Top 40 Music: The Difference Between Yesterday and Today

Art by Greta Hahn

The other day, I was driving down I-95, listening to the same Z100 pop station I’ve listened to my whole middle and high school career. It’s a NYC-based station, so now that I live in New Paltz, I only listen to it on my drives down to New Jersey. This, and my general aging out of the Top 40 target audience, have caused me to kind of lose touch with what’s going on in the world of Top 40. But anyways, this one drive, Z100 was playing all the bangers! I was car-dancing along, singing the lyrics, loving the bass-heavy pop playlist they had going that day. Then, in the middle of my good time, the host gets on the air and goes, “Well I hope everyone is enjoying our throwbacks weekend!” It was a very upsetting moment of reflection on the passing of time.

Which got me thinking: what is the music that teenagers today are being reared on and how does that compare to the music that raised us? Some of the same artists we all excitedly kept up with in the 2010s or earlier are very much still pumping out top hits today, a decade later. But are kids as excited about Taylor Swift and Beyonce’s new album, or is it the excitement of us, their old stans from the beginning, pushing those songs to fame? 

For one thing, kids today are fed musical media through different outlets than we were. I remember tuning my portable radio to trusty Z100 and listening under the covers at night so that my parents wouldn’t hear the noise and tell me to shut it off. I remember e-mailing my friends YouTube music videos when they came out. But I think that today’s teens are spreading their viral favorites via TikTok and that sort of thing. I think the Internet has become the breeding grounds for new music, rather than just being fed whatever is coming out of the pop industry from California, the way that we more or less were. I do think that’s kind of cool. 

Another thing that’s strikingly different about the pop music industry now versus even ten years ago is the die-out of replacement and turnover culture. I remember a pop artist being relevant for one singular generation — the 80s, the 90s — and the teenagers from that time love that artist and remain fans for life — but once a new generation hits the radio audience, the industry would find some new stars to put on air. But today’s teens value revivalism culture a lot more than we did. Today’s teens are happy to mimic past generations with clothes, style, slang and art. They respect what came before and are excited by it in a way that my friends and I weren’t in high school. We wanted to be cutting edge with our skinny-skinny jeans. It was embarrassing to look from a past generation, or to listen to last decade’s artists. But if you look at today’s Top 40, you’ll find new music from artists we’ve all been following for decades. P!nk, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Sia, Harry Styles, Avril Levigne and Lady Gaga are topping the chart. 

There are plenty of new artists too, don’t get me wrong — but today’s teens aren’t throwing out yesterday’s superstars the way that we did.