Popular culture

The Guide #36: From Marvin Gaye to the Macarena, Inside One Man’s Quest to Review Over 1,000 US Number 1s | Culture

This week, something a little different: an interview with journalist Tom Breihan, author of one of my favorite pop culture columns, Stereogum’s The Number Ones.

In 2018, Tom came up with the ambitious and daring idea of ​​reviewing every Billboard No. 1 single in chronological order and assigning each a rating out of 10. Tom’s early columns, taking into account hits from the late 50s like Mack the Knife 9/10) and, uh, The Chipmunk Song (grade 2/10: “As a parlor trick and feat of engineering, it’s just astounding. As a piece of music, it sucks shit”) are concise and to the point, focusing more on delivering a verdict than anything else.

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Yet as the chronicle progresses into the 1960s and beyond, and as the pop music it assesses has become more daring and kaleidoscopic, Tom’s chronicles have also become more ambitious, serving more of a detailed history of pop music itself and ever-changing America. Culture. Read any of them and you’ll likely learn something, whether it’s about the racial politics behind American radio’s reluctance to let rap hit the airwaves, or the bizarre circumstances that led the Macarena (rating: 6 /10) to reach the top of the leaderboard. graphics. As of this writing, he just hit 1998 with a review of Janet Jackson’s Together Again (rating: 10/10 – it’s a chilling classic, to be honest).

I’ve always thought The Number Ones would make a good book, and with good reason Tom is releasing one later this year. It will explore 20 number ones that have served as “game changers or fulcrums” in American music history, from Chubby Checker’s The Twist to BTS’ Dynamite. Before the book came out, I spoke to Tom about his never-ending column, what it taught him about what makes a hit, and his least favorite number one of all time (that’s a real stench)…

What made you review all of the United States Never 1? ! How did you come up with the idea?

I’m scamming a guy on your side of the pond, Tom Ewing, who’s been writing this blog called Popular for over a decade. He does the same [for the UK Top 40], where he ranks the songs out of 10, but his are more personal and less story-driven. I asked his permission and he very graciously granted. I remember being bored waiting for my kids to finish a swimming lesson and clicking a bunch of Popular [entries] and realizing that there’s probably a Wikipedia page where they have all the US number 1s. I went back to the first ones, and I thought to myself “The Battle of New Orleans (grade: 2/10), what is this?” It wasn’t all Elvis, Buddy Holly – it was a lot of weird new stuff. And when I started going through this stuff and listening to the songs, I was like, ‘I want to write about this. My boss was very nice to let it go, and since then things have taken a turn that I couldn’t have predicted.

Your turnover rate is quite extraordinary – two or three such deep dives per week. Can’t get enough of digging into, say, another Janet Jackson single?

This is my favorite part of my job! This column gave me an overview of a lot of things in music that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. When I started writing it, it was shortly after Cardi B first became #1 in America. Just the fact that she was a lady on a reality show that knocked Taylor Swift off the top of the charts was so interesting. When someone conquers like that, it turns the gears: how do you come out of nowhere and become the greatest thing? What are the processes at work? It’s interesting to see these characters rise, then fall, and someone else replace them.

Our UK Top 40 may not be as big as it used to be, but it’s still a huge thing, especially around Christmas No 1. Does the Billboard chart have the same level of reverence in the United States?

I lived in London for a year when I was nine, and that was my pop awakening. I loved Top of the Pops. It was 1988-89, so a great era for British music. And the way Top of the Pops framed it, with the lip sync performances, dry ice, and countdown, involved the audience in the sports-spectacular aspect. This culture didn’t really exist in America in the same way, [even though] America has as many chart-obsessed watchers as there are there. But, but there’s definitely a romance around the idea of ​​a number 1, the hottest song coast to coast in America right now, the song you’re most likely to hear playing through someone’s car window.

After reviewing five decades of Nope So far, do you feel like you understand what makes a song a hit? Or are there songs whose popularity still mystifies you?

It always mystifies me, and getting to the bottom of that mystification is one of the fun things I can do. I’ll give you an example: CW McCall’s song Convoy (rating: 6/10) was a number one hit in the 70s. [the back of] the CB radio craze, that weird thing when American popular culture fell in love with truckers for several years. It had to do with protests by truckers against speed limits and gas prices. So there’s this long-tail thing where, because the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit was instituted, and because there was an oil crisis and gas prices were going crazy, and because all those truck drivers were crazy so somehow you get this song where this ex-advertising executive sings through crackling CB radio about driving a cargo from one place to another, and this song becomes the most popular song in the country. It’s so random, and it’s so tied to the moment and the cultural context. These things have their own logic, and you can only untangle them once it has already happened.

What is your least favorite of the Didn’t come across 1 on your trip?

My least favorite number 1 is called The Ballad of the Green Berets (rating: 1/10, obviously) by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. This guy had been a Green Beret in Vietnam and had seen some action. Eventually he killed someone and got away with it, then became a Contra Iranian and possibly killed himself by accident. This guy lived a sordid, crass life and right in the middle of it, in the full bloom of the late 60’s, he came out with this stupid march about how the greatest honor is to serve your country with the Green berets and how even if you die your child should be proud to become a green beret too. As a piece of music. I do not like it. And as a piece of culture, I don’t like it and consider it an artifact of a reactionary tendency within the culture, which you don’t often see on the pop charts.

And your favorite?

My standard answer is I Heard It Through the Grapevine (rating: 10/10) by Marvin Gaye. I think it’s just a perfect song. But there were a lot of perfect songs. I think Funkytown (by Lipps Inc – rating: 10/10) is a perfect song. I also think Lean Back by Terror Squad is a perfect song, [though] I would remove the harsh homophobic epithets from that one if I could. The best thing pop music can do is really ambush you and take you by surprise, like when a song plays on the radio and changes your whole day. I feel like if you pick a favorite, you’re kind of trying to plan that and you can’t. The best number 1 is the one stuck in your head right now.

The Numbers Ones: 20 Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal Pop Music History by Tom Breihan will be released later this year

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