WALLY'S WORLD: Determining ‘popular’ is a diluted process

Last week we examined the mass media – a monopolistic fusion of New York publishers, Hollywood studios and Madison Avenue ad agencies – that controlled and dominated movies, music and the literary field during the last century. From 1920 through 1970, the power of the mass media was incredible. In many respects, it dictated the behavior and even the morality of the entire U.S. population.

The mass media first started to deteriorate in the mid-1950s, but wasn’t really blown to smithereens until the Digital Age arrived. With the ability to download music from the Internet and view nearly any movie at any time of the day or night on your computer or TV, popular music and films became cheap, throwaway commodities. They simply weren’t as important as they once were. And no matter how much Madison Avenue promoted them, they simply didn’t have as much influence on the general public. (During the last century, movies were valuable commodities that could only be seen in theaters and vinyl records were relatively expensive and handled with great care.) Then, too, today’s movies and music don’t require studios and millions of dollars to produce. They can be created in a couple afternoons by a bunch of teenagers in a garage somewhere.

There are still a few superstars like Michael Jackson. Elvis, and Tom Cruise, but even these celebrities aren’t nearly as famous as those created by the old media. Is Tom Cruise really as famous as John Wayne and Clark Gable were? No, not hardly. The late Michael Jackson is surely the most popular superstar in the history of pop music – his fame spread all over the world, from Japan to South America – but is he as popular with the U.S. population, in general, as Bing Crosby was in his heyday? Nope, not by any stretch. Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, everyone liked Crosby, from New Yorkers to Montana cowboys, age 7 to 97, and many of them had one or two of his records. Jackson, on the other hand, was mostly a phenomenon of urbanites younger than 40. Older Americans and rural/small-town America couldn’t have cared less.

In my last column, I pointed out that the old mass media used to produce a single, authoritative list of top popular recordings each week. It was called “Your Hit Parade.” (There may also have been a weekly list of country music, but it was relatively unimportant compared to “Your Hit Parade”.) Today, there are many such charts. There are lists of the most popular hip-hop, rap, classic rock, punk rock, alternative, retro, gothic, swing, country, classic country, country rock, jazz, and on and on and on. Indeed, one might suggest that every band coming down the pike invents its own category. Fifty years ago, there was only a single, numero uno recording in the nation and many, if not most, people had heard it. Today, during any week there are at least 15 or 20 No. 1 songs, depending upon which list you consult. Pick any top song on any list and well over half the American public hasn’t even heard the damned thing.

Many of you – well, to deflate my ego, at least some of you – have inquired about my tastes in popular music. This being the case, next week I’ll offer a list of my favorite albums, by decades, roughly spanning the last 100 years.

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