Salon: Was ‘American Top 40’ Harmless Entertainment or Supply-Side Propaganda?

As you probably know, the 1980s were boom years for conservatives. Among the most prominent right-wingers back then: Ronald Reagan, Tom Clancy, Casey Kasem…

OK, Kasem, who died on June 15, actually was a staunch liberal, a supporter in that decade of Jesse Jackson and later of Dennis Kucinich. But during the ‘80s, wrote Scott Timberg in a Sunday piece for Salon, “we had a political and economic revolution, spearheaded by a one-time actor who was often massively popular, that did the same thing as” Kasem’s radio show, “American Top 40.”

The headline was "Casey Kasem, Ronald Reagan and music’s 1 percent: Artificial “popularity” is not democracy."

Specifically, Timberg contended that “AT40” and Reagan’s tax cuts were among the phenomena that served “as a mechanism for the winner-take-all-society,” though he added that he didn’t “mean to blame” Kasem, who “was just one, fairly innocent part of a larger movement that picked up momentum in the ’80s – the blind celebration of wealth and might and popularity.”

From Timberg’s piece (emphasis added):

Several prominent Kasem appreciations have framed him as a cheery cultural gatekeeper…If you’re to believe these critics, America voted with its pocketbooks and wallets, they picked the very best, and Casey Kasem served it up – whatever the musical style, free from hype or influence — in a friendly and appealing package…

What we’re hearing a lot less about is the way shows like his work on the culture, how they seep into our psychology, how they change the playing field for musicians and other artists and craftsmen. The pop charts, especially back then, reflected the stale playlists of a few stations and the investments of a few labels and likely a lot of wink-wink under-the-table payola: They are not a pure vehicle for the people’s will, for good taste, or for anything other than record-industry marketing. You can take popular culture seriously, sure, but it’s another thing to tell us that what’s packaged and promoted most effectively is somehow democratic or virtuous…


There certainly were lively and eclectic strains in music back then, many from urban or college-town scenes, but “American Top 40? tended to be the absolute last place where you would hear them. So in the early ‘80s, while the show was (like the rest of the radio dial) playing a lot of Captain and Tennille and Kenny Rogers and Air Supply and REO Speedwagon and Survivor…there were actually smart, vivid songs you probably didn’t hear. The Clash’s “London Calling” came out in the States in 1980, the same year Elvis Costello put out “Get Happy,” The Jam released “Sound Effects,” and the Pretenders dropped their debut. It was the era of the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” U2?s “Boy,” Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Kaleidoscope,” Kate Bush’s “Never For Ever” and “The Dreaming,” of the Cocteau Twins and King Sunny Ade, the English Beat and the Cure…

None of this stuff would catch on much in “American Top 40.” But you sure got to hear a lot of “Eye of the Tiger.”

Was this Kasem's fault? Not really; it was just the way the show was set up, and the program made no pretense of covering what we would call, later, music's "cutting edge." But...listeners got to hear only the most obvious and overplayed songs from a tiny number of overexposed artists...

Problem is, when you only hear -- or hear about -- a small batch of stuff, whether it's music or books or movies or whatever, it's easy to think that that's all there is. An even bigger problem is the way charts and chart-related discounts or programs act like a regressive tax, a kind of reverse Robin Hood...

…What matters about [“AT40”] is what it did to our tastes and our sense of what was important. In the ‘80s – when I listened to [Kasem’s] show the most, though it ran for many decades – we had a political and economic revolution, spearheaded by a one-time actor who was often massively popular, that did the same thing as Kasem’s show…

…“American Top 40” worked – like the best-seller lists and the now-ubiquitous Monday-morning movie box office reports, Reagan’s tax cuts, and “American Idol,” whose Ryan Seacrest now helms Kasem’s old show — as a mechanism for the winner-take-all-society. It shines attention on the artists and the songs who need it least, and ignores those who need it most. It’s the opposite of what journalism used to claim to do – to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.


I don’t mean to blame poor departed Kasem; he was just one, fairly innocent part of a larger movement that picked up momentum in the ’80s – the blind celebration of wealth and might and popularity. So rest in peace, and keep reaching for the stars. But please, let’s not turn him into a phony symbol of the wisdom of the crowd or the magic of the marketplace…

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters