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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hitsville: The Year in Music, by the Numbers

Posted By on Wed, Dec 31, 2008 at 9:17 AM

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.


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.


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




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.



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).



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.



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.

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About The Author

Janine Kahn


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