“See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth has been the #1 song for 11 weeks. When it first peaked, ending “Uptown Funk’s” 14 week reign, most people probably didn’t think it would dominate for nearly this long. “Funk” was one of the most ingeniously crafted pop songs of the 2010s and “Again” seemingly followed suit.
Paul Walker’s death while filming Fast and Furious, to whose soundtrack “See You Again” belongs, has definitely contributed to the song’s overall success, paving the way for its long stay at #1.
Many people say that pop music is idiotic, repetitive, and uninspired. And it can be. But often it provides a clue into national sentiment. Below is a list of the 10 biggest moments in American history and the #1 songs that accompanied them.
Note: Even though Pearl Harbor totally blows Bill and Monica out of the water, the Billboard Chart only officially extends back to 1958 and therefore events having happened before then have been excluded.
10. Obama Says “Yes We Can,” T.I. Says “Whatever You Like.”
On November 4, 2008, Illinois Senator Barack Obama became the 44th American president, and the first African American one. It was an epic moment in U.S. history, especially considering it had been barely fifty years since institutionalized segregation.
The #1 song on that joyous night? “Whatever You Like,” by T.I., on its third trip to the top.
Although the song is seemingly about the narrator offering an attractive woman whatever she likes, it also recalls something many Americans are told as children: “America is the land of opportunity. You can be whatever you like.” Perhaps the song’s message of infinite access resonated with young voters, who were seeing the somewhat fantastical adage come to life on their televisions.
9. Bill and Monica Freaked to “Truly, Madly, Deeply.”
The Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky relationship was a protracted affair. It was not contained to one week in ‘98. But of all the cultural artifacts that emerged from that passionate, inter-confessional fling, Bill’s statement that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” uttered on January 26th, 1998, is arguably the most iconic.
That day, the country’s #1 song was Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” which is not only about passionate love, it’s about passionate, monogamous love. In the first verse, the singer croons: “I will be strong, I will be faithful,” a sentiment which Clinton probably totally agreed with until a plucky intern wiggled past him in a clingy blue dress. They say life imitates art. Well maybe it does… sometimes.
8. The New Millenium Comes In Real Smooth
Y2K was fraught with hysteria: people thought the world would end, that Jesus Christ would rise, that the chosen people would be escorted to the heavens in nightglo chariots.
This marks a sharp contrast with the #1 song at the time (surprisingly not JLo’s “Waiting for Tonight”): “Smooth,” by Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas. Arguably one of the coolest songs ever recorded, this testament to the seductive power of romantic apathy blared out over crowds across the world on December 31st, 1999.
Maybe 1999’s nervous zealots really needed someone with as much musical charisma as Carlos Santana to remind them to be easy when the world was ending, or else they wouldn’t live to see it come.
7. Watergate Keeps on Truckin’
In November of 1968, the republican Richard Milhous Nixon was elected President of the United States. In June of 1972, as he ran for reelection, five men were arrested in the middle of the night trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee, at the Watergate hotel in Washington D.C.
Although Richard Nixon tried furiously to cover it up, the truth that he had requested the operation eventually emerged in trial. Nixon resigned in the face of impeachment.
It was a long scandal with several outstanding moments. But, like in the Bill and Monica debacle, perhaps the most iconic was Nixon saying: “I am not a crook,” on November 17th, 1973.
The #1 song on the night of Nixon’s inno-sistence? “Keep on Truckin”, by Eddie Kendricks. Its message of persistence reflected Nixon’s desperate attempts at covering up Watergate, to the point of submitting tapes of conversations with mysteriously absent portions when things got saucy…
6. The Fall of the Berlin Wall
In 1961, the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic, also called East Germany, built a wall through the middle of the city of Berlin, itself buried inside communist Germany but divided internally between east and west. The wall became the most conspicuous symbol of the Cold War.
Almost 30 years later, on November 9th, 1989, the spokesman for East Berlin’s Communist Party declared that, starting at midnight, the citizens of East Berlin (and the whole rest of the German Democratic Republic) were free to cross over to the other side. It was a day of mass jubilation as people, for the first time in thirty years, flooded into the free world.
The #1 song on that date was “Listen to your Heart” by Roxette. But a few weeks later, Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” went #1. A list of events from the past forty years, the song includes an allusion to the partitioning of Germany alongside many other allusions to the Cold War. With the fall of the wall being a more or less decisive end to the chilly conflict, the song going #1 was a way for the world to celebrate a triumph of freedom.
5. John F. Kennedy Is Assassinated
On the morning of November 22nd, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot while cruising through Dallas in his Lincoln limousine. The assassination was a national tragedy. The next day at his state funeral, over two hundred and fifty thousand people came to pay their respects.
The #1 song following the event was “Fly, Robin, Fly” by Silver Convention. The only words in the song are “fly, Robin fly, up to the sky” repeated over and over. People were heartbroken from the death of their president. The message in the song, reminiscent of a soul rising to heaven, really resonated with the American public trying to overcome the death of its leader.
4. The Vietnam War Ends to the Lyrics of Elton John
After the war, as the USSR grew into power, it began gathering spheres of influence over areas of Asia. The US was determined to stop it from ‘creating’ more communist nations or bolstering current ones, leading it to fight a war of proxy against the communists in Vietnam.
What the US thought would be a quick victory turned out to be one of the longest foreign conflicts the country would ever face.
On April 30th, 1975, North Vietnamese – communist — troops marched into the capital of South Vietnam, which the Americans were defending, marking one of the most crushing defeats in US military history.
The week of the attack, the #1 song was called: “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” But the #1 song the week before was Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom.” The song, with its appeal to patriotism, resonated with American listeners who were not only losing a war, they were losing a war against a totally contrary ideology, which was the most extreme example of American iconoclasm.
3. “I Have A Dream… That ‘Fingertips’ Gets Out of my Head.”
On August 28, 1963, more than 200,000 Americans gathered in Washington, D.C., for a political rally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The event was meant to draw attention to the political and social struggles of African Americans. It was on that day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I have a dream” speech.
On that day, “Fingertips (Pt. II)” by Little Stevie Wonder, who was still a little kid at the time, was the #1 song in America. It was the first live, non-studio recording to hit the top of the charts since 1952.
The speeches that day in Washington were disseminated across the country. Americans heard the impassioned words of Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph, and Whitney Young through popping and crackling microphones. Perhaps there was an unconscious association of feelings of liberation to a live, unpolished sound that propelled Little Stevie Wonder to #1.
2. “In The Year 2525” Most Requested Song At Moon Landing Party
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Neil Armstrong on July 20th, 1969. Eight years after the USSR had launched Yuri Gagarin into space, the US topped that by landing on the moon.
The song at the top of the charts on that date was “In The Year 2525,” by Zager and Evans. Although the song doesn’t explicitly refer to space travel, the thrilling developments in the Space Race — the science-fictional aspect of the Cold War — made the song relevant to the American public. In a very pop-musical type of way, it confronts the fears of an uncertain future, where “everything you think do and say / is in the pill you took today” and where people get propelled into space and set foot on the moon.
On September 11th, 2001 al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group, carried out four, coordinated attacks on the United States: one on each of the twin towers, one on the Pentagon, and the thwarted one on Washington D.C. It was the first aggressive attempt on American soil since Pearl Harbor in 1941. Most would agree that 9/11 permanently changed the way politics are conducted.
It also had an effect on the entertainment industry. Friends producer Martha Kauffman has been quoted as saying that she particularly liked season 8, which premiered in late September, 2001, because the grieving audience forced creativity out of her and her cast.
As for music, “Fallin’” by Alicia Keys was the #1 song between August 18th and September 8th that year. It was followed by “I’m Real,” by J-Lo and Ja Rule for several weeks, including the week of the attack, until it came back to #1 for three additional weeks. It was again knocked out of the top spot by “I’m Real,” that time for good.
Although some could attribute this jostling to fickle and indecisive market consumers, one could also posit that the country, right after the attack, was eager to return to the last moment before the devastation. Only gradually did people become ready to confront the situation via the song that had been stuck in their heads the morning of the attacks.
genius.com, time.com, wikipedia.org, nydailynews.com, theguardian.com