Monday, October 08, 2018

My Birthday #1s

Happy Birthday to Me Part 3

Alas my brothers and sisters, it is all downhill from here. I've gone through the weekly charts from 1973 to the present, and there is precious little that I even recognize, let alone care about.  Granted, I was living in the U.K. in 1975 and 1976; it's entirely likely that I never even heard the hit US songs of those years. "(I did hear 1974's entry, Olivia Newton-John's breathy "I Honestly Love You," but the less said about that, the better.) And I know the music I was listening to in the later 70s and 80s just wasn't mainstream enough to produce chart-toppers. 

Still, from the late 80s on, the charts increasingly were dominated by a narrow band of music, mostly rap and R&B. In the mid-90s, my birthday singles were almost entirely either Boyz II Men or Mariah Carey, and while I have nothing particularly against either of those artists, that doesn't suggest a range of music being listened to. 

The lists from the 90s on also are remarkably short -- while earlier lists swapped in a new #1 every couple of weeks or so, signs of lively competition, these later ones are dominated by a few juggernaut hits (from mid-August 1992 to mid-March 1993, only 2 songs held the top spot -- Boyz II Men's "The End of the Road" and then Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You.") I'm guessing this reflects changes in the music biz more than changes in musical tastes; record companies poured all their resources into promoting a few mega-hits, in much the same way that publishers stopped buying quirky first novels and gambled big bucks on a few "name" authors. Radio stations stopped playing to the mainstream, and then all hell broke loose in the 2000s as streaming overtook record sales.

Still, here are a few October 8th #1s that I was delighted to see -- hope you're happy to see them too! 

1976: Wild Cherry, "Play That Funky Music"
Seems to me that the title leaves out the most important words -- "Play that funky music, white boy!" Because Wild Cherry was a band of white guys from Ohio, who nevertheless were able to lay that funk sound down for one of the funnest (is that even a word?) dance tracks of the 1970s. Like their Scottish colleagues Average White Band, they paid honest tribute to the funk sound, refusing to accept that it had to be ghetto-ized. In these days of the ongoing cultural appropriation debate, I'm not sure where I stand on these. But I gotta admit, when this song comes on the jukebox? I am NOT sitting still . . . 

1980: Queen "Another One Bites the Dust"
Oh, I do loves me some Queen. Shout-out to my Oxford pal Cynthia, who first got me listening to the marvelous Mr. Mercury.  And while I'd probably nominate "Killer Queen" as my fave Queen track, with "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy" as a close second (no, wait -- how could I forget "Don't Stop Me Now"...?), well, this one's a great track. Deliciously funky, dialing back on the arena bombast of "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You." Fun facts to know and tell: Queen bassist John Deacon wrote this song, inspired by the funk band Chic, and none other than Michael Jackson (a Queen fan) convinced them to release it as a single. It became the longest-running US #1 single of 1980 and Queen's top-selling single ever (and their first big US hit, which, having lived in the UK, baffled me.) What is it about? Gay cruising, trying to score weed, boxing, knife fights -- well, like a lot of Queen songs, it's about what you want it to be about. 

1982: John Cougar, "Jack and Diane"
So here I am by now, living in New York City, and damn if MTV doesn't unleash my inner Hoosier with this grainy video that just about perfectly encapsulates my conflicts about leaving the Midwest to realize my dreams elsewhere. Because to be honest, some version of me is still back at the Tastee-Freeze, sucking down chili dogs in my Bobbie Brooks....

1983: Bonnie Tyler, "Total Eclipse of the Heart"
Years ago I posted this song in an Eighties Cheese Week thread, and now I have to admit I've grown so fond of it, I'm delighted to find it popping up here. That big hair, that big rasp-edged voice, the amped-up Jim Steinman production, and even -- who knew? -- Rick Derringer, late of the McCoys, on guitar. 

1985: Dire Straits, "Money for Nothing" 
Ahh, the glory days of MTV. Loved this cynical track, a reality check on the craziness of the music industry, with Mark Knopfler's nimble, virile guitar work, slicing through the surreal mishmash with killer riffs, and Sting (another MTV-enabled star) adding his back-up vocals. How perfectly Knopfler nails the point of view of his working slobs, scoffing at privileged musicians ("that ain't working"), griping about their own daily grind ("We got to install microwave ovens / Custom kitchen deliveries"), yet envious despite themselves: "Lemme tell you, these guys ain't dumb / Maybe get a blister on your little finger / Maybe get a blister on your thumb." And there's the American dream, just out of reach: "Money for nothing and chicks for free." It's to Knopler's credit that he never seems to put these guys down; they have every right to resent the "yo-yos" they see on TV getting all the glory. They give themselves away only in the last verse: "That little faggot got his own jet airplane . . . " Even so, would they trade places with him? I'm betting yes, in a heartbeat. 

1986: Huey Lewis & the News, "Stuck With You"
Bestill my heart. Yeah, I know I've said over and over that the 80s were the decade that killed pop music, and I still say I'm right, but . . . Huey. Huey. It's a matter of public record,  my fangirl crush on Huey Lewis, even though I was by then a married lady soon to give birth to our first child. It's like the last gasp of great, upbeat, swinging pop music, with a little retro doo-wop flair; besides which, who wouldn't love this video?


1996: Los Del Rio "Macarena"
Bit of a time jump here, for reasons I've explained above. And yes, I suppose this was a novelty song, a throwback to the dance-craze songs of the mid-60s ("The Twist") and late 70s ("Do the Hustle"). But along with all those gyrating fembots, here come two Latino gents in suits to deliver the refrain -- "Hey, macarena!". You couldn't get away from this song for weeks that fall. It had already been a hit in Spain and Latin America a couple of years earlier, but when Miami clubgoers repeatedly requested it, a savvy producer churned out a disco-inflected version with added English-language lyrics -- and they hit the US big-time. (It took years for this to be unseated as the longest-running #1 on the Hot 100 charts. You can't help but like this song, which claims to be nothing more than a party track. Party tracks, in case you hadn't realized, are a good thing.    

2010: Bruno Mars, "Just the Way You Are" 
Quadruple-threat Bruno Mars -- singer, songwriter, producer, dancer -- restores my faith in pop music. He's brought back tempo, style, nuance, and suavity. Forget the 1977 Billy Joel song of the same title: Bruno's is so much more playful and adoring; love how it soars in the chorus. This was Bruno's first really big hit, though he's proven himself with several follow-ups. He's the real deal. Fun fact: Megan Trainor's delightful 2014 debut hit "All About That Bass" was inspired by this track.  

2011: Adele, "Someone Like You"
Yes, please. 

I suppose I shouldn't define my Adele fanship totally in terms of other singers. But let me put this out there: I've always loved her big emotional voice more than her contemporary Amy Winehouse's; and while I've gradually come to appreciate Lady Gaga, I admire Adele for not needing theatricality to sell her songs. Just stand on the stage and sing, girl. So here's my gold standard: can you deliver the same power and passion as my girl Dusty Springfield? The good news is that Adele can.

 And give the girl props for writing her own songs, out of her own emotional landscape.  (I guess I dropped this thread, but from the mid-60s on, artists who wrote their own material had so much more credibility with me.)

As a song to an ex, who seems to have moved on better than she has, it's full of passion landmines, every one of which she explodes. To me, a diva is a selfish spotlight-seeking egomaniac, and I want nothing to do with divas. For Adele, as for Dusty, the heartbreak is all too real, and close to the skin, and she's only sharing it because she suspects maybe you too have had your heart broken in just this same way.

I'm on Dusty's team, and I'm on Adele's. Dusty, sadly, is no longer with us. But so long as Adeles and Brunos still pop up from time to time,  I'll continue to care about pop music. Why not?

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