Who’ll Be There?

We’ve discussed here before how the Great American Songbook is fading in importance. Standards like “Stardust” and “My Funny Valentine,” which were once known to everybody through their exposure in movies and musicals and as part of any self-respecting band’s book, are becoming as irrelevant to modern listeners as ragtime and coon songs. What’s replacing those standards are the pop oldies you’ll hear at any wedding reception: “Fun Fun Fun,” “Mony Mony,” and “Old Time Rock and Roll,” songs everybody knows regardless of their age or social class. And that leads to a logical question: What songs and artists from our time will endure into the distant future, 50 or 100 or 200 years from now?

I believe James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” will still be popular 100 years from now, partly because we’ll always be able to identify with one man and a guitar, and partly because we’ll always crave simple friendship with other human beings—perhaps even more in the coming technological age than we do now. Some people would argue that the entire Beatles catalog will go the distance, but I have reservations. I think those wedding-reception standards like “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout” will continue to be known by everyone, rather like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is known by everyone, and at least some of the White Album, too. But I suspect that Beatles albums as single coherent works of art will be thought of in terms similar to Beethoven’s other eight symphonies—known to exist, but unlistened-to by the masses of the year 2110.

What of the other superstar artists of our time? I’d argue that Elvis Presley, big as he was, is not particularly relevant to contemporary listeners anymore, not even as part of the wedding-reception canon. Music historians of the future are likely to listen to his early recordings on Sun, given their influence on the course of history, but I suspect that the remainder of his vast catalog will go largely unheard. What about Presley’s erstwhile son-in-law, Michael Jackson? I’ll climb out onto a limb I’ve climbed onto before, to suggest that yes, 50 or 100 years from now, people will still be listening to Michael Jackson—but to only two of his records, “Billie Jean” and “I’ll Be There.”

(Digression: Yeah, I do think Thriller will eventually fade in importance. It’s not the sort of album that’s ripe for rediscovery by every new generation, like Dark Side of the Moon. The generation of young people in college today, at their peak years of musical discovery, know Michael Jackson only as a tabloid sensation, which doesn’t help. The title track will enjoy an annual resurrection every Halloween until the end of time, but even its powerful groove is getting a little musty now, and the Vincent Price “rap” at the end sounds dumber to me every year. The “Thriller” video will be more important historically, as one of the first long-form music videos, but the song will end up a novelty on the order of “Monster Mash.” And in a few years, nobody will play the album anymore.)

“Billie Jean” is the mightiest groove Michael Jackson ever hit, and it’s possible to hear everything he did afterward, even the five Number-One singles on Bad, as attempts to find something equally powerful and hypnotic. As for “I’ll Be There,” written by Berry Gordy, Bob West, Willie Hutch, and Hal Davis and produced by Davis, Michael and his brothers do not promise to Be There to satisfy your physical needs (and theirs), to create a viable economic unit with which to navigate capitalist society, not even to get you through your post-modern existential loneliness. No, in “I’ll Be There,” all they’re promising is adoration, pure and virginal, almost religious.

Forty years ago this week, “I’ll Be There” topped Billboard‘s soul chart and stood at Number Two on the Hot 100, and was one week away from taking the top spot and holding it for five weeks. The version below is from an album called Pure Michael: Motown a Cappella, which features both J5 and Michael solo tunes with the backing tracks stripped off. When you hear this version of “I’ll Be There,” the purity of Michael’s emotion and the power of his performance will blow your mind.

I also invite your suggestions for songs, albums, and artists that will remain relevant in the distant future. I’m not going to post much here this week, so it’s up to you to keep the lights on.

“I’ll Be There” (a cappella)/Jackson Five (buy it here)

9 responses

  1. There are two compositions from the ’70s that sound like long-term potential standards to me: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Just the Way You Are”. Whether they thrive in the wedding-reception continuum remains to be seen, but they both possess an evergreen element I can’t quite put my finger on. I expect to see them on the autumn-years cover project by whomever Generation Y’s Rod Stewart turns out to be.

    Dark Side of the Moon could be released for the first time next week and still turn the popular music world on its ear. I couldn’t say that about any album I would personally rank higher. Every weekend some 14-year-old kid is introduced to DSotM via an older friend or relative and gets his mind blown. Thriller never had quite the same impact, and the headlines that overshadowed Michael’s craft in the last two decades of his life only soften its edges further. DSotM could easily take sales-champ honors someday if file-sharing and CD-burning don’t hamper the path to the top too severely.

    In closing, I’d argue that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (particularly “Ode to Joy”) also belongs on that familiar-across-the-board shortlist.

  2. WestBerkeleyFlats | Reply

    I think that “Beat It’ is at least as strong of a song as “Billie Jean” as has Michael Jackson’s best video. Oh, and an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. MJ certainly tried to follow “Billie Jean” with “Dirty Diana,” but he tried to follow “Beat It” with the title track and first single and video from “Bad.”

  3. I think that the Great American Songbook could continue to be relevant to new generations if it is championed in the future by someone reasonably hip — like, say, if the next generation’s Michael Jackson decides to take a stylistic side trip and record a collection of these songs.
    The beauty of, say, “Moon River” as performed by a voice and piano, or a voice and small jazz group, isn’t going to spontaneously disappear.
    And the songs are musically interesting and well-constructed enough that they should continue to draw interest from singers and musicians.
    Sophisticated musicians want something sophisticated to play, after all.

    It’s kinda like how we’re never gonna see an instrumental theme song from a TV show become a Number One hit again … until one does.

  4. WestBerkeleyFlats | Reply

    Didn’t Rod Stewart kind of do that? Except that I guess that he was no generation’s Michael Jackson.

    1. Well, yeah … JB has acknowledged in previous posts that Rod and numerous other artists have wrung out the Great American Songbook for their own, sometimes quite successful, purposes.
      (I recall reading the other day that Rod is about to release his fifth volume of GAS tunes. Will he be done soon?)

      My point, such as it is, is that an artist more relevant to 20- and 30-somethings might someday say, “This is a cool bunch of songs. I’m gonna try my hand at them.”
      (It might also help if said artist is just coming off an 18-month tour, owes an album to his label and has no ideas for new songs.)

  5. WestBerkeleyFlats | Reply

    I don’t know – I remember when U2, David Byrne, Sinead O’Connor did the “Red Hot + Blue” tribute album of Cole Porter songs. It was no “A Very Special Christmas.”

  6. as long as teens can find marijuana “Dark Side of the Moon” will not disappear. Which is to say it will not disappear.

    As much as it pains me I think you’re right about Elvis. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” will probably endure at weddings. Not to beat a point to death but part of the reason his music doesn’t endure is that (in spite of all drugs he took while making it) drug use doesn’t enhance it.

    1. Great observations, Porky: I forgot about “Can’t Help Falling in Love” as part of the wedding canon. Very cogent point about Elvis music not being enhanced by drug use–the vast majority of stuff that *does* endure is enhanced that way: DSOTM, the Doors, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” late-period Beatles.

  7. Thank you for bring this up. I often wonder about what will last from the 60’s/70s. Though I owe my life to the Beatles (I’d have never become a musician without them) I have to admit that recently I’m having little doubts about them going the full distance.

    What I’m more and more convinced of are the following: Hendrix’s first two albums. Joni Mitchell’s Blue. A couple of handfuls of Dylan songs, including “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, “Visions of Johanna”, “Desolation Row”, “Mr. Tambourine Man”.
    Oh, and just about Burt Bacharach wrote in in 60s.

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