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.