[75 years ago this week, Billboard magazine released its first chart of American popular music hits. So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy five #1 hits and their cultural and social contexts. Share your thoughts on these and any other pop hits, classic or contemporary, for a chart-topping crowd-sourced post!]
On how the originating #1 hit reflects a different era, and how it anticipated ours.
The #1 song for 1940, the first year for which Billboard kept its nationwide tally, was “I’ll Never Smile Again” by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra. Dorsey and his bandleader brother Jimmy were all over the first Billboard chart, with Tommy also charting with “Imagination” and Jimmy “The Breeze and I,” and their ubiquitousness reflects the general dominance of big band music in the chart’s early years (Glenn Miller had three of the remaining seven top ten hits for 1940). Given how much we (or at least I) associate both Billboard and 20th century popular music with the rock and roll sounds that would emerge and come to dominate the chart in the subsequent two decades, it’s important to note how different mid-century American culture looked, as reflected on the first lists. The very first notes of “Smile” take us right back to that big band era, one that would persist for many more decades (the Lawrence Welk Show debuted in 1955, was broadcast through 1971, and continued in first-run syndication through 1982) but that was one of the most dominant cultural forces as of 1940.
Yet if “I’ll Never Smile Again” in many ways reflects a bygone era in popular music, it also interestingly reminds us of our own moment. For one thing, Dorsey’s song was a collaboration, with the music provided by Dorsey and his band and the vocals by (a very young) Frank Sinatra; by their nature, many of the other big band chart-topping hits, including both “Imagination” (which also featured Sinatra) and “Breeze” (which featured big band favorite Bob Eberly), were likewise artistic collaborations. Such collaborative efforts have never gone away, but I would argue that they have returned to pop music very fully in the last decade: five of the last ten end-of-year #1 hits have been collaborations, and perhaps the most dominant trend in current pop music is for a song to be written and produced by a DJ (such as Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Zedd, or the like) and performed by a vocalist. Moreover, a significant percentage of the most successful recent hip hop songs have featured collaborations between a rapper (for the verses) and a singer (for the chorus). The sound of “Smile” might feel far removed from 2015, that is, but its long list of artistic credits feels very familiar.
There’s another, even more universal way that “Smile” feels contemporary, though—and while this observation might seem obvious or pedestrian, I believe it’s an important one with which to begin a series on popular music. In its lyrics, from verses like “What good would it do?/For tears would fill my eyes/My heart would realize/That our romance is through” to the chorus, “Within my heart/I know I’ll never start/To smile again/Until I smile at you,” Dorsey and Sinatra’s song captures emotions of loss, longing, and love that have remained among the most consistent themes of popular music throughout its late 20th century evolutions (there’s a reason why the Greg Kihn Band recorded a song titled simply, “The Breakup Song”). Music, style, and genre of course play important roles in how a song affects us, and I’m not suggesting that we all have to (or could) like all types of music—but the truth is that popular music from 1940 has a great deal in common with works from 2015, including in the collaborative nature of its art and in the human themes on which it touches. A trip back through the Billboard charts highlights such connections, along with the many specific contexts on which I’ll focus this week.
Next #1 hit tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other hits you’d highlight?
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