My colleague at Rock n’ Roll Archaeology, Maynard Edwards, has a piece up about the state of popular music that sounds awfully depressing . A few examples:

4.)  Flo Rida’s “Low” has sold 8 million copies . . . the same as The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”.
11.)  The cast of “Glee” has had more songs chart than The Beatles.

But these don’t actually mean what they seem to mean. For one thing, the population is larger now that fifty or even thirty years ago, there are more people buying music. For another, the internet has made buying music easier. It only stands to reason that the popular music of today would rack up more sales that the popular music of yesterday. No one in the 80’s thought it odd that Michael Jackson was outselling Elvis.

And in truth, the Beatles and Elvis and the other “greats” weren’t actually as popular then as we imagine. According to Elijah Wald’s fascinating, exhaustively-researched book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, all those kids buying Beatles records also liked the crap-pop of their day, just as kids in the fifties bought one of Perry Como and Pat Boone for every Elvis single. The #1 album every year for 1949, 1950, and 1951 was the original Broadway cast of South Pacific. The real soundtrack of an era cannot be played according to critical favorites.

The idea that music was great back then and garbage now just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Rather, there was great music then, and great music now and garbage then and garbage now. What gets remembered will probably be worth remembering.

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