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A Song: For What It’s Worth

on September 18, 2012, 1:00am
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This past Thursday, fellow CoS writer Jon Hadusek and I combed through a long beach of mp3s released over the seven days prior, struggling to pick out the ten grains of musical sand that, for one reason or another, found their way to the “Top.” And this Thursday we’ll do it all over again. In a calendar year, we’ll proclaim about 520 individual songs to be the best of their respective timeframe (not to mention yearly best of lists, and Essential Tracks in each and every album review). But what happens to those songs as their reign at the Top fades? How long does a song last, and what affects a song’s life expectancy in the public mind?

I’ve seen countless arguments about how the changes in the way we consume music have shortened both our collective attention span and the quality of songs — that songs released today will never match the (humongous C) Classics because they’re not built to last. These range from the average yahoo in any site’s comment section to esteemed critics like Simon Reynolds, who decried the internet age’s waning ability to focus in last year’s Retromania.

Reynolds’ fear of “an insidious erosion of attention spans” is a reasonable concern (seriously, try talking to a nine year old), but fetishism of the past is a dead end. While attention spans have arguably been weakened by the Twitter and the E-Mail and the Rock’ Em Sock ‘Em Robots, today’s latest innovations happen to benefit both the creator and consumer, ranging from Kickstarter funding to a retweet from Das Racist’s Dapwell.

These fears are nothing to be ashamed of; they’re a recurring social phobia. There’s a reason that there’s a Wikipedia page called Classical music riot, a list of now dusty names that, in their time, were received in the same way that a Baby Boomer in a Led Zep T-shirt scoffs at Skrillex. That’s not to say that Mr. Sonny Moore is the next Erik Satie, but the correlation is there: Every generation of new music has its detractors and its supporters.

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Photo by Ted Maider

Some important evidence would suggest, though, that perhaps songs of the last decade or two don’t have the same lasting shelf life of those of, say, the seventies. Four years into the aughts, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time initially included just three songs from that portion of a decade, and the 2010 update saw that number grow to 26. While this growth was exponential, the total is just slightly larger than an eighth of the number of tracks on the list that were produced in the ’60s.

The curve dives pretty dramatically as it nears the present, suggesting that the songs of each subsequent decade just don’t hold the same lifespan. Songs from 1970 have lasted 40 years in good standing, but a song they might’ve loved from 2009 didn’t even last one when it comes to “Greatness.” Not a single one of those 450 or so songs we’ve gotten to in Top mp3s so far this year made it into our Best Songs list. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the root of this disparity lies in weaker song-writing, generation to generation.

The ratio of songs written for easy pop consumption and those more “serious” songs — in other words, those that tend to crack into all-time rotations — likely doesn’t differ very much decade to decade. The difference in our current era is that the sheer quantity has grown immensely. Let’s take on a hypothetical: The average listener knows 100 songs from 1975. Even the worst song that the theoretical listener knows from ’75 had to get put to tape and approved as something that will be worth spending considerable money on, pushed by labels onto the radio.

Continued on page two…

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Things have changed considerably. Each and every week, I listen to dozens of songs for our Top MP3s posts, review an average of three albums, and tack on some recreational listening — I listen to a lot of songs. There are some that ran in posts I wrote last week that I won’t remember tomorrow, and some that I’m certain will be spinning around in my iPod for years to come, or until we can just pull up mp3s with our brainwaves or whatever. But the fact remains that anybody with a laptop can put a song into my inbox, so the number of songs in each camp listed in the previous paragraph multiplies. Instead of 100 songs on the FM dial, there are 1.000, plus 10,000 on Sirius, 100,000 on Pandora, and 100,000,000 on YouTube.

There are innately negative consequences of the way in which we currently consume music, but there are also innate benefits. My 11-year-old cousin can’t get enough of “Back in Black”, and blares it through his Apple headphones as loudly as he can, as if to prove a point. Because he is 11, he also loves LMFAO, and I’d bet anything that the play count for “Party Rock Anthem” matches AC/DC. Some might argue that this is the precise problem, that “kids today” are inundated with simple pop and aren’t panning for musical gold. But what 11-year-old ever did?

Most 11 year olds in 1979 weren’t digging through crates for the new Sun Ra vinyl. The hardcore music nerds (a term I endearingly use, as a major nerd myself) of every generation do the digging when their time comes, and they do it in whatever way they can, whether it’s asking a record store employee about a DIY punk cassette recorded next to the Toyota Tercel in the garage or skimming through countless MySpace pages. The fact that my cousin can cue up any song on YouTube and have a shot at discovering a life-changing moment is astounding in the same way that endlessly looping through influential artists on Allmusic.com was for me.

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If songs have the same potential lifespan and power in the public mind today as they did 30 years ago, there must be something else going on when it comes to these sorts of lists, and their occasional lack of immediate history. Surely there are more bad songs recorded today, but there are also more songs recorded today. The ratio of long-lasting critical hits to totally forgotten melodies shouldn’t be immensely different, at least not to the point at which many Best Songs lists imply.

Perhaps it’s a fear of future palm-forehead collisions (“We thought what was a best of all time?!”) that keeps one of this year’s 520 Top mp3s off of this list. Or maybe its that overwhelming sense of nostalgia, reverence for those that came before. Or, more likely, it is a result of some combination of those potentials, and a hundred degrees of grey. Regardless, a song that debuted today may well deserve to be put in our Best Songs list; when we get to our amended list on our tenth anniversary, we’ll let you know.

Technically speaking, every song can live on forever, and every individual example varies in orders of magnitude from that eternal potential, independent of the time and manner of consumption. Those shouting about the shorter shelf life of modern songs aren’t doing their due diligence, the work of digging through the greater volume of material in the market. Features like our Top mp3 posts are essentially helping hands, a little “You Are Here” sticker in the barely decipherable mass of the music web.

There’s nothing really new about that, though. Every generation digs for the music that they want and the music that they need, the pop wildfires and the critical darlings, and every generation will always have both. The manner in which we find those songs has changed, and our highly polarizing task is to be that friend that can point out where to find something good, to banter with over a late night cup of coffee, to revel in finding those life-changing moments called “songs”, together.

When I first heard “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” for the first time, I discovered a larger world. My heart was cracked open wider. For my mother, that song was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run”. The songs are different, the times are different, the manners in which we listened are different, but the repercussions are the same: Songs change lives, and we always ought to be searching out those that can.

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