View Full Version : An over-40 listens to the Top 40

08-10-2006, 03:46 PM
Once upon a time, if you named any song in the Top 40, I could hum a few bars.

So it was startling to scan Billboard's Top 40 recently and realize the extent of my cluelessness about pop music, circa 2006. I recognized about four or five songs. Gnarls Barkley? Fort Minor? Panic! At the Disco?
Who are these people?

It was humbling. Sure, a little disconnect is natural for anyone over 40 with kids and a mortgage. But I write about music regularly. I'm honored to vote each year on nominees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Total immersion was in order. I clicked on iTunes and ordered the nation's 40 most popular songs (substituting Tim McGraw for Beyonce, whose latest hit was the only one unavailable).

The mission: To see how much, or how little, had changed.

The names are different. So are the beats and often the language. But the dominant subject matter -- boy wants girl, girl wants boy, boy/girl can't fathom the other -- hasn't changed. And the ratio of good songs to bad songs, guilty pleasures to forgettable retreads, is about the same, too.
Culture's splintering has made the Top 40 less influential. Hundreds of radio stations cater to individual tastes. If that's not good enough, you can program your iPod. If you want to ignore the Top 40, it's quite easy.

To gauge the effect of aging on a musical attention span, here's a good rule of thumb: At age 16, most fans know everything in the Top 40. Subtract one song for each year past that, and the number will be about what the average fan will know.

That calculation would put me at nine, which turned out to be about right. You may find, like me, that you know more than you thought: This song was on at the gym, that one in the background on a TV show, another throbbed from the speakers of a car inching down the block.

Older fans will find a few other things familiar in today's hit parade.
Rihanna's "SOS" is built around a sample of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," which was itself a remake. LeToya's comeback hit borrows from the Stylistics' "You're My Everything." Katharine McPhee bravely takes on Judy Garland on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and Rascal Flatts covers the forgettable 1980s rocker "Life is a Highway."

Leave it to Jessica Simpson, though, to baldly rip off Madonna and the soul classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in the same song.