Posts Tagged ‘Billboard Magazine’

Part 1: How the Popular Music of the 80’s Can Help You Predict the Future

If you want to get a glimpse into the future you can try calling Miss Cleo or you can try looking at evidence and make an educated guess. That’s forecasting, which often appears to be more of an art than a science. It requires you to be able to identify a specific pattern and then follow that to its logical conclusion. This is actually more difficult than it sounds because, like our ability to see faces in rocks, clouds, and burnt pieces of toast, it’s human nature to see patterns where none exist.

Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy: The name comes from a joke about a Texan who fires some shots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the biggest cluster of hits and claims to be a sharpshooter

There is also a strong temptation to cherry pick data that supports your preconceived opinions. This is particularly true in politics where most analysis if often obfuscated by a dispute over what constitutes a fact. Popular music doesn’t inflame passions in quite the same way and complete data is available from Billboard Magazine, the undisputed industry standard which has tabulated the popularity of songs since the early 40’s.

Now I don’t pretend to know anything at all about making music, in fact I couldn’t carry a tune even if it came with a handle. However this is not about the music itself, rather it’s about the patterns caused by the rise and fall of individual songs, particularly the ones that charted on the Hot 100 which also formed the basis of the top 40 radio format that was ubiquitous in the eighties. This weekly chart tracked song by song, the progression of arena rock into grunge, the transformation of disco into hip hop, and everything else. Unlike the glacial pace of change in politics, the music industry reacts quickly to cultural shifts causing dramatic and clearly identifiable changes in sound from one era to the next.

In June of 1980, 65-year-old Frank Sinatra had his last chart hit, a cover of Liza Minnelli’s New York, New York. Four months later twenty year old Paul Hewson (pictured) and his band-mates (better known as U2) had their first hit with I Will Follow. Sinatra’s song encapsulates many elements from his hey day in the forties, the singing style, the full orchestra and the fact that it was a recent cover. Having several versions of the same song charting at the same time by different artists was once the norm. U2 on the other hand were the driving force behind a new genre of music called alternative rock, which finally reached its zenith in the early nineties. Change itself, no matter what the field of study, is both constant and evolutionary .

One piece of data is that matters not at all is the date itself. January 1st, 1980 and December 31st, 1989 are just arbitrary end points. However this doesn’t mean that the eighties didn’t have a sound and style distinct from the decade that preceded it and the one that followed. In 1981 the Beastie Boys started out as a four piece punk band, by 1984 they had abandoned their instruments as they transitioned into a rap group. In 1991 they started playing instruments on their records again and would for the rest of their career. This wasn’t an accident. The punk rock movement of the late 70’s was in a large part a reaction to the over emphasis on technical proficiency by the arena rock bands of the seventies. Whenever you see a list of the greatest guitarists or greatest drummers, etc., they always come from that era. The idea that you didn’t need to be an expert craftsman to make music that was worthwhile was an emerging trend in 1981. In contrast the alternative scene of the early nineties was very much a reaction against the perceived phoniness of commercially produced music from the eighties. The emerging trend then was an emphasis on authenticity and that meant writing your own songs and playing your own instruments.

There were as far as I can tell three prevailing trends that define the music that we associate culturally with the eighties. A punk sensibility, a more polished commercial sound, and a sense of visual style, particularly with the new bands coming out of the UK. The New Wave as it was called emerged from obscurity in 1979 and quickly took over the entire music scene. How that change happened, and why it evolved a decade later into hip hop and grunge is explained by another important element of forecasting, fractals.

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