100 Years of Popular Music

It may come as a surprise to some who read my blog that one of my interests is the development of American popular culture. There is something unique and fascinating about music, film, and other popular cultural products in the United States over the last century and more. The influences of the various cultures which have found a home in the United States, from the blacks of the American South to the Southern European immigrants of the American Northeast, and the various events which all of these various cultures have shared in as Americans, from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War, are evident throughout these developments in popular culture. While the suppression of so-called “high culture,” which is simply culture in the most correct sense of the word, is lamentable, it is a perennial fact of human nature that even those deprived of culture will eventually create one spontaneously. On the other hand, there is something to be said even about the decline of popular culture in America. From its explosion as youth culture in the early 20th century to its usurpation as a voice of protest and unrest in the 1960s to the rise of hip hop among disadvantaged urban minorities in the 1980s, American popular culture has served as a vehicle of expression for those who otherwise had none. It has, however, through a lengthy process of absorption, lost much of its artistic and radical spirit and has become instead a vehicle for corporate profits. All of this makes the historical and social aspects of American popular music enthralling, no matter one’s personal musical tastes.

Since we are now coming up on 2015 and since American popular music really properly began almost precisely 100 years ago, I thought it fitting that we spend the 100 days intervening between today and the new year taking a look at the history of popular music. Beginning in 1914 tomorrow, I will post a song for each year until we reach 2014 on December 31. In selecting the songs to represent each year, I limited myself to only those songs which, when data was available, were within the top 10 sellers for their year of release. In deciding which of the 10 to choose, I used two criteria: the lasting importance of the song and my own taste preferences. For some years, such as 1917 (Billy Murray’s “Over There”), the selection was easy; for others (for example, most years of the 1970s, to be honest) the great bulk of the top 10 songs are not the songs we remember from that year (and, to be honest again, this is decidedly for the best).

As always, I’m interested in hearing your impressions and, given the nature of this project, memories. What song would you have chosen for each of these years? Are there any songs from each year that are special to you? Enjoy my selections and let me know your thoughts.

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