Would you believe Dolly Parton was born in the same year as President Bill Clinton? They seem to have come from entirely different eras, but they were both born in the first year of the Baby Boomer generation, 1946.
“Our immediate assumption is that a Baby Boomer went to Woodstock, a Baby Boomer listened to rock music and Bob Dylan, and that’s kind of true for Bill Clinton,” said Eric Weisbard, a University of Alabama professor of American studies. “Not so true for Dolly Parton. That shows that you can have two figures, both preeminent Southerners, same age, different paths.”
Parton took the path from a rural upbringing to the highest level of celebrity ever seen by a country singer, hopping across cultural boundaries with songs like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” as stepping stones. When she had the attention of every Southerner with two ears and a heart, she tweaked the formula to pull in the rest of the nation with “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5.”
“The minute Dolly Parton was a start on the Johnny Carson Show, she decided ‘I’m gonna switch formats. I’m gonna go from a country music figure to a crossover superstar,’” Weisbard said. “And she pulled it off, and she’s had misgivings ever since, but it was a momentous achievement.”
Those spots on Johnny Carson were a big moment for country, a leap into a new world, and Weisbard dissects the moment in detail with his new book, Top 40 Democracy. The sharp, detailed history of the mainstream looks at a success story like Dolly’s, and sees a mirror image of the radio format she climbed to the top.
“Country music, when Dolly Parton starts, is an AM radio format with the Grand Ole Opry and some syndicated television shows,” Weisbard said. “By the time Dolly Parton is hitting her peak, there’s 2000 radio stations across America playing country music.”
She built up a kingdom, then left it for a bigger one, and country fans have been cynical of genre-traitors ever since. See the public scourging of Taylor Swift for repeated history. Parton cashed in on a superhuman knack for being loved everywhere she goes, and cashed in enough to build an amusement park about herself.
“She’s this person who could be at home with evangelical Christians one minute and drag queens the next minutes,” Weisbard said. “You have to pay attention to someone like that.”
Top 40 Democracy looks at not just the mainstream, but multiple mainstreams as different groups of people in America saw it. Throughout the past few generations, white Southerners have been experiencing a different America than urban blacks, and the DNA of those different experiences can be traced in the waves of country and R&B music.
“What I focused on was a very particular thing: how we ended up with commercial music in the form that it started to take in the 1970s,” Weisbard said. “That was the decade that cars started to have FM as much as AM radio.”
With the introduction of FM radio channels, a station could cater to a specific prototype –™œone version of “normal” – and get narrower and narrower as that type of person started listening. More and more, anyone could flip through the channels and find something that was designed just for them.
“Unlike a blockbuster movie, which is competing with other blockbuster movies . . . music was ahead of the curve with seeing the audience as divided,” Weisbard said. “Instead of having one station that played all the hits all the time, you have a situation where almost anywhere you went, there were different kinds of normal. Anytime you listen to the radio . . . it feels like you’re encountering the ‘normal’ world. Everything is mainstream. Everything has the widest possible appeal.”
But what does it mean if there’s five different versions of this normal? It means that every tailor-made radio format reflects something about the people listening. Dolly Parton was something country music listeners were asking for, and something they can’t decide if they really want again. Weisbard sat down with the Planet Weekly to talk about the book, Bruno Mars’ ethnicity and the therapy channel. Here are some questions and answers from the conversation.

Planet Weekly: When someone becomes more successful than anyone would have thought they could be, does that say something about the audience?
Eric Weisbard: There’s a great line about country music that a writer called Patrick Carr uses. . . He says “Nashville has always accepted success.” I love that notion. Why wouldn’t you accept success! If you’re not defining yourself around a musical ideal, if you’re not saying “everything has to sound this way,” then if someone comes in with a new way of doing things, you say “sure.”
Here’s the one thing. What is the case, there are styles of music that have very much defined themselves as taking issue with music formats. As having kind of rebellious attitude towards that. In the case of rock, it’s because part of the counterculture of what a rock figure was doing was to see the music as resisting commercialism. There was always, to this day, a tension in rock. Should rock be allowed to be a radio format? Does the best rock resist that?
In hip-hop it’s a little bit different. It’s less about issues of commercialism, and it’s more about the fact that when hip-hop emerged, rhythm and blues was often quite resistant to playing rap songs on radio. Hip-hop used non-radio means to promote itself. There were underground mixtapes, there was street marketing, there were all sorts of ways until about the mid-1990s when R&B radio accepted success and said “come on in.”
Those are two categories of very important music that have a touchy relationship to radio. . . I’m at least as interested in that, in how one kind of genre might resist another category or format. I’m less interested in a quirky individual figure who might be seen to challenge the system for a time.
PW: What does that mean for hip-hop now, where a rap verse on a pop song seems obligatory to appeal to the widest audience?
Ten years ago, almost all top 40 music had a strong hip-hop beat, and it was easy for songs from R&B radio to cross over and become a top 40 hit. These days, that has really shifted. The sound that is the underpinning of top 40 is more of an EDM dance sound. As a result, it’s become harder for rhythm and blues songs to have top 40 success. Incredibly successful figures like Beyonce, who sell tons of albums and pack stadiums, now find it harder to have top 40 hits than a decade ago. Even within these mainstreams, the rules of the road can change a lot.
We get so caught up in whatever three year period we’re living in, we tend to think that whatever is happening in that period should define the prior history of music. It’s was all building up to these past three years!
What’s nice about looking at these long chunks of time is you start to see cycles. One moment country music is having a big boom, the next moment New York is going ten years without a country radio station. You start to see how, for all that pop music moves quickly, it’s actually structured around social divisions that don’t change that fast.
PW: You mention Dolly having a connection with Jimmy Carter, too. You can look at these things as somewhat representing the zeitgeist. Does that carry over for politicians from the 70s on?
EW: If you remember that politics is also about . . . feeling like a citizen, feeling like you’re part of a community. You have a strong voice in your society. Who you are is as valid and vital as anybody else is, that leads you more to how music really functions politically. I think that music sometimes is about direct messages, but more it’s about feeling like you belong in the world, and that you’re confident
Right now I think top 40 is often a place for people who are multiracial or people who are immigrants. I always think of Bruno Mars as someone who’s from this very complicated ethnicity. We’re not exactly sure of all the elements of his background. So where is he at home? He’s at home in top 40. He becomes – like Rihanna, who also has a kind of complicated lineage – a symbol of how America is becoming increasingly a multiracial place where people come from a variety of different backgrounds.
I think me miss the point somewhat with music if we only look to direct political ends, although they’re fun when we spot them. What we should more concentrate on is how, in a sense, commercial music provides a different version of what in presidential terms is sometimes called the “bully pulpit.” The large platform from which to announce who you are and what your message is. Music does that but it does it more symbolically.
PW: Now especially, you see a lot of “me” and “we” and songs that say “I’m important” and “I’m special.”
EW: It’s fascinating to me that Mary Blige just put out a song called “Therapy.” And it’s a great song because the adult contemporary format has increasingly been like the therapy channel for music. It’s a place where you think of a Kelly Clarkson song like “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.” You think of messages that are kind of like an affirmation through music.
Formats like top 40 and adult contemporary in particular have become dominated by women as listeners and become much more open to women as performers. We have a funny thing where we do have black-oriented radio, and in country something that’s more Southern-oriented. We don’t necessarily have formats that build themselves as women-oriented, but in a sense, top 40 and adult contemporary become the women-oriented aspects of mainstream culture. They become important places for women’s voices to be heard. It’s interesting to me that it had to happen in crossover, in mediated music. The categories of music that don’t proclaim their identity quite as overtly. Nonetheless, it happens there.
Some of the “me” and “we” in music can be seen in this therapeutic sense, so thank you Mary Blige.
Eric Weisbard’s book Top 40 Democracy is available via University of Chicago Press. You can get it in paperback or hardcover on Amazon, for the music or pop culture junkie on your Christmas list.

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