From “Blue Moon” to “Roses Are Red” to “Deep Purple” to “Paint It Black” to “Green Tambourine” to “Black and Yellow,” 1,001 songs, as of last week, have topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States since its inception in 1958. And I’ve listened to them all.
Just before Christmas, I went to YouTube and listened to “Poor Little Fool” by Ricky Nelson, which hit No. 1 in August 1958, during President Dwight Eisenhower’s second term. A few weeks ago, I finished with “E.T.” by Katy Perry featuring Kanye West, a song Nelson never could have imagined - synthesizers, computerized drum beats, references to spaceships and a title that pays homage to Steven Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster film. In between, I heard musical magnificence and bubble-gum banality. I heard touchstones of 20th-century pop such as the Beatles’ “Let It Be” (1970) and forgettable one-hit wonders such as “Pop Muzik” by M (1979) -- in my humble opinion, the worst song on the list.
So, what did I learn from listening to this entire catalogue in chronological order?
As women moved from the home into the workplace, song lyrics mirrored this social restructuring. Peggy March proclaiming “I Will Follow Him” in 1963 is a far cry from Franklin demanding “Respect” just four years later. The wedding romanticized by the Browns in 1959’s “The Three Bells” seemed staid long before Beyonce called out, “All the single ladies, now put your hands up” in 2008. The Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” — “If I were a queen/and he asked me to leave my throne/I’ll do anything that he asked” — morphed into Helen Reddy declaring “I am woman, hear me roar” in 1972.
The sexes of No. 1 artists also reflected the shift from traditional gender roles. Only six of the first 50 No. 1 songs were sung by women. Half of the most recent 50 put a lady behind the mike.
In 1958, a U.S.-led military intervention in Lebanon was considered a success. In the years to come, patriotism ran high with No. 1’s such as “The Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton, “Soldier Boy” by the Shirelles and “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Barry Sadler (“Silver wings upon their chest/These are men, America’s best”).
But American losses in Vietnam changed the zeitgeist. Suddenly, No. 1’s included “All You Need Is Love” by the Beatles, “People Got to Be Free” by the Rascals (“If everyone learned to live together/. . . Such an easy, easy thing this would be”) and “War” by Edwin Starr (“War means tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes/When their sons go to fight and lose their lives”). In 1965, Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” captured baby boomers’ pre-26th Amendment resentment: “You’re old enough to kill, but not for voting.”
But politicization of No. 1’s didn’t end with Vietnam. Stories’ 1973 hit “Brother Louie” took on interracial relationships — or at least took them more seriously than the Rolling Stones’ 1971 chart-topper, “Brown Sugar.” The widening income disparity of the Reagan-Bush era popped up in Phil Collins’s 1989 hit “Another Day in Paradise”: “She calls out to the man on the street/‘Sir, can you help me?/It’s cold and I’ve nowhere to sleep.’ ” Coolio took on street violence in 1995’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” And Lady Gaga gave a shout-out to gay rights this year in “Born This Way”: “No matter gay, straight or bi/Lesbian, transgendered life/I’m on the right track, baby/I was born to survive.”
Songs that reach No. 1 sometimes don’t reflect artists at their most influential. Elvis Presley had six No. 1 hits in the Hot 100 in his 20s, but 1969’s “Suspicious Minds” rocketed to the top of the chart at a time when his musical influence had waned. George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set on You” (1988), Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” (a Princess Diana-inspired remake of his own 1973 hit, which did not reach No. 1), Cher’s “Believe” (1999) and Carlos Santana’s “Maria Maria” (2000) also put established artists past their peak back on the airwaves.
The first 100 non-instrumental No. 1’s were performed by 38 solo acts and 62 groups, but the most recent 100 were performed by 91 solo acts and nine groups. Though Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Rihanna and Ke$ha collaborate with other artists and producers, none has to share the spotlight. And who knows? If the Electro-Harmonix Voice Box — a device that simulates harmonies for singers — had existed in 1966, maybe Paul Simon could have gotten rid of Art Garfunkel long before the duo’s No. 1, “The Sound of Silence.”
Only six foreign-language songs — including tunes sung in Spanish, German and Italian, as well as Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto’s 1963 chart-topper “Sukiyaki” — have hit No. 1. Despite advancing globalization, none have done so since 1996’s “Macarena” by Los Del Rio. And only 19 instrumentals have reached the top spot, none after 1985’s synth-percussion-fest “Miami Vice Theme” by Jan Hammer.
What is remembered as the defining music of an era and what actually sold the most at the time are very different. Imagine the 1960s without Bob Dylan, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix; the 1970s without KISS, the Who and Led Zeppelin; the 1980s without Bruce Springsteen, Journey and Run-DMC; the 1990s without Nirvana, Green Day and Public Enemy; the aughts without John Mayer, Linkin Park and Taylor Swift. None of these giants have had a No. 1 song — at least not yet.
Jesse Rifkin is a student at the University of Connecticut. His writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the Hartford Courant.