Should Music Be A Zero Sum Game?

This thought entered my mind when I read a recent article about the Grammy Awards. The thrust of the report was that Pop music dominated the awards to the detriment of Rap music. This seems to be the way that the music business has operated since the late 1970’s, in other words, one genre must dominate to the exclusion of others. Remember when disco was so prevalent that some radio stations would have a “no Bee Gees weekend” just to give some relief? Of course not, you’re too young.

In the early to mid 1960’s, it was a given that a slickly produced pop song would have a better than average chance of climbing the charts, even if the material or performance was substandard. However, it was also true that records of artistic merit would slip through the system. For every Wayne Newton or Frankie Avalon tune you had a Percy Sledge, Cannonball Adderley, Rolling Stones, Beatles, or James Brown song.

From, at least, the 1920’s there had been a division of genres in the recording industry, largely along racial and class lines. Classical, or Longhair music (and I don’t mean Professor Longhair) was for the upper classes, Hillbilly and Cowboy music (later known as Country and Western, or just Country) was for lower class rural Whites, Race music was for black people, and everything else, such as Pop, was for middle class whites. You can guess which genre dominated mainstream radio. It was called Pop because it was popular. But you need to ask, popular among whom?

By the 1960’s the Billboard charts were becoming less segregated, thanks to the pioneers of rock and roll and soul music in the fifties. Pop still dominated the top ten but you couldn’t doubt that the times they were a changin’. Case in point, 1962 saw Ray Charles, a soul artist, win a Grammy for best vocal performance, male, for a country song. The In Crowd by jazz musician Ramsey Lewis reached number five as a single on the hot 100 and the album reached number two on Billboard’s top 200 album list in 1965.

In the early 1960’s even folk music was reaching a mass audience, popularized by acts like Peter, Paul, and Mary. By the middle of the decade, Bob Dylan, although by now electrified, had a number two hit with Like a Rolling Stone. By 1969, the diversity found on top forty radio was greater than ever. I can still remember, in June of that year, hearing Desmond Dekker & the Aces singing their number two hit Israelites. Reggae had come to the states. Santana was also enjoying chart success with an overtly Afro-Cuban beat and his own fusion of Mexican blues music. Evil Ways peaked at number nine.

These were my formative years. This is why I have such eclectic musical tastes. This is why I can appreciate Wes Montgomery as well as Jerry Garcia or Steve Howe or Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Grant Green, etc. I took my previous examples from the Billboard Hot 100 but if you would drill down further in the charts or look at the other charts such as, Jazz, R and B, Folk, etc. you would find many gems and many giants of music.

My point is, if you examined the charts today, would you find as much variation in styles among the top forty or even 100 hits? Or, would you find this standoff between Pop and Rap that was mentioned earlier and Country music existing on its own, as it did before the 1950’s? I know that the charts lost their relevance long before the days of streaming audio. Artists like Hendrix made such daring music precisely because they were no longer concerned with having a hit single. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if the lack of musical diversity in the mainstream is affecting our culture negatively. It seems that everything in our lives has become a Darwinian struggle, a zero sum game where there are clear winners and losers. People from one camp aren’t willing to listen to those from the other. It doesn’t have to be like this.

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