What We Will Remember

(Pictured: Pink Floyd, 1972.)

Earlier this year, Stephen Thompson of NPR Music tried answering the question, “Will we remember today’s pop stars in 50 years?” You should read the piece for yourself, although I can give you the short version: what we remember is what we keep hearing year after year after year, and so it’s guaranteed that some songs that have hit over the last couple of years will still be of interest to listeners in 2065.

Thompson says, “If you want a sense of whose music people remember, look no further than the artists who never actually have to go away.” He notes that Taylor Swift has been around for nearly a decade already, and Beyoncé scored her first hits at the end of the previous millennium. The pertinent list is far longer than that, of course: the first Four Seasons hit was in 1962, but Frankie Valli is still on the road. The Rolling Stones remain a going concern after 51 years. James Taylor and the Eagles are still filling halls and selling albums more than 40 years on. Just recently, Dave Davies of the Kinks talked about a possible reunion, more than half a century since “You Really Got Me.” The long afterlives of Pink Floyd and the Doors show no sign of waning, either.

One issue Thompson didn’t address is the change in the way we experience popular music now. In any given city, people aren’t getting all of their music from a small handful of mass-appeal radio stations anymore. Now they can choose from a contemporary hits station (CHR), rhythmic CHR, hip-hop, soft adult contemporary, rhythmic adult contemporary, modern rock, active rock, classic rock, plus Pandora, Spotify, Beats 1, YouTube, and other sources teenagers know and adults don’t. And so a particular song can become a big hit with a particular segment of the audience without making an impact elsewhere. My sense of the 70s and 80s is that the smaller number of outlets made the experience of a big hit song far more communal than it is today. Today, only a handful of songs break through into anything like truly mass consciousness (“Happy,” “Uptown Funk,” “Call Me Maybe”), where even people who don’t listen to much contemporary music can’t help but hear them.

A handful of individual works seem to have a chance to stick around (comparatively) forever. Every generation discovers “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and it will be a long time before Dark Side of the Moon fades into obscurity. I don’t know which individual hits by Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, or some staggeringly popular one-off might be equally long-lived. (“Happy”? “Uptown Funk”? “Call Me Maybe”?) Recent massive one-off smashes like “Somebody That I Used to Know” and this summer’s hit “Cheerleader” don’t seem to fit the bill, but who would have guessed in 1976 that “Bohemian Rhapsody” would endure for so long?

(Perhaps it’s just that I want you darn kids to get off my lawn, but to me, “Cheerleader” is the most over-praised record since . . . “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Both sound like they were written in about 10 minutes and recorded in 10 more; “Somebody That I Used to Know” doesn’t even sound like it’s finished. That audiences should go nuts over such flimsy stuff is nothing new. The odd thing is not that we sell our attention to the highest bidder, but that we sell it so cheaply.)

All of this is just my opinion. I could be wrong. What do you think makes music endure? Which artists and songs popular in the last 50 years are still going to matter 50 years from now? Which stars and songs of the last decade or so?

2 responses

  1. WOW! This is a tough question. I think two obvious examples are The Beatles & The Beach Boys two groups not even mentioned in this article. Another is Billy Joel. I know he generates as much hate as he does love but “Piano Man” never seems to go away. Neither does “Just The Way You Are.” One hit wonder, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky” is still a familiar radio song almost 50 years on.

  2. […] Key Changes, topic also easy to discern. Oddly, practically nobody chose to comment on a post about which songs and stars of the last 50 years are still going to be popular 50 years from now. One of the best comments that any post ever got came in response to The Board Operator, a radio […]

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