Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Who Decides the Hot 100?

The Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" is the number one song in the country, according to Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Before that single climbed to the top of the charts, their hyper-literate treatise "Boom Boom Pow" occupied the spot. With the songs combined, the group has been at number one for seventeen weeks, which is the longest since Boyz II Men was king of the hill in the mid-'90s.

This post isn't Black Eyed Peas snark. There's enough of that to go around. Instead, I think it's worth analyzing what this chart means in the 21st century, if anything. Certainly top 40 popular music is as important a part of our zeitgeist as anything else, even in a period of such diverging musical options.

Still though, I think the cachet of having "the number one song in the country," as touted by Casey Kasem or yelled as you're being chased down the street by screaming girls, is pretty much gone. For one thing, with the current setup of the music industy, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're making any money. And with the generation gap widening every day--trust me, I work with conservative people in their fifties--it doesn't have the cultural recognition it used to have either. Hell, Drake has the number two song in the country, and he isn't even signed to a major label.

At least there's an attempt for the chart to accurately represent things like popularity though. At its earliest, this same chart was tabulated by, literally, how many times songs were played on jukeboxes across the country. You don't think any of those numbers were rigged? Even in the '90s, before the advent of SoundScan, this stuff was largely a guessing game.

So how are the Hot 100 decided? On their website Billboard explains that the chart is: "The week's most popular songs across all genres, ranked by radio airplay audience impressions as measured by Nielsen BDS, sales data as compiled by Nielsen SoundScan and streaming actitvity data provided by online music sources."

Has Nielsen ever called you and asked you if you like particular songs on the radio? How do they decide who to call? If it were a random sampling of listeners, something tells me we might have acts more interesting than Black Eyed Peas, or at least something more interesting further down the list. Furthermore, what if the person called just says, "Yeah, I like all of those songs." How does the company arrive at a ranking from this?

Or does "radio airplay audience impressions" mean on-air requests? If that's the case, when is the last time you ever called a radio station on the telephone to request something? It was fifth grade for me, and even then it was a prank call. I called B97 as a stoned hippie and requested Jimi Hendrix. This system is only slightly less antiquated than that joke.

Billboard's top music of 2008 by genre. Good thing there's no overlap in any of those categories. Plus, I examine stuff like this all day and have no idea what "post-grunge" is. Any rock music that has come out since Nirvana?

Note that "sales data" is not digital download sales. Thankfully, a year-and-a-half ago, Billboard finally came up with a separate ranking for that, but they had ignored it until then. So sales of what? CD singles, which don't even exist anymore? MiniDiscs? ZipDisks and Jazz Drives?

The data from streaming sites might be the most helpful because it is the truest representation of which songs people want to hear if all other factors are equal. Still, this is a weird mixture of people. People who use streaming sites are--and I'm generalizing but not really--a) computer-illiterate or honest enough to not illegally download, b) too poor to buy music, or c) bored at an unimportant job that requires a public/community computer. This is the sub-set of people who direct the music industry? No wonder it's going under. The only group it seems to benefit is the Black Eyed Peas, which means the world is losing.

The Hot 100 might be ageist, because older people don't call into top 40 radio stations or even listen to them. It's probably outdated because no one buys physical singles anymore. And it's definitely inaccurate because of the confusing audience that ranks the songs. Maybe the Hot 100 isn't important anymore for a reason.

Monday, August 10, 2009

#32 Film of the Decade- The Barbarian Invasions

#32- The Barbarian Invasions- Denys Arcand (2003)

Netflix's pithy description of The Barbarian Invasions reads: "In this Oscar-winning drama, fifty-ish Remy (Remy Girard) is divorced and hospitalized in Montreal. His ex-wife, Louise, asks their estranged son, Sebastien, to come home from London (where he now lives) as a show of support for his father. As soon as he arrives, Sebastien makes the impossible happen, using his contacts and disrupting the health care system in every way possible."

While it's technically accurate, that summary--especially the wacky "makes the impossible every way possible" cliche--is superficial. And for once, almost accidentally, that superficial stance is an interesting way to approach this film. In many ways Denys Arcand's sequel to his Decline of the American Empire is about the surface level of our lives. Sebastien, played with oleaginous aplomb by Stephane Rousseau, begins using his contacts out of resentment. What's a few Canadian bucks for a private hospital floor if it means he can stick it to his absent philandering pop? That bribe is a bigger favor than Remy has ever done for his son.

At a certain point though, Sebastien's arrangements take on a different air. Finding a heroin dealer because the hospital only dispenses morphine seems dangerous for someone so uncaring. What begins as a game of bravado becomes devotion. Arcand seems to ask, "What is the difference between the superficial and the heartfelt?" And, more importantly, "Does that division matter?"

For example, Remy, a history professor, is upset by his students' cold non-reaction to his health problems. He is surprised when, months later, they visit him at the hospital and explain how much they miss him. It's a heartwarming moment; we learn that people care more about us than they sometimes let on. Then, in the next scene, we find out that Sebastien paid them to be there. Does that reveal make the emotions of the preceding moment more false? Sebastien's tactics still touched Remy, even if they were under-handed. Does it matter how directly sincere intentions are if they still get the desired effect?

Arcand layers a motif of boundaries throughout the movie to externalize this idea. Girard performs a thoughtful monologue about the many women he's been with, both "real" and--as clips of celebrities play over his narration--imaginary. The characters move back and forth between the U.S. and Canada, and sometimes the characters slip between English and French, playing with boundaries of language as well. (It's worth mentioning that this is Arcand's return to the French language after a ten-year absence. The choice of language is completely intentional.) The film's title refers to the 9/11 attacks, the first time terrorists--barbarians--attacked the U.S. on its own soil, a time when many people were sorting out some of these complex divisions of what is important and what is real for the first time.

In Arcand's script, which won Best Screenplay honors at Cannes, he ends up extending this idea to forgiveness. How long should you hold grudges, if at all? When does the past no longer matter? The characters don't change suddenly in this movie, and the way they convincingly let superficial boundaries disintegrate into more meaningful connections is handled in a way I've never seen before.

The Barbarian Invasions is a film about death, but it ends up being inspirational, joyous, life-affirming--anything but superficial.