Every so often, in the pages of Billboard or at some record-industry convention, talk turns to the death of Top 40 radio. (Of course, that comes only after everyone has finished dissecting Michael Jackson's out-of-court settlement, the recent congressional hearings on gangsta rap, and the unnecessary onslaught of tribute albums.) What they're talking about has nothing to do with bad songs, but rather the role of Top 40 itself. Stations that play across-the-board hits, from Billy Joel to Toni Braxton, are being trounced in the ratings by those that specialize in anything from lite FM to news/talk. At a time when a format seems to exist for every specific genre of music, the very idea of an old-fangled, across-the-board pop station doesn't seem to appeal to anyone anymore, least of all advertisers.
Granted, Top 40 has often been unlistenable, a bastion of hackwork and sound-alike jingles. But like that annual James Taylor tour or the occasional James Bond flick, it was nice to know it was there. If you wanted to know who the current king (or queen) of pop was, or what an overnight, left-field smash like ''Whoomp! (There It Is)'' sounded like, or whether anyone wanted to hear guitars anymore, or what the prevailing social mores were (would stations allow Janet Jackson's description of oral sex in ''If''?), Top 40 was there to serve you. It was as much a barometer of trends and popular consensus as David Letterman's nightly Top Ten list.
Judging from a random sampling of pop stations in New York and Los Angeles, even that function appears to be in jeopardy. The format, and much of radio itself, has become disturbingly segregated. In either city, it was impossible to find a station that would play Counting Crows and R. Kelly, Salt 'N' Pepa, and Meat Loaf's second comeback hit. A typically glaring example is New York's Z100, which as recently as last summer spun singles by everyone from Jackson and Robin S. to cranky guitar rock from Porno for Pyros and Pearl Jam. These days, it mainly serves up the interchangeable guitar-band likes of Gin Blossoms and Blind Melon (which ties in with the current demand for alternative rock). The little pop that is heard is disarmingly middle of the road and more or less Caucasian Mariah Carey and Ace of Base. It's as if anything made by a nonwhite musician is relegated to the back of the DJs' bus.
Before we get too dewy-eyed about the glaring omissions in Top 40, let's qualify any sentiment by saying that black or white, dance or rock there isn't much worth hearing at the moment anyway. This winter's hits are the dreariest lineup since an average night on The Chevy Chase Show. Gloppy ballads are staples at pop stations, but even by those standards, Celine Dion's ''The Power of Love'' and Richard Marx's ''Now and Forever'' make saccharine seem sour. R. Kelly's new-jack ballad ''Bump N' Grind'' is a standard smoothy come-on, its only minor salvation being a voice that sounds at moments like latter-day Stevie Wonder. Ace of Base's ''The Sign,'' last week's No. 1 song, is ABBA gone reggae, harmless but destined for a future K-Tel collection. The worst offender may be ''All for Love,'' the Three Musketeers theme by Sting, Rod Stewart, and Bryan Adams the sound of three wealthy, fading-blond rock stars going to the bank and cashing three sizable checks. Actually, a recording of that transaction might be more fun than this on-air balloon.
As always, there are a few bouncing pearls among the swine. If you're lucky, you may stumble across US 3's ''Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),'' a nifty slice of hip-hop jazz that turns a Herbie Hancock piano sample into a hook. Domino's ''Getto Jam'' grows on me every time I hear it; what at first sounded like a lackluster take on the Dr. Dre slow-motion school of gangsta funk, minus the cold lyrics, grows more evocative with each listen. The Breeders' ''Cannonball,'' released last year but just now gaining steam, is such a loopy mix of record-making smarts and alternative noise that it's almost a miracle.
On a particular station or two, you might also stumble across the minor pleasures of Snoop Doggy Dogg's ''Gin and Juice'' (stupid lyrics, but that ''with my mind on my money/and my money on my mind'' growl never fails to pull me in), Beck's white-rap ''Loser,'' Bruce Springsteen's mesmerizing ''Streets of Philadelphia,'' and girl-group duo Zhane's ''Groove Thang,'' which percolates as seductively as their first hit, ''Hey Mr. D.J.'' Which one station can you tune in to to hear them all? A good question which could well be the real death of Top 40 as we know it.