I used to think that surfing iTunes was the perfect gateway to my pop past (“Hey, look! Here’s that song that was playing on the Himalaya ride at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1977!”). But then I got a subscription to satellite radio for my car and iPad—and the “wave of nostalgia” became a tsunami.
Satellite radio is a perfect bridge between musical moods. Learn the songs from a Top Hits station, and you can semi-impress teens by mouthing the [almost] correct words at high school graduation parties; try an electronic “chill” station to soothe that shell-shocked “Where-did-the-weekend-go?” feeling while driving to work on Monday morning; and pick a decade-specific oldies station when you feel a need to return to simpler times.
Recently, my husband and I stumbled onto a seventies music channel during a long car trip and encountered a blast from the past: a rerun of the old syndicated juggernaut "American Top 40" with Casey Kasem (who hosted the show from 1970 to 1988). We were deep in a discussion about household finances, but the sudden sound of the iconic voice announcing, “And coming in at number 32 this week…” put the conversation on hold and kicked off a heated spousal competition, complete with high-fives and bragging rights for the contestant who correctly predicted the most songs in the top five.
And so began our hobby of chasing countdowns, charts and lists—and based on the sheer volume of entertainment ranking out there, it seems that we’re not alone among our generation. A similar “Big ’80s” version of the Top 40 (hosted by the original MTV VJs) is now a satellite radio destination for us every Saturday, and TV shows are riddled with the phenomenon, from David Letterman’s long-running “Top Ten List” to the Travel Channel’s "21 Hottest Caribbean Escapes."
Enslaved by these programs, I have endured countless truly bad songs and screeching commercials, all for the payoff of hearing that Number One. I have languished in parking lots, reluctant to enter my destination until I hear “just one more.” When the countdown refers to cultural touchstones from past decades, I have conjured and predicted obscure songs or movies by association: Who was I dating? What year was I in school? What color—and how tall—was my hair?
It doesn’t matter that I can type a few characters into my iPhone and have that information in 6 seconds. The top of the chart must only be accessed from the bottom—one rung at a time. It must be earned.
There’s just something about the simple act of numbering and ranking things that makes them seem more compelling, and draws us in by giving us a glimpse into the collective opinions of our peers. Accordingly, to keep in the spirit, I would like to offer my own personal list:
A Countdown of My Top Five Countdowns:
New Year’s Eve in Times Square (the 1999/2000 countdown to midnight): Watching the ball drop in Times Square is always a thrill, but with Y2K at stake, this particular version of tipsy revelers shouting “10!…9!…8!…” was extra suspenseful.
VH1’s 40 Most Awesomely Bad Metal Songs…Ever: You had me at “awesomely bad.”
VH1’s 40 Most Softsational Soft-Rock Songs: What’s not to love about a tongue-in-cheek survey of the “titans of tenderness, the sultans of sensitivity and the monsters of mellow,” complete with a close-up look at the era’s distinctive “soft-rock beards?"
Entertainment Weekly’s “100 All-Time Greatest” issue, featuring movies, TV shows, albums, novels, plays and more, a pop-culture gold mine that just published in a July double issue. (SPOILER ALERT: I don’t want to steal EW’s thunder on the big categories, so I will only reveal that their pick for the number one greatest short-story collection is Everything that Rises Must Converge, by Flannery O’Conner. You’re welcome.)
Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Artists” list: This is a compilation, written by fellow artist-fans, that continues to spawn countless debates—how can anyone choose between the top six (in no particular order) of Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones?
Casey Kasem’s appearance on David Letterman, where Kasem counted down Dave’s “Top Ten Numbers from One to Ten”: This hilarious collision of two countdown pioneers came complete with one of Kasem’s trademark long-distance dedications to keep the audience in suspense before the “Number One Number” was revealed.
Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure: the song that was playing while I was riding the Himalaya at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1977 was “Best of My Love” by the Emotions. (And in case you’re wondering, it came in at #87 on the Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs.)