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Ask Billboard: Decade-Defining Artists & Songs

Does "Billie Jean" define the '80s? Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the '90s? Readers choose seminal songs, and acts, decade-by-decade.

Whether you’re beach-going with California gurls (or ridin’ solo), vacation-bound on airplanes or feeling just generally dynamite (perhaps because you’re pretty good at drinkin’ beer), enjoy this week’s mailbag.

“Ask Billboard” is updated every Friday. As always, submit your questions about Billboard charts, sales and airplay, as well as general music musings, to askbb@billboard.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S.



Hi Gary,

Contributor Pat Thomas has raised a very good question in asking which musical artist best defines each decade ( “Ask Billboard,” July 23). It’s a great topic for discussion and here are my thoughts.

I agree with most others that Frank Sinatra defines this decade. The question becomes instead, who is the runner-up? I choose Bing Crosby, although arguments could be made for Glenn Miller, the Andrews Sisters and Louis Armstrong.

’50s: Elvis Presley is the King! This decade even has its own defining song: Bill Haley and the Comets’ “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock.” So, who is the runner-up? To me, there are actually two, since this decade is essentially split around the advent of the rock era.

1950-1954: This is especially difficult to choose, since most people think of the early days of rock and roll when they think of the ’50s, leaving the decade’s first half largely forgotten. For these years, I’m tempted to say Patti Page, because I’m a fan of hers, but instead I’ll choose Hank Williams, based on his greater cultural impact. He helped bring country music to the mainstream and his songs remain popular.

1955-1959: Who ranks below Elvis? One could name many rock pioneers, including Buddy Holly and Little Richard, but I’m going with the innovative Chuck Berry.

’60s: Without a doubt, the Beatles rule. They even have their own cultural phenomenon named after them, Beatlemania! Who could be considered second? The Rolling Stones? The Beach Boys? The Supremes? In terms of pop culture, I’ll say Bob Dylan.

’70s: I love Elton John and Olivia Newton-John, but when I think of the ’70s, I think disco, and, therefore, the Bee Gees define this decade. (Outside of North America, ABBA might be cited heavily). Elton John has to settle for runner-up status.

’80s: A tough call between Michael Jackson and Madonna. The King of Pop wins, though, with the Material Girl a close second.

Grunge or Lilith Fair? Lilith Fair was (and is again) a collection of female singer-songwriters (which have always existed), while grunge was a new subgenre. The foremost grunge band was Nirvana, which defines this decade to me. Sarah McLachlan and her Lilith Fair compatriots tie for second. (I’d even note the Spice Girls for their “girl power” imagery).

’00s: This decade belongs to the most ubiquitous rap/hip-hop artist of them all, Eminem. Second place would probably go to Beyonce, both with Destiny’s Child and as a soloist.

’10s: Lady Gaga is likely the most buzzed-about, while the Black-Eyed Peas have so far shown the most staying power atop the Billboard Hot 100. It will be interesting to find out how the rest of the decade plays out.

I can’t wait to read what opinions other people have.

Keep up the good work with this great column, Gary!

Blair Buchta
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Hello Gary,

In response to the letter from Pat Thomas and your reply regarding top performers from previous decades, I agree with your picks. Yes, the Bee Gees helped define much of ’70s music, but John’s impact has proven to be a bit more powerful, in my opinion. I would add the following to the discussion:

’60s: As an honorable mention, the sound of Motown.

’80s: Michael Jackson and Madonna as a tie for the ’80s. No need to explain their obvious impacts.

’00s: While the deserving Eminem remains distinct, popular and brilliant, I would also suggest Beyonce. I think it’s important to break away from the concept that such rankings include only individual acts, i.e., not including Beyonce’s stamp on the charts, including songwriting credits, music videos and concert tours while a member of Destiny’s Child.

In terms of Hot 100 success, eight of Destiny’s Child’s 10 top 10s reached that level in the ’00s. Those songs plus Beyonce’s 13 solo top 10s make her the only person (though not “act”) to achieve the most Hot 100 top 10s in the ’00s.

And, that’s not even considering her accomplishments on the R&B/hip-hop, dance and album charts and success in motion pictures. Talk about ubiquity. (However, I did hear that she recently received a ticket for texting while driving and the policeman didn’t know who she was!)

Wishing you well,

Pablo Nelson
Berkeley, California

Hi Blair and Pablo,

Thanks for your insightful responses. The more the topic is discussed, the more artists come to mind.

As to Pablo’s point abut expanding our views beyond individual acts in terms of pop culture impact, perhaps additional candidates for the ’00s emerge, courtesy of Fox TV: the top “American Idol” alumni (i.e., Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood) and the cast members of “Glee.”

Since 2002, “Idol” has presented new artists with an audience of more than 20 million multiple nights a week. Such an opportunity for instant exposure – and four months of winning over fans before an artist releases a debut album – has vastly changed the way an artist’s career can launch. With album sales of 10.6 million and 11.8 million, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan, Clarkson and Underwood especially have taken advantage of melding natural talent with newer paths to stardom.

Similarly, the “Glee” cast in one season has parlayed its popularity into chart achievements, notching 64 Hot 100 entries from June 2009 through this June (albeit with covers, not original songs). It would be a mistake not to mention the troupe in a discussion of the ’00s’ and ’10s’ most memorable acts, especially when the cast has so quickly totaled the seventh-most Hot 100 hits in the chart’s 52-year history.

Blair, you add a fun angle to the topic: in addition to artists, songs that define each decade. I agree with your choice for “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” for the ’50s. Here’s what I’d choose for other songs that could serve as time capsule recordings for future generations studying the rock era decade-by-decade:

’60s: “All You Need Is Love,” the Beatles. Based on the band performing the song on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” might equally be fitting, but the Fab Four’s 1967 No. 1 perhaps better sums up the pro-peace songs that defined a large portion of ’60s songwriting.

’70s: “Stayin’ Alive,” Bee Gees. While I picked Elton John as my choice last week for artist that first comes to mind for the decade, his talents have outlasted the trio’s output since each act’s ’70s chart high points. With disco’s heyday largely confined to that decade, it’s hard to find a song that mere seconds into its intro better conjures up so many things ’70s, from disco beats to John Travolta’s dance moves (and blinding white wardrobe).

’80s: “Material Girl,” Madonna. In the decade of “greed is good,” a signature song about materialism by the Material Girl might best showcase the ’80s mindset. Since his death last year, an argument could be made for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” Musically, all three songs feature the decade’s trademark mix of synth-infused pop, dance and rock that pervaded so many ’80s hits.

’90s: As music became more niched, it’s difficult to choose just one decade-defining song for the ’90s. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” could represent rock, Garth Brooks‘ “Friends in Low Places,” country and Whitney Houston‘s “I Will Always Love You,” pop and R&B/hip-hop. Nirvana helmed the grunge invasion, Brooks is SoundScan’s all-time best-selling album artist (68.5 million) and Houston’s song, similar to numerous ’90s R&B ballad hits by the likes of Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey, was a monster radio song that had the additional benefit of being associated with a box office smash, “The Bodyguard.”

’00s: Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” featuring Jay-Z, isn’t a bad choice, but once “American Idol” blossomed, pure pop music surged in downloads and at top 40 radio. Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” has since become a blueprint for the female power-pop that has blanketed radio since, with Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Pink and others building up resumes featuring comparable hooks and production. Taylor Swift – an artist who defines taking advantage of the decade’s new media to build and maintain success – deserves a mention for “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me,” the latter track becoming the first country crossover to top the all-format Nielsen BDS-monitored Radio Songs chart last year. Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” additionally revived acceptance for mainstream dance music.

’10s: Eight months into the decade, let’s go with the current Hot 100 leader: Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” featuring Rihanna. The song continues a trend previously employed by Rihanna of adding pop hooks to an otherwise all-rap song. We’ll see if the concept continues and even expands further to other genres, such as rapper B.o.B dabbling in rock, thanks to Hayley Williams’ vocals on “Airplanes,” and artists such as Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker blurring the boundaries of rock and country.

What are your choices for songs that best define each decade since the ’50s? Again, I look forward to reading your thoughts. Please send your e-mails to askbb@billboard.com.

And, since we mentioned “Glee” …


Hi Gary,

Billboard has previously reported on the most popular songs from “Glee.” To get ready for the new season, could you please provide an updated list of the best-selling songs the cast has released so far?

Thank you,

Le Hung
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Hi Le,

As we wait to hear new songs, meet new cast members and find out how New Directions rebounds from its last-place finish at Regionals, here is a look at the top “Glee” downloads through the week ending July 25, according to Nielsen SoundScan:

910,000, “Don’t Stop Believin’ “
298,000, “Defying Gravity”
295,000, “Somebody to Love”
293,000, “Halo/Walking on Sunshine”
284,000, “It’s My Life/Confessions Part II”
238,000, “Poker Face”
237,000, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
231,000, “Jessie’s Girl”
172,000, “Take a Bow”
171,000, “Sweet Caroline”

To-date, the “Glee” cast has sold 9,653,000 digital downloads, according to SoundScan. It has also shifted 2,506,000 albums, led by “Glee: Season One: The Music Volume 1” (924,000).

The musical/comedy’s second season – previewed July 25 at San Diego Comic-Con – premieres Sept. 21.