

    Due to my musical tastes & where I was raised, I preferred the chapters on The Isleys, Elton, & WMMS, but a cool read throughout.

  4. 4 out of 5

    K

    It's commitment to radio format in telling the history of pop music from approximately 1965 to the present is both its great strength and weakness. It's smart, but the fastidiousness with which he discussed the role of radio verged on fetishizing (and romanticizing) radio in the ways people discovered music in the recent past. I saw echoes of myself in there, but also some serious dissonance that didn't quite jibe with what I saw around me in those crucial years when music was so crucial to my s It's commitment to radio format in telling the history of pop music from approximately 1965 to the present is both its great strength and weakness. It's smart, but the fastidiousness with which he discussed the role of radio verged on fetishizing (and romanticizing) radio in the ways people discovered music in the recent past. I saw echoes of myself in there, but also some serious dissonance that didn't quite jibe with what I saw around me in those crucial years when music was so crucial to my sense of identity and the identity of those around me.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ken

  6. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

  7. 5 out of 5

    Domenica

  8. 4 out of 5

    Keith

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jason Mellard

  10. 5 out of 5

    J. Sot

  11. 4 out of 5

    Josh

  12. 4 out of 5

    Holly Gleason

  13. 5 out of 5

    Roy

  14. 5 out of 5

    David Crider

  15. 4 out of 5

    Eric Schumacher-rasmussen

  16. 5 out of 5

    David

  17. 4 out of 5

    Paul

  18. 4 out of 5

    Luuk Van dijk

  19. 4 out of 5

    Matt Parks

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mike

  21. 4 out of 5

    Chris O'leary

  22. 5 out of 5

    Robert Felice

  23. 5 out of 5

    Tristan R Kneschke

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kevin J.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jfm Tech

  26. 4 out of 5

    Adam

  27. 4 out of 5

    Saptarshi

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cat

  29. 4 out of 5

    Megan Lucy

  30. 4 out of 5

    Al

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