Once upon a time, if you named any song in the Top 40, I could hum a few bars.
So it was startling to scan Billboard's Top 40 recently and realize the extent of my cluelessness about pop music, circa 2006. I recognized about four or five songs. Gnarls Barkley? Fort Minor? Panic! At the Disco?
Who are these people?
It was humbling. Sure, a little disconnect is natural for anyone over 40 with kids and a mortgage. But I write about music regularly. I'm honored to vote each year on nominees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Total immersion was in order. I clicked on iTunes and ordered the nation's 40 most popular songs (substituting Tim McGraw for Beyonce, whose latest hit was the only one unavailable).
The mission: To see how much, or how little, had changed.
The names are different. So are the beats and often the language. But the dominant subject matter — boy wants girl, girl wants boy, boy/girl can't fathom the other — hasn't changed. And the ratio of good songs to bad songs, guilty pleasures to forgettable retreads, is about the same, too.
Culture's splintering has made the Top 40 less influential. Hundreds of radio stations cater to individual tastes. If that's not good enough, you can program your iPod. If you want to ignore the Top 40, it's quite easy.
To gauge the effect of aging on a musical attention span, here's a good rule of thumb: At age 16, most fans know everything in the Top 40. Subtract one song for each year past that, and the number will be about what the average fan will know.
That calculation would put me at nine, which turned out to be about right. You may find, like me, that you know more than you thought: This song was on at the gym, that one in the background on a TV show, another throbbed from the speakers of a car inching down the block.
Older fans will find a few other things familiar in today's hit parade.
Rihanna's "SOS" is built around a sample of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," which was itself a remake. LeToya's comeback hit borrows from the Stylistics' "You're My Everything." Katharine McPhee bravely takes on Judy Garland on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and Rascal Flatts covers the forgettable 1980s rocker "Life is a Highway."
Leave it to Jessica Simpson, though, to baldly rip off Madonna and the soul classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in the same song.
It may also surprise parents how often, in ordering a Top 40 song off iTunes, you're prompted on whether you want a clean or explicit version. How explicit? Let's just say that when someone brings up what they like about a girlfriend or boyfriend, it isn't usually their smile.
Is it a prerequisite for "street cred?" Fort Minor probably feels profanity drives home the message in "Where'd You Go," a strong rap song that tackles an intriguing subject: a man who feels left behind by a woman obsessed by her career. Instead, the bad words are a distraction.
That's not the only trend quickly apparent. It's a time for strong women in pop music, strong in talent and strong in attitude. Rappers could afford to leave their drum machines alone every now and then. And country doesn't get much further south and west than New Jersey.
The women are particularly impressive. Shakira's duet with Wyclef Jean on "Hips Don't Lie" is a summertime breeze of seduction that proudly wears its Latin influences. Rihanna's ballad "Unfaithful" is sung from a fresh perspective, that of a woman who can't help cheating on her long-suffering mate. Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten" is both beautiful and uplifting. Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man," while overdoing the vocal gymnastics, is a modern-day "Lady Marmalade."
Kelly Clarkson has the strongest rock 'n' roll spirit of anyone on the charts, and even the Pussycat Dolls sound better than the concept suggests.
It's a long way from Aretha Franklin's "Respect." Today's women expect and demand it. You'll be thinking of another b-word when Kelis sings "Bossy." Romance means more than moonlit walks on the beach to Cassie and Kandy Girl, and they don't hesitate to say so.
Rappers often feel they have to soften their approach by dueting with women singers.
Too often it's the only musically interesting thing in their work. Rap dominates the culture, and it's empowering that hit songs can essentially be made by one person and a machine. Minimalism is no excuse for laziness, however. It's numbing how many rap songs consist of little more than a repetitious synthesizer hook and electronic percussion.
Hire a few musicians and a new world will open up! We're talking to you, Field Mob. And you, Lil Jon. And Chamillionaire, E-40, Young Dro, Chris Brown, Cherish...
In rock 'n' roll, it's frightening that this may be remembered as the Nickelback era. Is there a more grating lead singer on the charts than Chad Kroeger? He's like that guy in Crash Test Dummies, if he gargled with gravel. Emo has little to offer, either. If Panic! At the Disco's Brendon Urie sings that phrase "a sense of poisoned rationality" in the wrong place, he's going to get worked over.
Fray and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have their moments, but the Top 40 doesn't have a single song to make a rocker punch his fist in glee.
Everyone knows country isn't really country anymore, but play these two fine pop-rock songs back-to-back — KT Tunstall's "Black Horse & The Cherry Tree" and Tim McGraw's "When the Stars Go Blue" — and explain why one is on the country charts and the other isn't.
Is it just the hat?
Country is where mainstream rock went to hide. That would be fine, if Rascal Flatts could find a better song than "Life is a Highway." And, by the way, why did Kenny Chesney find it necessary to rewrite Will Smith's "Summertime" for a suburban audience?
Now that the job is done, there are about 20 songs I'm ready to erase from my iTunes account, perhaps less than I would have guessed.
You don't have to be 16 anymore to find something to like in the Top 40.
But it helps.