No art form inspires the making of lists quite like popular music, and at no time is this more the case than at year’s end, when countdowns and critics’ polls are splashed across magazine covers and aired on radio and TV. But such rankings not only beg aesthetic questions, they also mock the way people connect with music in real life, a disservice exacerbated by the media’s use of these lists for marketing rather than historical purposes. Case in point: “Top 100 Songs of Country Music,” a four-hour special broadcast last June on Country Music Television.
CMT began the selection process for its Top 100 by asking a committee of critics and journalists to submit lists of what they felt were the best country songs of all time. According to an AP story from last June, the committee came up with 600 titles that “went to voting members of the Country Music Association..., who then whittled it down to 100 songs and ranked them.” CMT unveiled the list during a concert taped at Fan Fair that featured stars like Martina McBride and Kenny Chesney performing the top 12 “vote-getters.” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” was announced as country’s No. 1 song; George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was No. 2.
It’s hard to argue with many of the show’s top choices. This is especially true given producer Kaye Zusmann’s claim that the vote was based on “the emotional, visceral connection people have to the song” and not on sales or chart position. Certainly, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “Stand by Your Man” convey pathos as well as any country song can. Harder to justify, though, is the appearance of Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places” at No. 6just ahead of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”or the fact that the folkie anthem “Country Roads” edged out Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’ ” for the No. 18 spot.
The problem lies with the self-serving methodology CMT used to compile its list, a tally that evidence suggests may have been fabricated. Scene contributor Michael McCall was sent an advance of CMT’s list to run in Country Music, the magazine for which he served as managing editor before it ceased publication this summer. The list consisted simply of the unranked songs that were being voted on. On deadline at the time, McCall received his unranked copy before members of the CMA had a chance to vote. When he informed CMT execs that his magazine couldn’t wait for the “final” tally to be voted on by CMA members, network representatives told him, “Disregard that, it’s just for show.” In other words, while it appeared CMA voters were to determine the final list, CMT was actually in control.
“Down to the last minute, they were making adjustments,” McCall says. “They have every right to do that, but they shouldn’t bill it as something else.”
USA Today’s Nashville correspondent Brian Mansfield, who contributed to the Top 100 special that aired on CMT last summer, agrees that lists circulating during production varied dramatically from the one that ultimately went public. “I know they had a list in other fashions before it got to the CMA, because that was something done fairly late in the process,” Mansfield says. “It wasn’t a pure vote by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t know that it was ever said that it was going to be. Anybody shooting straight would tell you that they were doing a good show first and good history second.”
CMT now denies that the voting was left solely to the CMA. According to a network spokesperson, “The final list was voted on by both the CMA membership and a group of industry insiders.” CMT also rejects the idea that there was ever more than one final list. Working lists of 120 to 130 songs were used during production, they claim, and these lists fluctuated because votes were still coming in.
A persistent rumor among Music Row insiders is that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” actually received the most votes in the CMA poll but still ended up at No. 2 on the program. (The song had already earned top honors in surveys conducted by BBC radio and Country Music America and Radio & Records magazines.) According to one source, Zusmann, who is no longer at CMT, replaced it with “Stand by Your Man” in order to promote a special on Wynette that the network had in the works. “Many people are grumbling about it,” says a prominent Nashville songwriter who is incensed over CMT’s tactics. “An injustice has been done to the entire industry, all the artists and writers. The songs have had their place in country music history manipulated.”
In the larger scheme of things, CMT’s sleight of hand might seem trivial. Media outlets routinely trump up best-of lists to plug artists and records to their target audiences. Media consultinga process of matching artists and audiencesis big business, and it might be unrealistic to expect a sales-driven juggernaut like CMT to produce a show based on a pure vote.
“I don’t think anybody should have expected a cable network to come up with a list of 100 songs that anybody could agree on,” says Mansfield. Trouble is, such marketing tactics can in fact end up rewriting popular music history, much the way many oldies radio stations have whittled down the music of the 1960s to encompass The Beatles, Motown and little else.
Given the influence that corporate marketing and entertainment conglomerates exercise on consumers, any poll of greatest songs should be held to some ethical standard. After all, an “emotional, visceral” connection to a song or recording is a remarkable thing: It testifies to the power of the art form, not to mention sells records. Of course, in a free-market economy, the likes of CMT and VH1 have the right to promote the artists and songs that best serve their purposes. That they do so under the guise of history, however, is specious, if not indefensible.
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