By Randall Roberts
You don't need a half-wit music critic to tell you it's been a remarkable year for America, one historians will be discussing and researching for centuries to come. War, financial collapse, politics, technology: All have been dinner-table topics for many Americans. Racial barriers in 2008 were demolished by a Midwestern black man, and gender barriers were hurdled by an Arkansan and an Alaskan.
Democracy has a few awesome new dance moves rolling into the Obama presidency, and it'll be a feast for the wonks to break 'em down. It's for those wonks that we've done some number crunching. When future pointy-headed academics are scouring data in attempts to better understand America in 2008, might it not be instructive to offer a snapshot of a different sort, one that attempts to explain the People and their mindset from a quasistatistical / analytical ethnomusicosociological perspective? Specifically, let's address the population in a head and/or heart space it cares deeply about: through its music.
How does it sing and dance? Who does this singing? Who best moves our collective booty and tugs at our heartstrings? I've been crunching Billboard album and singles chart data in order to better understand Who We Are in 2008. I've compiled information on every artist who cracked the Top 10 album chart and the Hot 100 singles chart this year. I've researched each artist and tallied the lot of them based on a number of factors, including gender, ethnicity, nationality, state of origin (if American) and record label. I've then analyzed these numbers. What follows are some conclusions.
(Note to Nate Silver: I'm a lowly music journalist who can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and use a calculator, but not much else. Let this serve as a springboard. Margin of error: 4 percent. Results reflect chart positions up to and including the Dec. 6 issue of Billboard.)
I used two Billboard charts to generate this data: The Top 200 Album Chart is based on nationwide sales figures, while the Hot 100 Singles Chart is based on radio play. I tallied every artist who cracked the Top 10 of either and entered demographic information on each band/duo (which count as one entry) and solo artist.
America is rocking hard this year. Of the 229 different albums or singles charting this year, a commanding 83 are pop/rock entries. Their generational spokespeople, their singers, shouters, and rappers, come from many regions of America. The Midwest is solidly represented, as are the West Coast and the South. Rockwise, a mere four East Coast artists made an impact this cycle. The R&B/hip-hop genre, which rules the pop charts with a commanding 71 percent of all songs that appeared in the Top 10 (thanks to the heavily rotated trio of Lil Wayne, Rihanna, and Beyoncé), is less a factor on the album charts, resulting in its relatively weak showing compared to pop/rock hitmakers. Country music, despite Taylor Swift's dominance in 2008, has been reduced to G.O.P.-like numbers, with few albums and fewer tracks charting.
America's pop and album charts have long been a melting pot, with white to black to Hispanic ratios ebbing and flowing like the fake strings beneath an R. Kelly slow jam. Some years, a J. Lo/Gloria Estefan/Daddy Yankee chart-crash will transform the game and result in a Hispanic bump. But, like the candidate he endorsed, John McCain, Daddy Yankee didn't register this year -- though Luis Miguel did.
Not that it much mattered. The Miley/Jonas/Leona/Taylor/Eagles/AC/DC juggernaut rolled through the heartland with massive momentum and big get-out-the-vote Wal-Mart backing. That proved too much for the funkier electorate, whose distribution system has yet to recover from the digital shift that has caused its near-collapse.
The unlikely Southern coalition of country musicians and R&B/rap artists combined to stomp all other regions in terms of chart placement. It didn't hurt that the country music capital is Nashville (and Miley Cyrus was born there) and the R&B HQ is Atlanta. Powerhouse 2008 rap states Louisiana (Lil Wayne), Florida (T-Pain, Plies, Rick Ross, Trina), Texas (Beyoncé), and Virginia (Jason Mraz, Brad Paisley, longtime incumbent Timbaland) proved a powerful block. The Klondike [see previous note] had its Jewel and Hawaii its Jack Johnson, but America didn't seem to care. Lacking much rap or country muscle at all, the West Coast was forced to rely on strong showings from pop/rock artists (Katy Perry, Keyshia Cole, Sara Bareilles, Buckcherry). Ditto the East Coast, whose influence on the American songbook is finally, thankfully, on the wane (Jersey's Jonas Brothers, Pennsylvania's Taylor Swift, and, er, New York's Lady GaGa excepted).
We like a little zing in our American cooking. It's what made our sound the way it is, with the convergence of the Cubans, French, and English in New Orleans, or Italians in New York crooning their way to our loins. In 2008, as always, foreign interests crossed our borders. Typically, a lot of them were Brits, who can't seem to leave us alone. We love them and their Leona Naesses and Oasises, their Natasha Bedingfields and their Portisheads.
Canucks, as always, dipped down (the unlikeliest this year being rapper Kardinal Offishall). Rihanna has single-handedly carved out some Barbadian dominance with her four hit singles, one massive album, and countless cameos. And New Zealand's Flight of the Conchords snuck into the album Top 10, claiming a spot Crowded House long ago relinquished. Australia's entry? AC/DC, solidly, with great support from the Yankee heartland.
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Which gender most moved us in 2008? By a hefty margin, it was the men, with their screaming, wily ways. Why this is the case would be best left to smarter people, but is probably related to the reason there's never been a female president or Big Three auto CEO. By a nearly 2.5-to-1 ratio, Kanye West, Ray LaMontagne, Josh Groban, Third Day, Toby Keith, and their smelly ilk proved too much gruntin' and romancin' for the softer, prettier electorate led by Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Colbie Caillat, and the unlikely resurgent, Britney Spears. (It's notable that the men were able to succeed despite Axl Rose's crushing early chart defeat after dozens of years of prepolling and demographic research and millions spent on marketing.)
Whether women are able to gain ground in the years to come depends largely at this point on whether Sarah Palin records her rumored dance-pop album, how much of Madonna's remaining dignity she is willing to sacrifice, and whether Britney can keep away from the hard stuff.
But one thing is certain. America is on the cusp of a generational shift. It's transferring power from a commander-in-chief who just appointed Lee "Proud to be an American" Greenwood to a post on the National Arts Council, to a president-elect who is BFF with Jeff Tweedy and, when picking favorite Bob Dylan albums, is partial to Blood on the Tracks. Obama was reared on Songs in the Key of Life, and knows Jay-Z from Tupac. Who knows how this will affect American taste?
Change you can believe in, indeed.