[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 a surprisingly quiet and potent #1 hit, and the possibilities and limitations of art.
I’ll readily admit that I when I started looking into the history of Billboard end-of-year #1 hits, I was expecting to find a lot of, well, crap. But while there are certainly songs on the list that qualify (see my upcoming Friday post for one very recent such example), I would say by and large that the #1s took me by pleasant surprise. Not necessarily in the entirely out-of-left-field way that yesterday’s choice, “The Battle of New Orleans,” did; but nonetheless as songs that I wouldn’t have expected to be the most successful pop hit of their given year. That’s certainly true of 1970’s #1 pop song, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s quiet, moving “Bridge over Troubled Water.” A recitation of what the speaker will do for his down-and-out addressee, and one that builds to a particularly beautiful final verse image of companionship and hope, “Bridge” is a hugely inspiring #1 hit.
That would be the case in any year and time period, but I believe that “Bridge” is particularly inspiring in—and perhaps became such a huge hit because of—its 1970 moment. This was the moment, after all, when the optimisms of the 60s and their accompanying social and cultural movements had begun to give way to what Jimmy Carter would famously define, in his 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, as the “malaise” of the 70s, a national downturn only deepened by post-1970 events such as the Watergate scandal and defeat in the Vietnam War. When Simon and Garfunkel’s speaker tells “you” that “when times get rough” he will serve as a “bridge over troubled water,” that is, he’s not just addressing a hypothetical individual and his or her future—he’s referring quite precisely to what has begun to happen in the nation’s communal present, and pledging to “take your part when darkness comes and pain is all around.” And when he closes by imagining that “all your dreams are on their way, now,” he’s envisioning an end to those troubles, a better future about which he “will ease your mind.”
Which is a beautiful image and hope, but of course did not actually come to pass for America in the decade after Simon and Garfunkel’s #1 hit. Nor did the subsequent popularity of disco throughout that decade, including end-of-year #1 hits by Roberta Flack and Andy Gibb, necessarily elide those communal troubles and pains (although perhaps disco helped for a few moments…). It’s entirely unfair to ask any individual song or artist, or even all songs and artists, to perform such cultural work—but it also begs the eternal question of whether a feel-good anthem like Simon and Garfunkel’s (or even more fully feel-good ones like those subsequent disco hits) serves more as an opiate for the masses than a source of genuine inspiration. That’s a far bigger question than I can address in one paragraph, or one post, or even one weeklong series on popular culture—but it’s an AmericanStudies question to be sure, and one raised with particular clarity by Simon and Garfunkel’s inspiring 1970 #1 hit.
Next #1 hit tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other hits you’d highlight?
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