1969 is a year so momentous in United States history it has been mythologized. Richard Nixon becomes president among wide spread civil unrest and a disheartening war in Vietnam. In one summer, America's post-war hegemony in science and technology is confirmed with the moon landing, at the same time as the counterculture celebrates the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. You have read the histories, so I don't have to go into too much detail on what an important year this was. And in music it is famous for producing songs that would be memorialized as genre defining. If asked what the most popular song that year was, people might remember soul classics Heard it Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye or Everyday People by Sly & The Family Stone or Someday We'll Be Together by Diana Ross & The Supremes. They might remember The Rolling Stones hard rocking Honky Tonk Woman. Folk Group Peter Paul & Mary released their final single, the wistful classic Leaving on a Jet Plane. Elvis Presley had his final number one single, Suspicious Minds. And The Beatles had two number one hits, Come Together and Get Back. Anyone of those songs is something that could define an entire era, and indeed, its a little bit hard for me to imagine what it would be like to not have those songs.
But the number one song of 1969, as defined by radio airplay and sales? Sugar, Sugar, by The Archies. The Archies were the band from the television show The Archies, based on Archie comic books. Archie, Reggie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead were all in a band. Not being real people, this necessitated the creation of a group of studio musicians to play their songs for them, with the voices of all the Archies (including, most of the time, Betty and Veronica) being performed by veteran singer Ron Dante. The song was written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, both veteran song writers, with Jeff Barry having written many early 60s girl group hits for The Ronnettes and The Crystals. Appropriately enough for a song called "Sugar, Sugar", this was pop at its most refined. The song is a basic verse chorus verse song about adolescent infatuation, with a bouncy sound, uptempo melody and simple instrumentation. I don't know enough about music to make any technical comments on its structure, and if I did, I probably couldn't say much any more than that this is a perfectly manufactured pop song.
Two things of are interest to me about this song: first, as mentioned, is the fact that in a pivotal year of music, and also a year of conflict and cultural change, the most popular song was not one of the classics, but rather a bubble gum pop song that was about as inoffensive and harmless as possible. People's memories often edit things like this out.
The second interesting question is about authenticity and how it shapes our perception of things. A year after its release by The Archies, "Sugar, Sugar" was covered by Wilson Pickett, a musician of unquestioned authenticity. If two people were to listen to the two versions of the song, with different stories of its origin, what would be the result? Imagine one person listens to it knowing its true origin story as a bubble gum pop song, and dismisses it for that reason. Another listens to it by Wilson Pickett, believing that it is a heartfelt ode to his childhood sweetheart, written while performing on the R&B club circuit, and feels it is personally and culturally authentic. Would the second listeners views be incorrect? Can an authentic experience come from something that is so thoroughly manufactured?