Ever notice how our minds can selectively choose data that reinforce our biases but ignore or forget data that challenge those biases?
This is what locks our prejudices into place of course. When new information arises that would call into question our preconceived beliefs—about individuals, groups, or just about anything—we tend to discount that information or quickly forget it. If we don’t, we encounter “cognitive dissonance”—a kind of mental stress associated with trying to reconcile contradictory information.
This explains how we can hang onto a business model or strategy too long, ignoring any “disconfirming data.” The global recording industry, for instance, has shrunk to half its size in twenty years by clinging to old notions about what customers want and how they should be satisfied. (Every business needs to watch out for this, especially now, as I've written about in recent months.)
On a personal level, I ignore disconfirming data all too often, and this week I discovered another instance of it. This is a somewhat trivial example of it, and doesn’t carry any serious consequences (since I don't produce or distribute records), but it may kick up a fun debate.
Being a serious pop music archeologist, I love to check out Ye Auld Record Charts and reminisce about the great singles and albums of bygone eras. Betraying my Boomer upbringing, over the last year I’ve been enjoying the 50th anniversary of the release of some spectacular records.
Whether or not you were alive a half-century ago, if you’re a pop music fan you’d probably agree that the summer of 1966 boasts some of the top albums in rock/pop history: Bob Dylan’s artistic masterpiece, Blonde on Blonde; The Beach Boys’ most creative and influential work, Pet Sounds; and, as I argued in an earlier post, The Beatles’ paradigm-busting tour de force, Revolver. (For what it's worth, most serious pop music critics would agree with this.)
It was a good summer for high-quality singles too, including the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love,” Percy Sedge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, and, in the UK, The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Any pop-music-loving Millennial or Post-Millennial would instantly recognize—and hopefully appreciate—these tracks.
But when I happened upon the Billboard charts for the first week of August, 1966, I had to do a sanity check. As much as I like to think that the big hits of that period were superior to what we have now, I had forgotten how much trash was ALSO on the airwaves then.
Six of the Top 10 songs in that snapshot week were: “Sweet Pea,” “Hanky Panky,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “I’m the Pied Piper,” “They’re Coming to Take Me Away (Ha-Haaa),” and “Wild Thing”—a pretty cringe-worthy bunch. (No wonder the "grown ups" I knew disdained pop music.) The only saving grace in the Top 10 that week were “Summer in the City” (a proto-urban-rap song?) and the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper."
For contrast I listened to the Top 10 (of Billboard's Hot 100) this week and was surprised by "Heathens” and "Ride" by twenty one pilots, “Closer” and "Don't Let Me Down" by the Chainsmokers, “Cold Water” by Major Lazer featuring Justin Bieber and MO, and "Don't Let Me Down" by Drake. There wasn’t a bad track in the bunch. The sonic experience of listening to today’s hits is incomparable to 1966, thanks to state-of-the-art engineering, but the tunes themselves hold up well too.
I should add that I'm not a fan of robo-pop, and the computer beats drive me (a former percussionist) up a wall, but if I ignore that I can enjoy the rest of it. All in all, what I listened to this week was a superior batch to the one week sample from a half century ago. I obviously remembered what I wanted to remember from that halcyon summer long ago (and forgot what I wanted to forget).
My only defense is I heard no current best-selling album that can hold a candle to Revolver—or the lyric genius of Blonde on Blonde. (Twenty one pilots’ Blurryface is worth a serious listen, however.) And I haven’t heard any single on the current charts that has the brilliant songwriting craft and stunningly beautiful arrangements of “Eleanor Rigby” or “God Only Knows.”
If you disagree—and I hope you do—let the debate begin.