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Rise, Crossover

Learning from the jazz pop instrumental

Ian Bogost, Blogger

October 27, 2009

3 Min Read

I seem to wind up in the car for at least part of the early afternoon every Saturday. As a result, I've developed a habit of listening to the reruns of America's Top 40 with Casey Kasem that play on satellite radio channel 70s on 7.

This week's chart was from thirty years ago exactly, October 29, 1979. The number one song pushed the previous week's top hit, Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough," down to #2.

Was it a cut from Earth, Wind, and Fire? Styx? Rupert Holmes? M? Paul McCartney? Gloria Gaynor? No. It was Herb Alpert's jazz pop instrumental "Rise". Sound unfamiliar? I guarantee you've heard it, even if only via Notorious B.I.G.'s sample in "Hypnotize".

There are other interesting things to say about Alpert. He is the "A" in A&M Records, and had been serving as the company's president at the time that he went back to the studio to record the Rise single. And he anticipated MTV and the music video with "video interpretations" of his songs, a practice he'd begun with the Tijuana Brass in the 1960s, and exemplified by the video above. He also does abstract impressionist painting and has supported artists like The Yes Men via his foundation.

Even if you can't stand music like this, you have to be impressed with its once mainstream success. And "Rise" wasn't alone; jazz pop instrumentals were incredibly popular in the 1970s, relatively speaking. Another example is Chuck Mangione's 1978 hit "Feels So Good", which managed to hit #4 on the Billboard chart in its shortened three-minute rendition (the original runs for an abusive 9:42).

Instrumentals in general had a better shot at the Top 40 in the 70s. Giorgio Moroder's "Chase", Spyro Gyra's "Morning Dance", and Frank Mills's "Music Box Dancer" all made the chart in 1979, the latter rising to #3. Anyone older than 30 has certainly heard these songs on the radio, even if they might not recognize the titles.

Some, like "Chase" were themes from popular films and television—Rhythm Heritage's "Theme from S.W.A.T." hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1976. Indeed, "Rise" got an added commercial boost from its appearance in a key episode of General Hospital. Many, like "Morning Dance," were early entries into the variant of easy listening that would become the "soft jazz" of the 1980s. Others, like Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells", evolved from the prog rock instrumental.

When we talk about "crossover hits" in music today, we usually mean country stars gone pop, like LeAnn Rimes or more recently Taylor Swift. In most cases, crossover hits dampen their "fringe" style in favor of something more mainstream. For example, LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live," is much more pop ballad than country tune, a feature that surely helped it spend 69 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. By contrast, one can't really accuse Alpert or Mangione of compromising the trumpet and flugelhorn in the service of crass populism.

All of this leads up to a more timely question: is there anything crossover jazz pop instrumentals can teach us about videogame design and distribution? Sure, the games business doesn't work like the music business, but it isn't entirely unlike it either. In the 1970s, some confluence of cultural dynamics made weird mellow trumpet music as appealing as disco and prog rock. But I ask this question because games seem so isolated in terms of their successes. Unusual games like Braid and Flower are enjoying financial success more frequently, but they are never runaway hits, "number ones" if you will—that distinction is left to so-called AAA titles with massive marketing budgets. How do strange and unfamiliar genres burst into real mainstream success? How does one sow the seeds for such reception? Is mainstream exposure like "Rise"'s General Hospital appearance required (something one can't say of Chuck Mangione and Spyro Gyra)? Would such a thing even be possible for games? Is crossover itself possible in the age of the Internet niche?

(cross-posted from bogost.com

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