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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Friday, October 26, 2018

The New American Song Book and the Pop Music Canon

Slate ran a fun piece last week looking at what they termed “The New American Songbook”, or the pop hits (some from non-American acts, despite the name) of the last 25 years that will be listened to long into the future. The full balloting can be found here, while this piece covers the top thirty songs (which basically wound up being anything that got more than one vote from their 19 panelists).

I wanted to weigh in on it because, let’s face it, this is right up my alley. A panel of experts weighing in on the best, most memorable entries in one of my hobbies from the past twenty-five years? I basically write a dozen articles each year on the baseball version of that.

I wanted to write a few thoughts on the balloting and maybe provide my own nominations.


1. The list is generally pretty solid.
Nothing there seems totally out of place. I don’t know if it’s necessarily in the order from “most likely” to “least likely” (just for starters, “Let It Go” is probably too low at 30, given that it has a recent popular movie for young children and the full force of Disney behind it), and there are certainly songs that I thought deserved more votes (I’m still a little shocked “Mr. Brightside” was only named three times and landed at the middle of the list). There are things missing, but any list of just twenty-five songs is going to be missing a lot. Also, “Hey Ya” seems like a strong number one, so it’s hard to quibble too much with the system.


2. Twenty-five years was probably too long of a window to use.

Some of these picks feel kind of obvious. Like, “All I Want for Christmas” has been a holiday staple since before I was in school. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” was recorded back in the ‘80s. Predicting them to make it twenty or thirty more years when they’re already working towards their third full decade of heavy airplay right now feels more like an observation than a prediction.

The average song from the top thirty was released on July 1, 2002 (almost literally-the average release year came out to 2002.5). The average overall song was a little better, but it still came out to the first half of 2004. Some voters leaned especially heavily on fairly established titles, with a couple ballots average release year being something in the 1990s.

Limiting the choices to things from the last fifteen or so years (or even just since 2000) would have probably been a little more fun, even if it would have wound up with more misses.


3. The one-vote songs are an interesting bunch.
There’s not really a specific theme to any of it, it’s just fun to sift through. Some are clearly personal favorites that are more wish-casting on the part of the voter who picked them (although a decent number of them note that as well).

Other ones are songs that I’m surprised didn’t pick up more votes. For instance, “Good Riddance” by Green Day strikes me as something that’s already in the “pop music canon”, as it’s already pretty strongly tied to graduation. “Happy” by Pharrell seems like it’s from the same cloth as “Uptown Funk”, and I wonder if voters felt they could vote for both. “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley is the indie hit that feels like it borrows from a bunch of genres, and feels established as pretty timeless already.

Artists with multiple entries feel interesting in their own way. Some of them feel like the voters knowing certain artists will be remembered but not totally agreeing on which one will become their “signature song”. One the other hand, some artists will definitely have multiple songs played for a long time, but setting aside one fifth of your ballot to just one artist does feel a little boring, so I can’t blame voters too much for either consolidating around an early favorite or for throwing a vote to the one they may like better and think will still be getting played (I even agree with some of them, like “All of the Lights” and “Love on Top”).

Also, just looking over the list makes me realize how many different ways there are to count a song as “remembered”, for the purposes of this exercise. There’s clearly a place for things like novelty hits in the general consciousness, and given the massive success of things like “Macarena” or “Cupid Shuffle” or “Gangnam Style”, I see no way they aren’t played in some capacity for decades. Picking Disney songs almost feels like cheating, which makes it a little strange that “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “A Whole New World” only got one vote each. Musical theater, like “My Shot” from Hamilton, feels similar, like it should be on an entirely different scale (how do even compare the popularity of, say, “Phantom of the Opera” and “Kiss” by Prince, both from 1986?), but still a fair and accurate pick here.

Other songs will clearly be remembered at the forefront of their own niches (stuff like, say, “Loser” by Beck and ‘90s alternative, or “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance and punk/emo music, for a few of my guesses), but I also don’t see them getting the same level of play that some songs do. If people still remember it, does that distinction matter at all, being the “deep cuts” of the pop canon rather than the stuff that shows up everywhere?


4. My special ballot
I thought it could be fun to cast my own hypothetical ballot, but I feel like there’d be a lot of overlap with stuff on the list, and that seemed a little less fun. But there are a lot of songs that I think will stay around that didn’t even get one vote, so I thought it might be fun to make a ballot of just those; the “biggest snubs”, if you want to think about it that way. Given those criteria, my ten-song ballot (plus one personal choice) would probably include: 


“Royals”-Lorde
I was kind of shocked none of the voters picked this one, given not just how big it was, but how the music industry almost reformed around it. Pop music suddenly got a lot darker and slower in the wake of this and “Team” sitting on the charts for months, and a slew of young female singers with a lyrical emphasis cropped up in her wake (who I’ve heard some playful refer to as “Lorde-alikes”). That kind of impact is usually a good sign something will be remembered. 


“The Middle”-Jimmy Eat World
This one has become something of an alternative standard in the seventeen years since its release, and works as a pretty decent stand-in for the pop-punk of the early-to-mid-2000s. It helps that it’s catchy, radio/mass-audience-friendly, straight-to-the-point, and instantly relatable.


“All Star”-Smash Mouth
This song has moved from inescapable pop song to somehow-even-more-inescapable internet meme over the last twenty years, and all of those plays have gotten it lodged in the brains of millions and millions of people. I added this one late, because I was surprised none of the voters even mentioned it.


“You Belong With Me”-Taylor Swift
A couple of the voters mentioned certain artists they nominated being big enough that they needed to be represented for some song, but none of them extended that logic to arguably the biggest pop star on the planet right now. Part of the problem is that it’s not entirely clear what song you’d vote for (“Shake It Off” and a number of others could probably also work), but once a pop star gets to a certain size, it’s more than likely at least some of their songs last.


“Viva La Vida”-Coldplay
Coldplay is sort of in the same place of being a huge artist that’s just been getting hits years now (they hit #3 on the charts last year, seventeen years after “Yellow”), but not picking up any votes. There are also a few options, between “Clocks” and its ubiquitous piano riff, a number of slow songs that could serve as classic slow dance songs (something that a number of voters brought up), and “Viva La Vida”. I’ll go with the latter, thanks to it being their biggest hit and sweeping chorus that makes it a fit for a number of instances.


“Shut Up and Dance”-Walk the Moon
“Closer”-The Chainsmokers and Halsey


These are both in the same category: massive hits that were played everywhere, still getting played fairly regular a few years later, simple enough to stick in people’s mind, appeal to wide audiences, very easy to sing along to, catchy, especially evocative of the feelings they’re conveying, and sort of the “faces” for larger genres of the 2010s (indie pop and EDM-pop, if you had to apply terms to them). It helps that they’re both very well done songs, too.


“Kernkraft 400”-Zombie Nation
A few of the reviewers mentioned songs being played at sporting events as contributing factors to a song’s longevity, which is good insight and what led me to this one. The best thing is that we don’t have to wonder whether the artist or title will last in memory! No one knows offhand the German DJ and one hit wonder who made this one, and no one ever knows the lyrics, but eventually everyone hears and recognizes “The OOOOO song”. The fact that it’s overcome both of those usually-fatal factors is a pretty good clue it will keep getting plays no matter what happens.


“Dreams”-The Cranberries
This one is a rougher guess, but I wanted a few more unconventional picks. This one was a staple of alternative rock even before lead singer Dolores O’Riordan’s untimely death earlier this year, but I’ve noticed it getting played a lot more since then. It’s a sweet love song led with a beautiful vocal performance and catchy hooks. And on top of that, it seems like it’s influenced quite a indie pop musicians; there are cover versions by Passion Pit, Bleachers, MisterWives, RAC, Imagine Dragons and K. Flay, and even more. That many artists wanting to share their love of a song is a good sign that future generations will hear it.


“Turn Down for What”-DJ Snake and Lil Jon
This is another one that I think captures its moment in the pop music landscape too well. Like some of the other ones I’ve mentioned, it helps that it’s simple. And it’s also a little bizarre, as far as mass-appeal pop music goes, which helps it stand out.


“Run Away With Me”-Carley Rae Jepsen
This is my personal choice. I think it’s just a perfectly made pop song, and it deserved to get bigger than it did. Hopefully it takes off as a cult classic, but I am under no illusions that it’ll surpass “Call Me Maybe” in cultural memory.





It’s a good thing there aren’t hard caps on this like there are for Hall of Fame balloting, because I could easily think of another half or dozen or so that I could make a strong case for.

1 comment:

  1. I love posts like this that attempt to rank popular music from all genres, since nearly all of the mainstream sources are heavily biased toward pop/hip-hop. Every time I hear "Seven Nation Army" I'm reminded that the idiots at Bill Simmons' old site Grantland (Rembert Browne chief among them) didn't even consider it to be the best White Stripes song when they did a songs of the millennium tournament.

    I like your list a lot more than Slate's, though I don't have much of an argument with their top ten. I'm not familiar with the Liz Phair song they picked; I would have gone with "Why Can't I?" And I had no bloody clue what "Wagon Wheel" was.. Green Day's "Good Riddance" has to be on any list of recent standards that will stand the test of time. I'd argue for "The Middle", "All-Star", "Turn Down For What", Taylor Swift, and perhaps even U2 ("Beautiful Day" or "One" if it's eligible) but "Good Riddance" is a must.

    Also, props to you for putting My Chemical Romance in the conversation. I'm biased but I'd definitely give them and a lot of others ("Closing Time"?) an honorable mention.

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