(Pictured: John Denver, outdoors.)
Popular music runs in cycles, periods of innovation followed by retreat, which inspires new innovation. It’s always been true, as David Wondrich demonstrates in Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924. Innovations bubble up into the mainstream and change the course of it, but after a while, the innovations (and the inventive spirit that inspired them) get co-opted to various degrees by the keepers of orthodoxy until the next new bubbling innovations come along. In Wondrich’s book, it happens to minstrel music, coon songs, and ragtime. Although eras don’t break cleanly and there are always individual exceptions, in later years it went generally like this: the Jazz Age and Swing Era (from the 20s to the start of World War II) was followed by an era of mostly sweet and unthreatening pop songs (to 1954), which was followed by the birth of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, which was followed by another era of mostly sweet and unthreatening pop songs (late 50s/early 60s), which was followed by the British Invasion, the rise of soul, and the whole ferment of the 1960s. That latter period lasted longer than it seems. I believe that certain innovations and spirit of the 1960s persisted as late as 1973. It wasn’t until 1974 that pop music became truly quiescent, in need of new bubbling innovations.
It’s easy to say that the bland and escapist pop of 1974 was birthed by the psychological weight of outside historical forces coming down—Vietnam, Watergate, energy crisis, etc.—and that’s probably part of it. Wondrich notes how the outside force of Jim Crow in the 1890s changed the nature of racist coon songs. But the biggest historical force driving co-optation at any point is probably capitalism, in which somebody hopes to profit by making an outsider art form palatable for a broader, less sophisticated audience. Top 40 radio, the main means of music discovery for a generation, was transformed by that desire to profit. By 1974, some of the big stations increased their efforts to achieve truly mass audiences by bringing more soft rock/adult contemporary music into the Top 40 mainstream to attract the olds, while others went all-in on attracting teenagers, which kept bubblegum and teenybopper acts alive (and which drove young adults away from AM to FM rock stations, another historical force in motion).
All that explains something, but not everything, about the the American Top 40 show dated May 4, 1974 (a show I’m sure I heard on the weekend it first aired).
39. “My Girl Bill”/Jim Stafford
37. “I’m a Train”/Albert Hammond
28. “Seasons in the Sun”/Terry Jacks
26. “Keep on Singing”/Helen Reddy
25. “The Lord’s Prayer”/Sister Janet Mead
20. “Sunshine on My Shoulders”/John Denver
14. “Come and Get Your Love”/Redbone
7. “Hooked on a Feeling”/Blue Swede
6. “The Streak”/Ray Stevens
This right here is the reaction, or the co-optation, or whatever you want to call it, in response to the years since 1964. With these records, it didn’t feel like pop music had lost an edge as much as it had actively stopped trying to hone one. Even “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Come and Get Your Love,” catchy though they are, feel a little enervated. The very topical “The Streak” was on its way to #1 as one of the top hits of the year, but it generates a chuckle at most. In the aggregate, the blandness of these records is enough to stop time.
36. “I’m in Love”/Aretha Franklin
34. “Tell Me a Lie”/Sami Jo
30. “The Payback”/James Brown
And here are some casualties of the reaction, two stars and one style (deep Southern country-soul) that had been ascendant in years before but would never be quite so dominant again.
11. “The Entertainer”/Marvin Hamlisch
8. “Tubular Bells”/Mike Oldfield
The blandness was not all-consuming, however. Any era in which both The Sting and The Exorcist were playing in your town (and in which Chinatown was a coming attraction, to open in June) was a good one. The Sting drove the success of “The Entertainer,” originally a ragtime piece written in 1902, but as a retroactive argument for the blandness of radio pop in the spring of 1974, you can’t do better, even if “Tubular Bells” represents a dissenting view.
Cherry-picking the charts in search of support for a particular thesis is a dangerous occupation. You can prove anything by selectively interpreting your source material. And in fact, what I’ve suggested here is probably a gross oversimplification of what was happening back there in the spring of 1974. Coming in the next installment (and I desperately did not want this to require two posts but gasbags gotta gas and I’m sorry), I’ll suggest that my whole thesis could be wrong.