(Pictured: Taylor Swift poses for the paparazzi at the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2022.)
It occurs to me that this post is a riff on stuff I’ve riffed on before. It’s a greatest-hits compilation, I guess.
When the new Hot 100 comes out this week, Taylor Swift will hold the top 10 positions, thanks to her new album Midnights. This will break the record currently held by Drake, who had nine in September 2021 after the release of Certified Lover Boy. I can imagine the fantods Canadian publicist and prolific Twitter-er Eric Alper is having over this, but I’ll never know, because he blocked me last fall for criticizing his fluffing of the chart achievements of Drake and Ariana Grande as if they represented achievements equal to or greater than those of earlier musical eras.
Because they fking don’t. Will say again: you cannot compare chart data from the period we live in now, when you can download or stream an artist’s entire catalog, or cherry-pick the songs from a single album, while sitting on the couch in your jammies at 6AM on a Sunday, with an era when it was necessary to get off the couch, get dressed, and go to a store to buy a piece of plastic. It’s a lesser level of commitment, by quite a lot. The Billboard Hot 100 from the week in 1964 when the Beatles had the top five positions is different by an order of magnitude from what Drake and Taylor Swift have done in more recent times. Nobody had ever done what the Beatles did then, and nobody ever did it again, not even them—not until the way in which we consume music changed, to an extent that people of 1964 would not recognize.
I am certain that all of the tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would have made the Top 10 of the Hot 100 in the first week if the album had been released in a download world. (Well, maybe not “Within You, Without You.”) Same with Michael Jackson’s Bad in 1987. (Not Thriller though, which took a while to catch on, and created the world into which Bad detonated, one in which even elevator-music radio stations played “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”) Albums from the 80s that are famed for having multiple Top-10 singles—Born in the USA, Can’t Slow Down, and Thriller—were popular for two solid years. But are people still listening to Drake’s Certified Lover Boy one year on?
You can’t penalize the superstars of the 60s, 70s, and 80s because technology evolved. They aren’t automatically lesser simply because their music wasn’t as easy to consume. Midnights will not be judged for all time by its chart performance this week; the true test will be how many people are still listening to it years from now.
On Another Matter: The death of Jerry Lee Lewis, the last surviving member of the inaugural class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, does not seem to have inspired the same outpouring of online tribute as the deaths of Fats Domino and Little Richard, stars with less problematic biographies. The BBC’s obituary referred to Jerry Lee’s life as “a toxic cocktail of scandal, addiction, and violence.” Perhaps we find it harder to celebrate the life of such a person. “Their music was great, but …” puts more emphasis on whatever follows the “but.”
I have said many times that it is neither fair nor feasible to judge the value of the art by the personality, or the pecadillos, of the artist. If you, personally, are repulsed by the art of Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Phil Spector, Jerry Lee Lewis, or somebody like them because of what they have done and said, you’re entitled to shut them out of your life. But don’t expect them to give up their places in history, or the critical laurels they justly earned. Thriller and “Be My Baby” are still magnificent works of art even if their creators turned out to be monsters.
Will say again: once you start conflating personal uprightness with artistic merit, there’s no place to stop. Some of the most beloved and influential artists of the last 60 years were spouse abusers, were involved with underage girls and boys, embraced Satanism and Nazism, consumed entire pharmacies, and/or became science deniers. If you say we should listen only to music by “good” people, you’re asking us to give up pretty much everybody, starting with the Beatles, and to live in a world where the radio stations play nothing but Carrie Underwood records.