Why Don’t Today’s Hits Reflect The Times?

President John F. Kennedy working at his desk in the Oval Ofice of the White House. 

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

This week in 1965, the hottest debut on Billboard’s Hot 100 was Barry McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction,” the lyrics of which were a wake-up call, from its opening shot of “The Eastern world, it is explodin’; violence flarin’, bullets loadin’,” to its warning of impending nuclear war (“If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away; there’ll be no one to save, with the world in a grave”). Although light-years from top 40’s more typical love songs and dance hits at that time, “Eve” battled its way past the likes of The Beatles, The Beach Boys and James Brown. Five weeks later, topical beat typical when the song reached No. 1.

“Eve” wasn’t the first major hit in Hot 100 history to tackle the issues, and far from the last. Exactly two years earlier, Peter, Paul & Mary stood at No. 2 with their rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and in August 1968, in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the Rascals ruled the chart with “People Got To Be Free.” It was an era when summer's dog days meant not just civil unrest and protest in the streets, but on top 40 as well. Edwin Starr’s “War” was on top in August 1970, and a year later the Raiders would have just earned their only No. 1 with “Indian Reservation,” which focused on the mistreatment of Native Americans.

Now: fast-forward to the current week in August. Even as we're bombarded with TV coverage and social media messages about the violence in St. Louis, war in the Middle East and the floundering economy and job market, you’d be hard pressed to hear hits touching on any of those topics at top 40. The closest thing to conflict? A father and prospective son-in-law’s tete-a-tete in MAGIC!’s “Rude.” Yes, there’s a song about the destruction of a city, only that destruction took place in 79 A.D. (Bastille’s “Pompeii”). And while no songs mention political leaders, Fifth Harmony’s “Bo$$” does name-check First Lady Michelle Obama over a dozen times.

Did contemporary music get dumber? Why have the big three themes -- love, sex and partying -- had such a stranglehold on top 40 for nearly two decades?

“That was a different, less competitive [and] more broad-based era of top 40,” says Clear Channel senior vp of research and strategy Guy Zapoleon of the 1960s-70s protest era. "[While] the format’s original intent was playing the biggest-selling songs of the week -- regardless of how they sounded or what genre of music they came from -- we’re [now] living in an age of highly targeted [radio] formats which gain much bigger ratings with a narrower demo focus than in the past. The overall feel of [top 40] stations, personalities and production is very uptempo; they satisfy the need for fun and making you feel good.”

Which means leaving the bad-news songs at the door. "Top 40 in this era tends to favor a highly produced, highly layered kind of music that tends to smooth out a lot of the rough edges, including political ones," says Marc Fisher, Washington Post senior editor and author of the radio history tome Something In The Air. “What’s left is the stuff that’s least offensive -- [music] that's not going to be topical, or in any way a protest or commentary on tough issues or controversies.” Also worth noting is that, at the same time, there were more hit songs about the news, there was also more actual news on top 40. During the time of “Eve Of Destruction,” most stations still aired newscasts every hour.

With these changes came a move away from songs about us as a nation (such as the lyric “we got to live together” in Sly & the Family Stone’s 1969 No. 1, “Everyday People”) to those befitting the selfie generation. "Listeners today seem more focused on escaping the bad news,” says Vallie-Richards-Donovan Consulting vp Mike Donovan. “The thought of the moment is about oneself and feeling good. Thus the success of a song like Pharrell Williams’ 'Happy'."

This isn’t to say that in the current atmosphere a socially-conscious song still can’t slip through, especially when it deals with an issue relatable to its target audience. If that isn't currently the case with Meagan Trainor’s body image-defending “All About That Bass,” it certainly was a year ago with “Same Love,” on which Macklemore & Ryan Lewis spoke out for the rights of the gay community.

"'Same Love' may have been the first hit in a long time to talk about social injustice,” says Zapoleon about the song which, having followed the rap duo’s two Hot 100 No. 1s (“Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us”), fought for its No. 11 chart peak. "There was a lot of resistance,” says Warner Bros. vp of top 40 promotion Dave Dyer. “Some programmers who know great music and are really good at what they do said: 'I don’t care if it’s a hit or not. I personally disagree with the sentiment, so I won’t play it.’ 

For at least those weeks last summer and fall, though, “Same Love” became the modern-day equivalent of the more politically engaged hits of decades past. “Macklemore exposed an issue much closer than war to the younger people of today's world: Having the freedom to love whom they choose,” Donovan says. Dyer sees a similarity between “Same Love” and at least one anti-war song that also received a mixed response from radio. “Like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's 'Ohio,' 'Same Love' was not written to be on the top 40, [but rather] because the artist had something to say.”

All of which begs another question: Why don’t today’s top 40 acts have anything to say? Donovan laments that “[The] artists of 1960s and '70s were much more socially conscious of the feelings and mood of the nation than many of today's artists.” Zapoleon adds, “Outside of [the] standard themes of love, sex, party and everyday minor social happenings in life, there just aren't a lot of songs that are relevant to challenges people are facing today, or that talk about contemporary major events in America or the world.”

A more likely explanation is tat, while topical songs from current artists may no longer make the cut at top 40, they still exist elsewhere in the media universe. Fisher says, "There are probably people writing them, but it’s taken the form of categories on Reddit or Tumblr or all kinds of individualized targeted speech that occurs in all the back corners of the Internet."  

But even with the increased indicators and metrics involved in making a hit (Pandora, Facebook, Shazam, Twitter, YouTube, HitPredictor... the list is long) and the lessons top 40 has learned from past programming mistakes (such as a too-heavy lean on alternative or adult contemporary songs in the mid-1990s), there are hints suggesting a renewed interest in songs more reflective of reality. “We've clearly seen that the taste of today's listeners is more diverse than at any other time in history,” Donovan says. "This means artists can take risks and address a vast range of top-of-mind issues in today's world.” Arguably, Lorde has taken those risks on both of her top 10 hits to date, whether poking holes in the lifestyles of the rich and famous on “Royals” or simply protesting the repetition of rap in “Team” ("I'm kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, so there”). While that may not mean a return to “Eve Of Destruction”-like anti-war pop, Dyer doesn’t rule that out. "A song about war right now would have a much easier time [at top 40] than one about gay marriage because everybody’s tired of war; this country’s been at war ever since I can remember.”

Zapoleon doesn’t rule it out either. "Listeners really do crave variety from the format, which means covering a lot more themes than just love, sex and party."