The Mechanics & Mystery of Top 40 Lists by bart plantenga

“The list could surely go on, and there is nothing more wonderful than a list, instrument of wondrous hypotyposis.”  • Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

bart plantenga 

On daily to-do list: add ‘hypotyposis’ [vivid picturesque description] to long vocabulary list.

1bart1I started following Top 40 lists on pop radio stations when I was 8. Some are fascinated by the patterns we see in the stars, some in why autumn leaves turn brown, why love affairs go sour, why males are driven crazy by women’s breasts and why some bet on football games or collect Barbies in their original packaging, I was interested in the order of pop music.

I kept my own lists, ear flush to my red transistor, listening to ABC-AM or the WMCA “Good Guys” waiting for the announcement of the next song, scribbling it down in it’s position in the Top 40 on a lined page with a flashlight propped up on my pillow. I stole 9v batteries from the Acme Super Market to keep the radio going late into the night as if turning it off might mean missing a secret message from the ether about my place in the universe or a mantra that will lead to a level of nirvana accorded only the nerdy among us.

I memorized these lists as I memorized the batting and pitching stats of the New York Yankees. This was in mid-60s Central Jersey, which I try to describe now as what you see during the opening credits of The Sopranos as a car speeds across the Pulaski Skyway, darting through some of the most scarred wasteland in the world. We lived not far from Perth Amboy, surrounded by the polluted Raritan River, which spit up dead horseshoe crabs onto its shores by the hundreds. I lived in Edison, where Highway 1 meets Interstate 287, wedged between a Ford plant, an Allied Chemicals factory and a Pittsburgh Paints facility. We lived up highway from the world’s largest bowling alley with over 100 lanes until a bigger one opened in Hawaii. If I wasn’t lazy, or pretty sure you could find it on Google maps, I’d point you to a link where I describe this area at length…

Later, as a foot messenger in NYC, I would often find shopping lists lost by their listers. I would stare at these lists as if they could offer me guidance on how to navigate my way into the smartest clubs and partake of the glories of unrepentant shallowness – without pawning my soul. I made [and kept and collected] so many lists that I made a list of top lists and eventually began to put together a book called Listfull in the late-80s to make sense of my attempt to collect lists that were meant to make order and sense of our 2burroughs listdailyness. [Is this confession meant to be illuminating or just wacked, allowing readers to become voyeurs or armchair disaster tourists?]

I see now that someone on e-Bay was selling William Burroughs’s shopping lists – 3 for  $495. List #2: 1. Waffles (plain buttermilk). 2. Triscuits. 3. Cat Food Canned. 4. Vodka – last but not least 5. Marshmallow for toasting over stove … [plus] Lysol. This list may be just one step below band set lists sold as ephemera souvenirs for profit and yet, it may just offer evidence of a new form of life that communicates via shopping lists.

The list can be compassionate, an instrument for ensuring human rights. The film Schindler’s List is based on Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark, which tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi industrialist who used a list of names to employ 1200 Jews in his Polish munitions factories and save them from the extermination camps. Here a list transforms an opportunist out for profiting from slave labor into a tenacious and compassionate man.

Meanwhile, with every click-bait site now offering Top 10 lists of abominable human behavior or stupid things celebs may or may not have done, plus seeing the fetching price of the Burroughs lists I must admit that lists have made it, becoming some kind of odd OCD cross between haiku, PIN, motivational speech, and old-style litany.

“Franklin loved making lists. He made lists … of synonyms for being drunk, of maxims for matrimonial happiness and of reasons to choose an older woman as a mistress.”

Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

I see also there is a book called THE MAN WHO MADE LISTS: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus. I don’t know whether to be relieved or spooked by it. Thomas Mallon in a New York Times review described “the self-protective psychological urge that drove Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), creator of the Thesaurus, to classify and categorize all manner of things…” in Roget’s self-help attempt to stave off a genetic predisposition to madness. Roget was paranoid and possessed a “horror of ‘dirt and disorder’” and when one looks up the lengthy entries on “cleanness” and “uncleanness” in his Thesaurus, you see how personal the lists in this seeming clinically neutral book truly are. So lists do not actually prevent  mental derangement.

At the time, these weekly Top 40 lists held the same mystical key to the universe as ancient tomes devoted to alchemy did in their time. In 5th grade I began to recognize the power of lists, of research, of data. There were two lists that kept classmates hanging around my desk during lunch and recess: one was a list of everyone in my class who had done extra credit reports for geography or English or science. I was far in the lead with well over 100 extra credit reports cribbed from the neighbor’s borrowed World Book Encyclopedia on countries like Bolivia and Pakistan or on the shifting tectonic plates, which I described as very large surf boards that scoot secretly bit by bit across the oceans. With every report handed in, the kids would want a glance at the tally, at the standings, this led to discussions that probably had something to do with how wanting to learn was a kiss-ass act – and that was an early definition of nerdy [socially awkward nature of wanting to know stuff].

3 1966The second was my weekly Top 40 list that I’d recopy neatly on Sunday and bring in on Monday to lay out on my shiny desk. There we’d argue about the position of a single like “Doo Wah Diddy” by Manfred Mann or Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” debating whether they were better than the many Beatles songs in the Top 40 in 1964. What was the relationship between quality and position? What was the battle between the Beach Boys and Beatles all about?

The Top 40, although divisive for me and my father, was also a source of mutual fascination. Back then, kids, teens, college kids and parents could all find something they could hum along to in the Top 40. For my father there was Barbra Streisand, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto and, of course, Al Hirt’s odd hit “Java.” For me there were the Trashmen, DC5, Honeycombs, Searchers, 4 Seasons, and Animals… Some of what he liked, I liked and vice versa – Dusty Springfield, the Ronettes.

“We live in an era of overstimulation, especially in terms of information, and lists help us in organizing what is otherwise overwhelming.” • David Wallechinsky, Book of Lists

The list, however, offered few answers about quality rewarded – sometimes it was, often it wasn’t – and I had no idea that there were activities like graft, bribery and payola; that music was a crooked business, that many musicians would die broke and forgotten despite having #1 hits and having cool haircuts. A fundamental error is equating position – and sales – with quality. That quality went unrewarded was something that an innocent weaned on kid’s books and Disney cartoons cannot fully comprehend, until you write so much that the naiveté finally is stripped from your bones. Some survivalists might allude to how one skins a rabbit. And so, on the way to the bottle or other palliative, cynicism and sarcasm serve as over-the-counter medicines that help the soul co-exist in a world dominated by hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance.

The Top 40 list offered no hints about why the human body and heart suddenly stops needing songs to fortify one’s soul, justify one’s actions, describe precisely how love goes wrong, provide identity and soundtracks to provide meaning or romance to your seemingly petty activities.

Why do people stop listening to new music? Is it exhausting, no longer necessary – it’s as if the soul suddenly says: OK, I’ve heard enough music and this is where I get off. Like age is a train station and the music at that station will guide them and sooth them for the rest of their days. Next station stop is Tommy Roe, change here for Ricky Nelson and buses to The Shangrilas and The Daytonas. Watch the closing doors. Next stop Three Dog Night. They will make fun of styles embraced by others, especially the young and their newer styles, styles that baffle, avoid, and seem to reject them, ultimately falling into the same despised behavior patterns as their parents who complained about rock ‘n’ roll not being music, now these people, my peers, despise all musical genres newer than what they embraced – so punk and new wave and dub and all of the rest of the genres and sub-genres and micro-genres are all “not real music.”

There are probably anthropological explanations for all these us-vs-them instincts and tribalism and, never mind a fear of the unknown. These people are in the majority and I guess maybe it has to do with lounging in an age where they experience intense/key events in life: lover, sports, lost virginity, first time drunk, exciting summer nights of singing along to Joe Cocker, of “inventing” air guitar and easily handling guitar solos by Hendrix and Stephen Stills, reenacting the drum solo on “Inna Gadda Da Vida,” acting out the whole story of Tommy. One’s musical choice is really actually much like determinism: the music of an era you grew up in chooses you and saddles you with the predominant styles of that period. If that’s the 60s you’re lucky. You will at least be serenaded for the next 50 years by great music and in your casket, the funeral home will blast a playlist of those hits: “Summer Song” by Chad & Jeremy or “Out of Limits” by the Marketts or “Dang Me” by Roger Miller.

At year’s end, stations would countdown the Top 100 and that meant not going sledding for a few days as I sat intently in my room listening and notating each number. Begging my parents to et me leave the radio on during dinner, having tantrums that no radio was like a traditional vow of monastic silence practiced by the Dutch. By the time we’d finished dinner I’d missed 6 or 7 songs on the charts. I’d have to call friends or even the radio station [although I was so shy I don’t think I ever did that].

Speaking of begging: I also begged for a Beatles moptop cut, Beatle boots those snug-fit black Chelsea boots with zippers, the tight pants, and all that. If I ever prayed it was probably for a trendy haircut, less acne, and Beatle boots circa 1965. God did not save the Yankees, eliminate my acne, and he did not convince my parents to get me the boots. My parents were more likely to nominate me for a trip to the moon or inject me with heroin than fulfill my wishes – long yearning, emphatic Christmas lists with BIG BOLD, ALL-CAPS letters emphasizing that this is what I wanted, had, despite what advertising gurus may tell you, absolutely NO effect on them.

They considered it a matter of parental principle to steer me clear of pop trends and other frivolous manias. That and the thrift [I called it stingy at the time] of growing up in a lower-middle-class household. My parents even purchased electric hair clippers to save on barber costs and while my mother held me down, my father would give me a haircut that would be unfit for even the Army – these haircuts would have led to my being court martialed, no doubt. Today it would be considered cruel and unusual punishment of a minor.

I won’t elaborate on how I assumed the postures of the greats of the time – I wanted Dylan’s, Roger McGuinn’s, Roger Daltry’s hair – using a pen with a sock taped around the end of it as my microphone, and in my bedroom became a star, imagining very cool haircuts that were not to be mine for a loooong time – if ever, some may point out – but that is mere distraction from what this is all about – trying to unravel precisely what made a song tick, made it magic, a hit. And, to tell you the truth, I know there is magic in 4 70there but do not know how to convert it into explication: is it melody, riff, harmonies, beat, poetic or romantic lyrics, timing, effective posturing, weird get-ups and novelty costumes? I still don’t know. But it seems OK not to figure out a magician’s tricks and just enjoy them as if they really were magic and not a trick or formula – or the result of record company payola shenanigans.

At that time – mid-60s, to mid-70s – the oddest tunes rubbed up against one another, soul had no problem cuddling up to heavy rock, while folk was found necking with light classical and jazz was flirting with vocal pop … And so it was here that the exhilarating magic of seeming disparate genres forced to communicate with one another was born – an integrated world of peace and harmony in a constellation of 40 songs. This was the beginning of the mix … on many levels. this was further fostered by listening to WFMU, which championed bold eclecticism as a unique way to listen to music and glean more from it.

By the time I was in high school I could identify the year and exact model of almost any car on the road, I had a stamp collection, I knew my Top 40, and had memorized batting and pitching stats, which, at the time, I didn’t realize were all talents that have to this day eluded any form of monetization.

I also began to champion the underdog, trying to uncover precisely why some very talented musicians just didn’t become successful. While talent was a chief factor, luck [what the f#*k is that?!] or coincidence or being in the right place with the right song at the right moment in history was actually the humbling factor because no amount of research or numbers crunching or textual analysis will get you any closer to resolving the mystery of chance or luck. I began to like, champion, talk about numbers 31 through 40, and other songs that floated just below the charts that stations might play late at night. And in this way obscurity became a kind of currency, with an exchange rate based on the excitement of knowing and having heard things others had never heard and if they did, never wanted to hear again.

We had moved to Upstate NY, outside Elmira, famous for where Mark Twain lived to be close to his beloved – and write in a gazebo. This is where I spent my formative years [acne, wet dreams, poetry, long-distance running, girls]. It is also “famous” for where Tommy Hilfiger began his career as a young clothing entrepreneur. It was in his first shop, The People’s Place, in downtown Elmira where I’d buy weird striped shirts, hippie clothes, and a snazzy, controversial shirt with a pattern made up of line-drawn female nudes, which got me into some trouble at school with the administration and my fellow students who were intent on being as bland as possible: work shirt, tee shirt, Levi’s and white Keds or Converse or Adidas. But isn’t that a strange gesture: to want to blend in so much that the very gesture of desiring to be unique and stand out in some way are suffocated by this need to conform?

5reel to reelMaybe it was in that very People’s Place, where I picked up my first Top 40 list, printed weekly by WENY on slender slips of paper, which confirmed the existence of this ephemeral alchemy that was the Top 40: I saved them, marked my faves – Edwin Starr, Rare Earth, Jackson Five, Sly & The Family Stone, Eric Burdon & War, Shocking Blue, Jaggerz, CCR – which I meant to record on my father’s reel-to-reel tape deck [his valued toy], which he would let me periodically use to record shows like Hullaballoo, Shindig, American Bandstand with a mike next to the TV or the local radio station, announcing songs in a quiet whispery voice and then changing the little dash next to a song to an X after I had recorded it.

wReck thiS meSS ~ Amsterdam ~ Ethno-Illogical Psycho-Radiographies

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I was reminded of this Top 40 list obsession when we were invited to Groningen, NL for New Year’s Eve to celebrate it with friends. This time always comes in the context of the Radio 2 Top 2000 pop hit countdown that runs between Xmas and New Year’s. This list is dominated by many atrocious top hits from my youth like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” [no mystery there: the people voting are mostly from my generation or want to be]. Queen usually vies with “Hotel California” and “Stairway to Heaven” for top song of the year – year after year. The mystery of why these has become clearer as there are growing rumors of ballot box stuffing and other forms of graft. And yet, the mystery remains: Why are these particular songs worth committing a crime for?

Anyway, there are always some interesting aberrations but for most of this week, whenever we are within earshot of a radio, I can be heard groaning and moaning, even screaming, as yet another Billy Joel or Journey or Styx or Guus Meeuwis song is announced.

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As we hit the Top 25 – moving through Dire Straits, Guns N’ Roses, Pearl Jam, and Coldplay  – we carried on joyously, wine-drinkingly, only periodically listening in the background to hear the next song being announced – “Piano Man” by Billy Joel at #6!

“Not since the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge has there been a greater crime committed against humankind.” top75l

It was after they played this year’s surprising #1, John Lennon’s “Imagine” that the son of our friends who is 17 now, finally turned to me and asked [in Dutch]: “Are there ANY songs you DO like?” In effect saying something like: “This guy doth protest too much, methinks.” I sensed an exasperation in his tone that was probably being shared by the rest as well. I realized that my passion and desire for better is sometimes misinterpreted as misery and melancholy, which I consider to be the dark side of hope, the hope that some of the million less popular, more obscure and much better songs may some day make it into this Top 2000.

That led me to thinking, with hints of shame and a desire to do some kind of penance and a real need to make it clear, which led to a natural tic of mine: I started formulating a list of songs I DO like in my head, scribbling them down before turning off the light next to my bed. I could easily replace that Top 2000 with my own. And so, this is my modest [75] response to that teen boy’s question.

In formulating it I used my memory, my iTunes files – specifically, called “75 most played”. I realize it doesn’t have a lot of 60s rock, no Lovin’ Spoonful, Rascals, Sly Stone, Hendrix, no Boris Vian, Pere Ubu, ESG, Liquid Liquid, Television, Kraftwerk, Can, Joy Division, Howlin Wolf, Captain Beefheart, Dylan, Leon Thomas, mid-70s Neil Young, Cymande, Deadbeat, Nina Simone, Bert Jansch, Francis Bebey, Greater Than One, Black Sifichi, “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” by Led Zeppelin, “I’m Your Captain” by Grand Funk Railroad, Slits, Raincoats, “Stuff” by Myra Davies, Lena, Jon Hassell, Arthur Russell … and many many many more. It is cruel and sometimes necessary to press things into a too-small frame so one can arrive at an essence. That is why a haiku is often better than a rambling piece of free verse. And this is the result – a painful pleasure like great looking shoes crimping the pinky toe.

There is an interesting, perhaps cynical or black humorish detail, about this year’s number one, Lennon’s “Imagine” [which is  like a piece of over-chewed gum compared to his “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma” – but I’m fine with it]. Anyway, after they played “Imagine” I said: “Thank god or whoever for the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. If it hadn’t been for the attack on Charlie, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Hotel California’ woulda been number one again.”

And you have to keep wondering: Can music be a tool for some kind of peace, serve as some kind of societal salve, a soothing method for taking the edge off prejudice, war, racism and anxiety? I will continue to say “yes” but deep down inside I sometimes wonder.


Posted on by bartplantenga Posted in Audio, Audio / Video MnemoTechnics, Bart Plantenga, Essay, Music

About bartplantenga

writer / DJ / artist / blue collar drudge / editor / proofreader

One Response to The Mechanics & Mystery of Top 40 Lists by bart plantenga

  1. TR Kelley

    This was a pleasure to read. But i don’t recognize any of the songs on your list. I find that comforting.:)