When you wake up on Tuesday, Jan. 20 — the day of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration — should you consult your copy of the Times or Billboard to set expectations for the next four years? It all depends on whether you believe in the monoculture.
The monowhat? Let us explain.
Though the word began as a wonky agricultural term, it has recently crept into music journalism, thanks to Robert Christgau, the self-declared “Dean of American Rock Critics.” So when we speak of the monoculture — and we're talking Beyoncé, not barley — we mean chart dominance and media ubiquity. Music's monoculture is at its strongest and most compelling when the reigning artist manages to both define and transcend the moment, as the Beatles did in 1964 when 73 million viewers tuned in to watch them play “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was an occasion we still think of as symbolizing the beginning of the real '60s. In such instances, a song's success can outline meaning in an otherwise gauzy present.
With a new leader moving into the White House, it seems an ideal time to test the monoculture's strength. We took the last five major (that is, cross-party) presidential transitions, found the Billboard #1 hit the week of the correlating swearing-in, and sussed out clues foretelling the nation's fortunes during that administration.
Richard M. Nixon (R.) becomes the 37th president
# 1 Song: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
What the hit got right: Like the song's protagonist, the Nixon administration is marked by agonizing paranoia. This eventually leads to its downfall in the Watergate scandal and Nixon's portrayal as a grifter with a prosthetic nose in countless movies and memoirs.
Jimmy Carter (D.) becomes the 39th president
# 1 Song: “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” by Leo Sayer
What the hit got right: Though Sayer's strength always rested more within the realm of man perms than foreign policy, his lyrics “Just snap your fingers and I'm walking/Like a dog hanging on your lead” presciently sum up the United States' bargaining position during the Iran hostage crisis.
Ronald Reagan (R.) becomes the 40th president
#1 Song: “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon
What the hit got right: After two decades of growing political disenchantment, this song's title and throwback '50s-era Sun Studios arrangement indicates a return to core American values. Even the president wore a Little Richard–style pompadour.
Bill Clinton (D.) becomes the 42nd president
#1 Song: “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston
What the hit got right: Like this arid ballad — and because of the bogus investigative war Republicans waged on the First Family — the Clinton years would last forever. Or, at least, until someone in the family finally lost an election.
George W. Bush (R.) becomes the 43rd president
#1 Song: “Independent Women Part 1” by Destiny's Child
What the hit got right: Throughout its run, the Bush administration was eager to declare its independence from the way Washington — with its fancy exit strategies and practical tax plans — usually did business. And, from this great recession to these wars we're in, the president's efforts were not in vain. For an amazing eight-year run, Bush managed to emancipate us from good sense and reason.
Barack Obama (D.) becomes the 44th president
#1 song (at press time): “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by Beyoncé
What this song means for the future: After nearly a decade of being mired in the muck of adolescent codependency, Americans are moving on to a consensual relationship with a real adult. We're glowing already.