[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 the #1 hit that changed, portrayed, and perhaps exploited the game.
Popular culture often lags behind cultural trends: rap really exploded onto the national scene with two prominent 1988 albums (if not before), but Coolio’s 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise” (off the soundtrack of the Michelle Pfeiffer film Dangerous Minds) was the first rap song to reach end-of-year #1 status on the Billboard charts. The Pfeiffer film, about a teacher who takes a class of students on whom everyone else has given up and helps them believe in themselves, was anything but new by 1995; indeed, one of the first such films, The Blackboard Jungle (1955), celebrated its 40th anniversary that same year. But despite that sense of cultural familiarity, Coolio’s hit took the film, artist, and popular music to new places, dominating the charts as no prior rap song had, making his accompanying album of the same title a mega-bestseller, and leaving a lasting legacy that would influence many other soundtracks and hitmakers in the years to come.
The necessary combination of timing, cultural zeitgeist, and just plain luck that goes into making a mega-hit is likely impossible to pin down (or music producers would have long ago done so), but there’s no question that the authenticity which Coolio brought to “Gangsta’s” played a role in its success. A product of the same Compton streets immortalized by N.W.A. and in the film Boyz in the Hood (1991), by the time he released his debut album It Takes a Thief (1994) Coolio had done time in prison for larceny (as part of his membership in the youthful Baby Crips gang) and had suffered from and defeated a crack addiction, among other setbacks and struggles. Which is to say, when Pfeiffer (in character) approaches Coolio at the start of the song’s famous video and asks, “You wanna tell me what this is all about?,” she’s asking someone who knows. And when Coolio’s speaker raps lines such as “I’m 23 now, but will I live to see 24?/The way things are going I don’t know,” the then-32 year old rapper was certainly summoning up the doubts and fears in and with which he had lived for so long.
At the same time that Coolio brought the authenticity of his childhood neighborhood and experiences to “Gangta’s Paradise,” though, it’d be possible to argue that he also—like the film with which he shared his song—exploited them for commercial, cultural success. The song itself has a little of that “have your cake and eat it too” hypocrisy, particularly in lines that boast of (even while the song as a whole seems to bemoan the need for) the speaker’s toughness, his ever-present guns, his street cred. That dynamic was a part of gangsta rap throughout its existence, and not just in the more overtly celebratory songs; even those songs and artists that offered a critical lens on the culture of the streets could at the same time give in to its allure and mythos. Moreover, it’s fair to ask whether a song like “Gangsta’s Paradise” led more audience members to give Coolio’s speaker the understanding and empathy for which he asks in the powerful concluding verse, or whether it led instead to more cultural embraces and appropriations of gangsta culture. Yet whatever its effects—and they were undoubtedly multiple and are not either-or—Coolio’s song was a watershed moment for the Billboard charts, and for American pop music more broadly.
Last #1 hit tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other hits you’d highlight?
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