(Pictured: Linda Ronstadt with Aaron Neville, 1990.)
I was a bit surprised by my visceral negative reaction to the hits from August 4, 1990, earlier this week, although it fits with a half-assed theory of mine. It has always seemed to me that by 1990, pop culture had grown more tolerant of vulgarity than ever before. The change wasn’t evolution as much as a distinct click of the ratchet. All of a sudden, 2 Live Crew is acceptable for radio play; “Tic Tac Toe” refers to girls with “their legs across my shoulders” and brags about “making the bed squeak”; “Poison” is about a girl the singers have gang-banged; “Hanky Panky” is explicitly about rough sex. And it’s not just on the radio: Andrew Dice Clay (see below) becomes a star, and Married With Children obsesses over bodily functions. It would take somebody smarter than me to elucidate precisely why it happened when it did and what it meant.
So here’s some of the Bottom 60, with an asterisk.
49. “Do You Remember”/Phil Collins
62. “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven”/Phil Collins
In the mid-80s, I was in Top 40 radio when the Phil Collins album No Jacket Required produced four giant singles and stayed on the air for a solid year. The album . . . But Seriously (sweet mama I hate that ellipsis) seemed just as big when I got into AC radio in 1990. There were five singles and we played ’em all. The only one I care to hear now, however, is “Do You Remember.”
53. “Oh Girl”/Paul Young. The summer of 1990 was a good one for whoever was collecting royalties on the Chi-Lites’ catalog, between MC Hammer’s “Have You Seen Her” and this faithful “Oh Girl.”
69. “Club at the End of the Street”/Elton John. Elton’s album Sleeping With the Past is a tribute to 60s soul. It produced three solid singles, “Healing Hands,” “Sacrifice,” and this, which, if it’s remembered at all, may be for its animated video.
Now, the asterisk: that’s all I could manage to care about from the Hot 100. So I went over to the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary chart for the same week, where I found more stuff I was actually playing on the radio in the summer of 1990. (Positions are from the AC chart.)
5. “Take It to Heart”/Michael McDonald
21. “Skies the Limit”/Fleetwood Mac
As I wrote earlier this year, the pop and adult-contemporary charts tracked each other pretty closely for the better part of 20 years, until they didn’t anymore. “Take It to Heart” had made #98 on the Hot 100 in June during a two-week run on the Hot 100. “Skies the Limit” never made it at all.
20. “And So It Goes”/Billy Joel. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), “And So It Goes” is written in iambic tetrameter, and it has only a couple of rhyming lines. It is also a momentum-killer on the radio. It did not make the Hot 100 until October and got to #37.
29. “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”/Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville
41. “Adios”/Linda Ronstadt
Although she didn’t do much big Top 40 business after 1982, Linda remained a major hitmaker throughout the 80s, thanks to her standards albums with Nelson Riddle and the Trio albums with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind contained her last two big singles, “Don’t Know Much” and “All My Life,” plus the two songs mentioned here. Her career was not over in 1990, however. She would make eight (!) more solo albums, her last one coming in 2004.
34. “Sea Cruise”/Dion. In the pop-culture swamp that was 1990, Andrew Dice Clay’s vile, unfunny stand-up act and repulsive Brooklyn dude-bro persona didn’t stop him from becoming a star. He played the title character in 1990’s Golden Raspberry Worst Picture winner The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, the soundtrack of which contained Dion’s version of “Sea Cruise.” It did not make the Hot 100.
(Digression: Dion, who turned 81 last month, released a new album earlier this summer called Blues With Friends. The friends include Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, and Sonny Landreth. I haven’t heard all of it, but what I have heard is terrific.)
I had started working for an AC station in little Clinton, Iowa, in early 1990, because they had a job open and I needed one. I don’t regret taking the job, or the nearly four years I spent there. What I do regret is the tendency I had back then to let things happen to me instead of making them happen. But I’m not getting into that any further today.
7 thoughts on “And So It Goes”
Okay, so I had tuned allllllll the way out by this point. The only two that I can conjure up in my mind are “Oh Girl” and “Club at the End of the Street” (which I always liked).
As for vulgarity—in 1991, I’d been strictly an AC listener for a while and was in Los Angeles covering a story for the ABC TV station in Phoenix. The open-air street newstands that used to dot L.A. carried Radio and Records, so I picked up a copy and found that there was a song listed called “Bitch Betta Have My Money”.
And at that moment, I knew the charts belonged to a different generation.
Top 40, and radio for that matter, were going through an identity crisis beginning in 1990. The generation of radio station owners that consisted of yuppies like doctors, dentists, attorneys, and advertising execs who bought radio stations around 1985 found they could not afford to own a radio station. They started to cut corners. Radio station programmers disappeared and were replaced by “business people.” Thus, you had formats that made no sense, a lack of quality control of broadcasters, and massive ownership changes creating all the radio station “groups” we have today.
My first radio gig was at a small country station in the summer of 1990. I remember being a bit bummed about it (the dream job would have been at the massive AOR station in a nearby bigger city, but I took what I could get). I knew VERY little about country music so I had to learn as I went.
I was pleasantly surprised as to how much of the music I liked. Some of it (Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire, for example) I had to grit my teeth and tolerate, but there was so much there to love as well! I have fond memories of cranking up the Kentucky Headhunters’ “Dumas Walker” and I still say one of the biggest crimes in country radio is the lack of stardom for Matraca Berg. She did fine as a songwriter, but her album “Lying to the Moon” had just been released, and that summer we pushed “Baby Walk On” followed by “The Things You Left Undone.” Neither one was a huge hit and I never heard them on the radio after that, but I loved playing both of them. The album is a solid effort as well.
By the time summer ended and I returned to college, my opinion of country music had changed significantly, even if it’s not as good now as it used to be. Working at that station really opened my eyes as to why I lost interest in top 40 at that time. The more interesting stuff was on the country stations. If I look at any Billboard magazine from that summer, I won’t recognize or remember a vast majority of the top 40 chart, but I’ll recognize pretty much everything on the country chart, even 30 years later.
Yup, lots of us really wanted to do one format, ended up in another by necessity, and found that radio is radio and it was fine. I used to say that every format will have one-third music you like, one-third you don’t, and one-third about which you’re indifferent, but contemporary country has upset the percentages. I am affirmatively like about 10 percent of what I hear now, and affirmatively dislike maybe half of it. But radio is radio, and it’s not necessary to be a fan of the music to do the jock’s job effectively.
The new music I listen to these days is all country after being a pop fan from the 70’s to the 90’s. I always say that country is now the home of everything I liked in the seventies: the story songs, the love songs and yes, the meat and potatoes rock and roll songs.
For a period in the ’00s, country was sonically like 70s Top 40 without the R&B, and a lot of records sounded like Def Leppard with a twang. Since 2011 or so, the proliferation of snap beats and samples has made the analogy even more appropriate. However, lots of folks, myself included, will argue that a great deal of what’s on country radio today is not remotely country, by the long-accepted definition of country. Which is odd for a genre that invests so much of its self-image in “tradition.”
“Healing Hands” is right up there with the best things Elton John ever did, and I say that as a fan of A LOT of his pre-1990 catalog.
And, incidentally, I am completely on board with the notion that, by 1990, Top 40 music had fallen off the cliff. I think for me it started to happen by sometime later in 1988 and just cascaded from there.