A few weeks back, I referenced the first cassette tape I ever bought. Today, it’s time for my first CD. Much like the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill, Nirvana’s Nevermind ultimately proved to be a seminal album not only within its genre, but in the greater musical landscape as well.
As a leading light of the early 90’s grunge movement, Nirvana is widely acknowledged as a primary source of changes in popular culture as well as popular music. Having said that, I can’t help but wonder if the grunge era didn’t usher in an even greater seismic shift than many people realize. I was taking a look at data from the Billboard Hot 100 charts recently and I couldn’t help but notice this change in the number of #1 hit songs from year to year:
In the 20 years prior to 1991, the number of different chart-topping songs and artists bottomed out at about 17 per year between 1980 and 1983. The 70’s gave us an average of 26 #1 hits per year and from 1984-1991, there were over 28 songs topping the list annually. Since 1991, there has not been a single year with as many as 20 songs to top the charts and only four times have more than 15 songs hit #1. The average over the last 20 years has been just over 13 different #1 songs per year – just about half of the average of nearly 26 from the two decades that preceded.
What can possibly account for this kind of seismic shift? I’m sure there is more than one factor, but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of early 90’s music is grunge. Grunge hit its stride in 1991, with Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger released within about two months of one another in late summer/early fall. Generally speaking, these albums rose to prominence and peaked a year later – at the same time as the diversity was being sucked out of the Billboard charts. I don’t know if that’s because audiences were being stripped away and fractured, a phenomenon that we have witnessed in television with the advent of 300 station cable packages, but it’s at least somewhat plausible to suggest that as a bunch of formerly local Seattle bands rose to national prominence, audiences started looking to their hometown clubs and cafes to find the next big thing in their own backyard. Anyone have any other ideas?