The “Top 40 Democracy” of Popular Music

"Top 40 Democracy" book cover
Top 40 Democracy: The Rivals of Mainstream American Music, written by Dr. Eric Weisbard, looks at the evolution of the American popular music landscape from the 1960s through today.

From the January 2015 Desktop News | A former music critic, Dr. Eric Weisbard has always been interested in connecting the dots of popular culture. When critics began talking about “rockism,” the idea of rock as a biased way of valuing some music and not others, and “poptimism,” the idea that commercial music of all kinds should be celebrated for its diversity, he thought both ideas were too simplistic, so he wrote a book about it, using a historical approach to advance the debate.

Weisbard, an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies, has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications in recent months for his new book Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music. The book looks at the evolution of the pop landscape, along the way telling the stories of the Isley Brothers, Dolly Parton and Elton John, among others. He will discuss the book on Feb. 3 at 5 p.m. in room 205 of Gorgas Library.

“The basic premise of the book is that American popular music, inspired by radio’s need to create music for a range of different local audiences, developed a unique approach to commercial culture by the late 1960s, one that has continued to this day,” Weisbard said. “American pop, much like the stations you choose between when you scan the dial, created a system of rival mainstreams: Top 40 hits, but also adult contemporary, country, rhythm and blues, and rock. That meant that the center of music wasn’t one thing; it was an ever-changing range of mainstream approaches. My book follows the implications of that using case studies connected to different formats.”

Weisbard received a bachelor’s degree in history from Princeton University and master’s and doctoral degrees in history from the University of California, Berkley. He joined the University of Alabama faculty in 2009. His past positions include senior editor and senior contributing writer at Spin magazine; music editor and contributor at Village Voice; and senior program manager and curator of Experience Music Project in Seattle. He currently serves as an associate editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies.

Top 40 Democracy was published by The University of Chicago Press. For more information or to read an excerpt, visit