By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Compare this to the top 50 from June 5, 2004. With the lone exception of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, there’s not a single record with over 5 million in sales — and even OutKast was helped along by the fact that each purchase counted as two (it’s a double-disc set). Dotting the list are albums by less-than-superstar acts like Morrissey and Modest Mouse. If you explore the Top 50’s lower regions, there’s even an ATP-worthy band like Franz Ferdinand neck-and-neck with Lionel Richie’s comeback, Just for You, and American Idol Season 3: Greatest Soul Classics.
The mainstream record industry would argue that p2p file sharing has decimated the ability to sell records by crossover acts, but on closer inspection the collapse seems more like a tumbling house of cards. The fact is, sales are going up overall, but the charts just aren’t being monopolized by the same big names that dominated a few short years ago.
A chalet full of diamonds
What happened? In plain English, 1999 was the year the RIAA began writing checks the record industry couldn’t cash.
For many years, when the RIAA was called upon to officially report on the growth of the recording industry, it did so only by responding to changes in the market. In 1958, at the dawn of the long-play record, it created the Gold award for $1 million in sales. This made sense. Pop music was changing from a regional, ephemeral phenomenon into an album-driven, culturally significant force. Similarly, when it introduced the Platinum award in 1976 — for 1 million units sold — it seemed a good response to the cresting wave of stadium rock.
It’s hard to attribute similar good judgment to the invention of the Diamond in March 1999. The Diamond award for 10 million units sold was nearly impossible to attain using anything short of exploitative measures — the most calculated crossover hits, yuppies’ favorites repurchased in muliple formats, new teen pop marketed to underage girls and dirty old men. Trumpeting these successes smacked of extreme arrogance. Three months after the Diamond’s invention, Napster was released, and it’s little wonder consumer response was so rapturous.
Here are the record industry’s all-time top sellers as listed at the unveiling ceremony for the Diamond sales award, listed in number of sales:
The Eagles, Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975 (Elektra) — 2/17/76 — 28 million copies
Michael Jackson, Thriller (Epic) — 12/1/82 — 26 million
Pink Floyd, The Wall (Columbia) — 12/8/79 — 23 million
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV (Swan Song) — 11/8/71 — 22 million
Billy Joel, Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II (Columbia) — 6/28/85 — 21 million
The Beatles, The Beatles (Capitol) — 11/25/68 – 19 million
AC/DC, Back in Black(Elektra) — 7/21/80 — 19 million
Shania Twain, Come On Over (Mercury Nashville) — 11/4/97 — 19 million
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (Warner Bros.) — 2/4/77 — 19 million
This is a solid list, not only of best-sellers, but of critically acclaimed landmarks in pop history. You might even argue that these specific albums mark a rough chronology of the evolution of pop music as an art form. But when we look at it chronologically, the list takes on a far different cast:
1968 — The Beatles, The Beatles (Capitol) — 19 million
1971 — Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV (Swan Song) — 22 million
1976 — The Eagles, Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975 (Elektra) — 28 million
1977 — Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (Warner Bros.) — 19 million
1979 — Pink Floyd, The Wall (Columbia) — 23 million
1980 — AC/DC, Back in Black (Elektra) — 19 million
1982 — Michael Jackson, Thriller (Epic) — 26 million
1985 — Billy Joel, Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II (Columbia) — 21 million
1992 — Whitney Houston, The Bodyguard (Arista) — 17 million
1997 — Shania Twain, Come On Over (Mercury Nashville) — 19 million
Looked at this way, the time line seems more like landmarks in the record industry’s slow descent into pabulum. These numbers are certainly evidence that, after 1980, the corporate music industry had given up on its golden age in favor of churning out purposely characterless dreck. The story behind Up!, Shania 27 29 Twain’s album following Come On Over, offers strong proof.
Released in November 2002, Up! marked the nadir of cynical pop. It was the masterwork of a well-seasoned team practically bioengineered to exploit — Shania Twain, a Canadian native who achieved breakout success by masquerading as a Nashville star, and her husband, a white South African named Robert “Mutt” Lange, the producer of an increasingly bland series of crossover stars, from Foreigner in the ’70s to Huey Lewis in the ’80s to Michael Bolton and Celine Dion in the ’90s.
Up! was intended as the pair’s triumph of commercial genius. Twain admitted that she deliberately rejected songs that smacked of introspection or personal detail. Up! was even released in three distinct mixes appealing to different target markets. The country-oriented “Green” mix featured banjo, pedal steel and fiddle; the pop-oriented “Red” replaced those with strings, guitars and keyboards; and the “Blue” international edition added a touch of Eurotrash beats.
Great art elicits passionate reactions, both positive and negative. It is idiosyncratic. It awakens a range of emotions — melancholy, joy, sadness, laughter. Up! studiously avoided every condition of great art. Having achieved their greatest possible triumph, the two retired to a chalet in Switzerland, an ideal home for a couple who turned neutrality into a virtue. Switzerland’s probably much nicer than any of the chalets at Pontin’s, so God bless ’em, they may have been the last two Cynics to get out of the old music industry with their lives.