TIME FOR A CHANGE?
It is a significant achievement that Katy Perry has achieved the rock era’s 1000th Number One single on the Billboard pop charts with “I Kissed A Girl,” which – given the artist’s gender and the song title – will probably go down in history more for the “firsts” that it achieved in terms of its risque subject matter than its rock-era milestone. Having said that, as a self-proclaimed music historian, I would contend that the Perry song topped the chart in something other than the rock era when you consider the following:
When Bill Haley unofficialy (and unwittingly) ushered in the rock era by reaching No. 1 in 1955 with a song conveniently titled “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock,” it marked a significant change in the type of music that would become popular with America’s music-listening and record-buying public – particularly, America’s youth. Rock music and its various sub-genres would solidify their places on the musical landscape in the coming decades with Elvis, the Beatles, the first British invasion of the 1960s, psychedelic rock of the late ’60s, art-rock of the early ’70s, corporate and album-rock of the mid-to-late ’70s and punk/modern rock at the end of that decade, right on up to the second British invasion of the 1980s, big-hair rock bands of the late ’80s, and grunge rock in the early ’90s. But something has changed in the last 15 years. Rock music has seen its relevance decrease significantly as evidenced by the number of rock artists and bands who have topped the Billboard charts over the years.
Granted, rock artists like Coldplay, 3 Doors Down, Nickelback, and mainstays like Green Day still make their presence known on the charts. But these artists can now be considered the exception and not the norm. Instead, another genre – hip-hop (a sub-genre of R&B) – has dominated almost ever since the SoundScan era of Billboard’s charts began. One could argue that the “Hip-Hop Era” began the week that MC Hammer’s “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em” reached No. 1 on the album charts in 1990 and spent four months there. Or maybe it was when the first “complete” rap single to hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 did so, also in 1990. That was “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice. If you don’t agree, consider the following:
Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, superstar pop-rock acts like Billy Joel and Phil Collins were coming off of the best years in their recording careers, chart-wise. Even more contemporary rock acts of the day like Bon Jovi, Poison, Def Leppard, Metallica and too many others to mention were regularly charting high on the Billboard charts. After 1990, these acts became increasingly rare on the Hot 100 singles charts and to a lesser degree, the album charts. Instead, acts like the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, Mary J. Blige, TLC and Usher became more prevalent on the charts. Hip-Hop (and to a nearly equal degree, R&B music in general), became so dominant in the 1990s after Hammer and Ice broke the doors open, that at various points in the 1990s, black artists accounted for all 10 of the positions in the top 10 of the Hot 100 singles chart. The first time this happened was in January 1993 – and that was BEFORE Billboard changed its policy to allow R&B radio formats to report to its Hot 100 Airplay panel. Not since the late 1980s has an all-rock or all-pop-rock top-10 existed on the Hot 100.
So dominant has been hip-hop music that it forced Billboard to change the names of its R&B charts to “R&B/Hip-Hop.” So dominant have been this genre and sub-genre that the two top-charting male artists on the Hot 100 over the past 15 years have been R. Kelly and Jay-Z, with R&B crooner Usher being the top-charting male artist of this decade on that chart. Rapper Jay-Z has had more No. 1 albums on The Billboard 200 than any other artist in the past 10 years, and more than any other artists in history besides Elvis and the Beatles. The two biggest singles on the Hot 100 this year so far (at least based on number of weeks spent at No. 1) may be “Low” by Flo Rida and “Lollipop” by Lil Wayne, who recently became the first artist since – well, another hip-hop artist, 50 Cent – to have an album sell a million copies in one week. And I haven’t even mentioned the name Beyonce, easily this decade’s biggest female pop star.
And like the rock era during its lifespan – which, I’m arguing ended when the “hip-hop era” began – the hip-hop era has seen numerous sub-genres of its own rise to prominence. There have been East Coast or New York hip-hop and West Coast hip-hop, whose key representatives (the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, respectively) have had almost iconic status since their deaths in the 1990s. There was Atlanta-based hip-hop a la OutKast, Lil’ Jon, Ying Yang Twins and Ludacris; and New Orleans-based hip-hop via artists like Master P and Juvenile. Even St. Louis made a name for itself and its scene with artists like Nelly and Chingy earlier this decade. Detroit’s Eminem became one of the biggest acts of the first half of this decade and perhaps the first white rap act to be taken seriously by hip-hop fans.
As an objective historian, I’ll present the other side of the coin here as well. One could argue that hip-hop and R&B is on a downslide now with album sales reportedly down nearly 50% from the genres’ heyday of the late ’90s and early ’00s. You could also make the point that R&B is a sub-genre of rock and that its artists have always traditionally been included under the broader “rock-and-roll” moniker for such honors as music’s ultimate hall-of-fame in Cleveland, Ohio. You could say that if R&B is a sub-genre of rock, then hip-hop is, by extension, another of rock’s grandsons. These would be legitimate points. But aren’t the points that I’ve made above equally as compelling? Especially when you consider that hip-hop (unlike other past sub-genres of R&B, like disco) has refused to die despite its various obstacles, and continues to resonate among a large portion of America’s youth. And after all, wasn’t it the spirit of American youth and its embrace of the earlier genre’s music that ushered in the rock era 53 years ago?
King Of Prussia, Penn.
As usual, I always enjoy your e-mails and always appreciate hearing from you.
This subject has been debated in Chart Beat Chat before and as thoughtful as your letter is, I feel we’ve covered the issue in depth.
My feeling then, and my feeling now, is that the “rock era” doesn’t just refer to “rock and roll.” It includes music of many different genres, including R&B and yes, hip-hop. The “rock era” is distinguished from what came before, and while there were some rock and roll songs prior to July 1955, for the most part, the music that came before was completely different from the music of the “rock era.” In reality, the change was gradual, of course. Even after the “rock era” began, artists like Kay Starr and Perry Como were still having hits on the Billboard pop singles charts.
But the “rock era” was a sea change in what music was, and it will require another sea change before we are in the next era, whatever that may be. Because it will be that extreme of a change, it’s not something you can predict before it happens.
Also, no one went around on July 9, 1955, proclaiming the start of the “rock era.” It was only years later, from the perspective of history, that musicologists agreed on naming this new era in music (granted, you point out that hip-hop music has been dominant for 15 years, so it’s not like you are rushing to judgment). So I believe we won’t be able to proclaim the next era when it begins, but only years later, from an historical vantage point. And I’m pretty sure someone else will be writing Chart Beat by that time, so it won’t be me — at least, not in this forum.
None of this is to deny the impact of hip-hop music, which you described quite accurately. I just don’t think we’re in a new era, just as we didn’t declare a “surf music era,” a “Beatles era,” a “psychedelic era,” a “singer-songwriter era,” a “disco era,” or a “second British Invasion era.” All of it, including hip-hop, fits into the “rock era.”
You weren’t the only Chart Beat reader to write in about my reference to the “rock era.” See the next e-mail.
LIFE COULD BE A DREAM
I have just one minor quibble with your Chart Beat column this week. You said again, as you have in the past, that “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” was the first rock and roll song to hit No. 1. Actually, it was the second. Almost a year earlier, “Sh-Boom” by the Crew-Cuts hit No. 1 and most people consider that to be rock and roll.
The difference was the influence the song had on pop music. “Rock Around the Clock” single-handedly established rock and roll as the dominant force in pop music, whereas the few previous rock and roll hits were only hit songs.
I’m sorry, but I can’t resist using an analogy. “Rock Around the Clock” impacted pop music like Barack Obama impacted presidential politics. “Sh-Boom” impacted pop music like, oh, say Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party candidate.
Forest Grove, Ore.
There really isn’t even agreement over what was the first rock and roll song. An entire book has been written on the subject, “What Was the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Record?” by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes (there is a general consensus that “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston is the first rock and roll song, but Dawson and Propes offer plenty of alternative choices).
You could make a case for “Sh-Boom,” but I’d be more likely to agree if the No. 1 version had been by the Chords. The Crew-Cuts cover was more of a vocal pop recording.
Still, it’s not like I’m the one who anointed “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock.” That was done by music historians long before I started writing Chart Beat.
HOW MANY ‘BLEEDING’ TIMES?
With Katy Perry having the 1,000th No. 1 single of the rock era, and all of the repetitive (or yo-yo) No. 1s this past year, does Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” have three different designated positions (in the 900s) from the three separate times it reached No. 1 on the Hot 100?
Thanks so much.
Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” was the 997th No. 1 of the rock era, and that’s it. A song can return to No. 1, but it doesn’t occupy more than one slot on the numerical list of chart-toppers. Even “The Twist” by Chubby Checker, which was No. 1 in 1960 and again in 1962, is only the 101st No. 1.
THE AIRPLAY CONUNDRUM
Last week John Schwob asked you why more radio stations aren’t playing the top selling song “Viva La Vida.” Although you agreed that it’s a great song, and speculated that radio play will increase, you didn’t really answer John’s question. So I’ll ask it in more general terms — In your opinion, why is radio ignoring so many top-selling songs and artists, and playing the same songs for months on end? More listeners means more ad revenue. Don’t they think that more variety will bring more listeners? Obviously not. I know that radio stations must do research, research, research, but I just can’t believe that they’ve got this one right. What do you think?
As much as I love radio and people who work in radio, I have never understood why program and music directors make some of their choices regarding the music they add.
I’ve told the story in this column before, but before I ever worked in the industry, I called my local top 40 radio station KRLA to find out why they weren’t playing “I Wish I Were a Princess” by Little Peggy March, the follow-up to her No. 1 hit, “I Will Follow Him.” They told me they weren’t playing it because it wasn’t selling. My response was, “Of course it’s not selling – you’re not playing it!”
That doesn’t answer your question, but it does give you an idea of how frustrating it can be to understand why radio stations do what they do. I wish they would rely on their gut instincts more than research (and yes, they do, as you say, research research research). I wish they wouldn’t wait for other stations to add songs before they do because then you just have a lot of people waiting around for the other person to make the first move. I wish a lot of things.
On the bright side, airplay for “Viva La Vida” continues to grow. Coldplay’s song debuts at No. 29 on the airplay-based Mainstream Top 40 chart dated July 12, so don’t give up on radio yet!
EHHH, WHAT’S UP, CHARTS?
Two of my most passionate interests for many years have been the Billboard charts and theatrical cartoons (mostly from the silent era through the 1960s). I have collected as many books about cartoons as I have about Billboard charts to make me a fanatical expert on both. Yet recently, I stumbled upon an amazing coincidence (and was shocked that I hadn’t discovered it before). The first Bugs Bunny cartoon was released on July 27, 1940, the same issue date as Billboard’s first record chart. How about dat, Doc!
Richard K. Rogers
Finally, I understand your e-mail address!
Your discovery reminds me of how surprised I was to learn that RCA released the first 45rpm single the day I was born.
I’d like to feature some more e-mails in this week’s column, but now that I’ve read yours, I’m afraid that’s all, folks!