American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest
Sundays, Z104, 8 pm to midnight
When I turned on Z104 last Sunday night and committed myself to listening to all four hours of Ryan Seacrest's American Top 40, I pledged to have an open mind.
Now, truth to tell, Ne-Yo and Hilary Duff don't take up a lot of shelf space in my CD collection. But if the host of American Idol was telling me these were the 40 most popular songs in America, who was I to argue?
Plus, I had a lot of fond memories of AT40. For us '70s kids, original host Casey Kasem was cool. He was the voice of Shaggy on Scooby Doo, after all.
But Kasem was also sentimental. He gave us long-distance dedications or hokey advice to keep 'reaching for the stars.'
That kind of emotion doesn't play too well with modern youth. So the theme music of American Top 40 is now colored by galactic synth, and robotic voices introduce the detached Seacrest.
Considering the shallowness of nearly all 40 songs Seacrest played last Sunday, detachment may not be such a bad thing.
Ten songs into the countdown, the production formulas behind these songs were perfectly clear. Most of the rap was toned down and mellow, even if it did brim with debauchery. Little Ricky's 'On the Hotline,' which charted at #37, is a case in point. The song is about phone sex, and the lyrical imagery was a wonderland of panties and bubble baths. But the music was neo-soul, making the song feel romantic in a trashy kind of way.
Florida's the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus represented the pop/emo/punk contingent. The emo formula can't live without an exclamatory drumbeat at the start of every bar. The supporting guitars rise at the most predictable intervals possible.
As the hours passed, the songs began to blend together, with few standouts. Carrie Underwood's 'Before He Cheats' brought the only memorable use of fiddles in the program. Rihanna's Caribbean-influenced 'Break It Off,' featuring Sean Paul, delivered a world-music sound. And John Mayer's 'Waiting for the World to Change' proved that old-fashioned songwriting isn't entirely dead.
The commercials punctuating AT40 were as hyper and noisy as the rest of the program. The sponsors gave a clue to the show's demographic. Ad buys came from Taco Bell, Starburst, the US Navy and Goodwill stores.
Midnight approached, and the drama of the number-one song revealed itself in a supremely anticlimactic moment. 'It's Not Over' by former American Idol contestant Daughtry was a bland rock track riding the coattails of celebrity.
I can't say I regretted spending four hours listening to American Top 40. If you want complete immersion in modern commercial pop, there's no better way.
But it was an unsettling moment in which I found myself asking why so many people find this stuff appealing.
It would be easy enough to dismiss AT40 as conglomerate crapola. The show is distributed by Premier Radio Networks, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications. Mediabase, the company that tracks airplay and whose data is the basis of the AT40 rankings, is a division of Premier Radio. Z104, the local station that broadcasts AT40, is among the hundreds of U.S. stations owned by Clear Channel.
But it's undeniable that the superficial songs I'd just heard sell way better than the kind of Peter, Bjorn and John stuff I like.
My night with American Top 40 left me discouraged. Can popular music still be great music? That's an idea that seems as quaint and anachronistic now as reaching for the stars.