The Popular Music Canon

A New Karaoke Bar Brings Drunken Singing and Snacks to Fort Worth” –

You’re out to dinner and “Brown Eyed Girl” comes on…

The person with turns to you and remarks, “Woah, neat song! Who is it by?”

Eyes wide with horror, you scream, “To the mothership with thee, alien imposter!” flipping your chair as you leap up from the table.

Ok, maybe your reaction isn’t that dramatic, and maybe you don’t revert to Old English when frightened, but there’s a certain class of songs that seem to be able induce something like this response in this kind of scenario.

American Pie, Don’t Stop Believin’, Here Comes the Sun.

These are songs that it would be impossible to attend a wedding, bar/bat mitzvah, or corporate team-building event without hearing. They’re the songs that cause me to make a face like I just put my foot in a shoe full of urine when someone asks me to play them on the guitar.

Hallelujah, Hotel California, Mamma Mia

This isn’t about nailing down the “Greatest Songs of All Time,” but rather assembling something like a basic set of criteria for participating in society, musically speaking. I should clarify that my conception of ‘society’ is highly normalized towards a white, middle and upper class experience. So maybe this deserves a follow-up post about whiteness and control of the Mainstream, and who gets to decide on the relevant parameters for participation.

There’s plenty of interesting stuff there that I don’t have the space to talk about today. Rather I want to identify three questions and say some handy-wavy things about the first.

The first question is whether there is such a category of music. Can we establish necessary and sufficient conditions for a song’s placement in this category? Or, alternatively, is a highly subjective, intuitive, je nes sais quoi kind of thing?

The second question is which songs go in the category. (For me, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is something of an edge case. I don’t think it would induce the ‘mothership’ reaction in me, for instance). While this is a fun dinner-table activity, I don’t think it will be that interesting for me to carry it out here.

The third question is how to articulate the impact of such songs on society or culture or some notion of a “shared experience,” whatever that may be. A dissertation could probably be spent answering this question. At the very least, it deserves its own blog post.

Here goes the hand-waving.

It doesn’t seem like there’s any obvious necessary and sufficient conditions that would intuitively catch the right songs. And even if there were — say it just so happened that all the songs that I have in mind have received 100 million or more plays on the radio. It is still an open question whether this fact is what makes the songs what they are. To illustrate, the description “A six foot one male in a grey shirt sitting in a rolling chair at [don’t put your address on the internet, Sebastian]” uniquely refers to me, but it is not what makes me who I am. To get this, we would want something like, “The firstborn child of Tristan and Steve Green,” or “the human with DNA sequence XYZ,” where XYZ is, of course, my entire genome.

The problem is that I can’t seem to think of what exactly all these songs have in common. Maybe the best thing to do would be to enumerate as many of them as I can, intuitively, using a few semi-arbitrary heuristics, then try to see if something jumps out that they all have in common. This is starting to feel like more of a task than I can muster the willpower for tonight, so I’ll end by proposing some such heuristics.

Your song might be in the Popular Music Canon if:

  • Just about everyone you know between the ages of 20 and 70…
    • can instantly identify the song after hearing the first 5 seconds
    • knows the lyrics to the chorus, even if they won’t sing them
    • can hum some recognizable part of the song if prompted
  • It was covered in Glee or American Idol
  • You’ve chosen to sing it at a Karaoke Bar
  • Something inside you cringes but also feels slightly at home whenever you hear it.
  • If someone you were with purported to have never heard it before, you’d seriously wonder whether they were from another planet.

Ok I’m pooped. Hopefully Jasper lets me get a bit more sleep tonight. Ponder this with me, and maybe we’ll come up with some more tests and a list of songs that feels right.

P.S. A less lazy blogger would have hyperlinked videos for all those songs. But at the same time, if you need a reminder of what those songs sound like, you’re probably an alien.

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