Oops, They Did It Again!
The Top Seven Things That Are Wrong With the Music Industry’s List of “Songs of the 20th Century”
America has a love affair with lists. We love to read the critics and stars’ “Year’s Ten Best” lists, the nightly “Top 10 List” has helped keep David Letterman at or near the top of the late night talk game for more than a decade, and more of us watch the Billboard charts and Nielsen ratings than would care to admit it. We love lists — we love to scrutinize them, argue about them, and even rewrite them. Sometimes, they even make us so angry that it would be more appropriate to say we have a love/hate relationship with them.
Nobody loves lists more than the music biz. From the Billboard charts that are the barometer by which the major labels live and die, to the CMJ charts that rank the indies, to the critics, artists, and readers’ polls that grace every year end edition of Spin and Rolling Stone (not to mention ad ditional lists they generate through the year, like Spin‘s current “Top 40 of 2001” — hello, did I miss something, or are we not only in March? Isn’t it a bit early for that?), lists are the lifeblood of the music industry, and one of its most important tools for telling you what to listen to (motivated either by honest love or corporate greed, depending on the source).
I’m just as bad as anyone else about this. I love lists — to the point that I’ve been trying to encourage Ink 19 to start doing a few of our own. Yeah, we’ve done an “Office Top 19” for years, but it was never a ranked list, and frankly, wasn’t a 100% accurate view of what all of Ink 19‘s staffers were listening to (for example, you’ll notice plenty of metal coverage in Ink 19, but when was the last time you saw a metal record on the Office Top 19?). Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that — our intent for that list was never to be authoritative, it was just a way for a few of us to give the new records we really loved a little bit of an extra push. But what I’ve always wanted us to do is publish what claim to be “authoritative” lists, one of those lists that spur conversation and even argument like the ones published recently by the likes of MTV, VH-1, and my main target for today, the new list of the “Songs of the 20th Century” published jointly by the Recording Industry Association of America, the National Endowment of the Arts, and AOL @ School.
Putting aside the evils of having this list generated largely by big business (and when did they have time to do this, anyway? I thought the RIAA were too busy trying to smite Napster, the NEA was too busy cutting off grants to “offensive” artists and listening to Lynne Cheney rant a gainst Eminem, and AOL was too busy buying what’s left of the world after the Time-Warner merger, and laying people off), the list of 365 (!) recordings is, as you might expect, woefully inaccurate. While the list makes an admirable attempt to be really inclusive of the entire century’s worth of music (not just the “rock era” of the last 50 years or so, as I’ve heard at least one talk radio host suggesting it should), they once again get it all so wrong that the list is almost — almost, mind you — totally invalid. In the spirit of the biz, here are the Top 7 Things wrong with the “Songs of the 20th Century” list.
(Before reading this, you may want to check out the list yourself. It’s available at http://www.cnn.com/2001/SHOWBIZ/Music/03/07/365.songs/index.html, among other places).
Number One: It’s not a list of “songs,” at all! Before you even get out of the Top 10, it’s clear that the list has a different definition of “song” than the rest of the known universe, as the original cast album from West Side Story comes in at number seven! I’m not arguing the merits of the musical (surely, it contains worthy songs), but that’s exactly the point — an album contains songs, plural, not a single song. They go on throughout the list to drop in albums and double “A”-sided singles as individual efforts. While I certainly understand the merits of examining an album as a whole work of art (some records, like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, virtually demand it), this immediately becomes a list of the top recordings, rather than the top songs. So you won’t see the song “The Sound of Music,” for example, on this list, but you will see the cast album from The Sound of Music. It’s a cop out.
Number Two: The list purports to survey the last 100 years in American music. That lasts all the way to recording number 16 — The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The Stones, as anyone with half a brain knows, are British. You remember Britain, right? That country the colonists fought to gain independence from? OK, I’m picking nits here, and I’d find any list of this nature that didn’t include the likes of The Stones and The Beatles to be more than a little suspect — obviously, their influence on popular music is indelible — but call a spade a spade. This isn’t a list of American music at all — not when it features the likes of The Police, Led Zepplin, U2, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and even ABBA, dammit!
Number Three: The list is inherently too mainstream. Some of the most influential and important music of the last 100 years was made by artists that never cracked the Top 40. Take the Velvet Underground, for example, a band whose influence looms large over the last 25 years or so of music. Without the Velvets, its unlikely that the likes of Nirvana (number 80), R.E.M. (number 143), or the Talking Heads (number 257) would have existed, and yet, the Velvets are unrepresented. Similarly, many genres are completely unrepresented (punk rock, reggae, ska, industrial, electronica) or inadequately represented (only two metal songs — “Stairway To Heaven” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine, both basically ballads — and only six hip hop songs, none of which rank higher than the classic “Rapper’s Delight” at number 166!). These genres are just as important to the century of music as the well-represented jazz, rock, pop, and country genres are, yet they’re notoriously absent.
Number Four: Even among the mainstream, key artists are ignored or under-represented. Come on, despite the fact that he’s been proven to be beyond a little weird, you can’t deny Michael Jackson’s impact on the music of the last century. Last I checked, Thriller was still duking it out with The Eagles’ Greatest Hits for the title of history’s top selling album. Yet Michael’s solo work is completely ignored, and only an early Jackson Five single, “I Want You Back,” appears anywhere on the list — all the way down at number 335. Similarly, Jimi Hendrix only appears once, at the very bottom of the list — and that’s with “All Around the Watchtower,” a Bob Dylan cover! Then there’s the list of folks that are completely missing, which includes The Who, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Black Sabbath, Elvis Costello, Metallica, NWA, Dr. Dre, Bob Marley, John Williams, Lionel Richie (with or without The Commodores), David Bowie, The Clash, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Iggy Pop, Radiohead, Devo, Run-DMC, The Pixies, Sonic Youth, etc. etc. etc. Sure, but there’s r oom for “Achy Breaky Heart,” “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and “Margaritaville.” I’m only moderately surprised that “Macarena” isn’t on the list. (Oh, and yeah, I know a lot of the artists on this little list break the “American music” rule, too, but since it’s obviously a rule the list ignores, why should I keep it?).
Number Five: The rankings of those that are on the list are completely out of whack. Surprisingly, I won’t complain much about the top three, which were (in order) “Over The Rainbow,” “White Christmas,” and “This Land is Your Land” — I can live with those choices as representative of the century. I can even deal with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” as the top song of the last half-century, coming in at number four — certainly, the Queen of Soul is worthy. But then number five is… Don McLean’s “American Pie?” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge McLean, and “American Pie” was the number one song in the land the week I was born, but let’s look at what the song’s all about. “American Pie” remembers “the day the music died,” the tragic plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper. These great, inspirational artists don’t show up on the list until number 111, 158, and, er, not at all, respectively. Surely, the inspirations should have ranked higher than the tribute, right? Then there’s the Beatles — inarguably, the most influential band of the last 50 years, yet they don’t show up until number 28?!?! Elvis Presley, the King of Rock & Roll, only manages to come in at number 68? I’ve already mentioned the incredibly low placements of the likes of Nirvana, Hendrix, and the Sugar Hill Gang, but this is a list where ABBA outrank John Coltrane, MC Hammer outranks Public Enemy, Ricky Martin beats out Benny Goodman, and K.C. and the Sunshine Band are more important than Dizzy Gillespie.
Number Six: The list is filled with songs that are unrepresentative of the artists. Does anyone really believe that Donna Summer’s most important song is “She Works Hard For the Money” over, say, “Love To Love You Baby” or “I Feel Love”? Tom Petty’s most important musical contribution is… “Free Fallin'”? The Beastie Boys are best represented by “Fight For Your Right (To Party)”? Dolly Parton by “9 To 5”? Herbie Hancock by “Rockit”? Please. Even some of the artists that don’t really belong on this list are represented by songs that aren’t their best work. TLC’s “No Scrubs” over, say, “Waterfalls”? Will Smith’s “Men In Black”? Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places”? The aforementioned “Margaritaville”? Come on!
Number Seven: There is a noticeable lack of “controversial” material here. While I can respect that (according to the press release) one of the goals of this list is to help foster music appreciation in young people, and that there is a need to be mindful of content for that reason, it means ignoring some important contributions. Some of the century’s most important music has pushed the boundaries of society, and occasionally, even taste, with risque and/or explicit lyrical content. The raciest this list gets is the shocking at the time, but tame by today’s standards “Satisfaction,” ignoring, for example, The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines,” Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side,” and NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” and “Fuck The Police.” And let’s not even get into the 800-lb. gorilla (in terms of modern-day controversy), Eminem. By ignoring anything with the slightest whiff of controversy, the list may protect some younger ears, but it does so at the cost of its credibility.
All this said, there are some real musical treasures to be found on the list, and I applaud the organizations’ efforts to introduce America’s kids to most of these recordings (though in the RIAA’s case, it’s obviously at least partly done in crass self-interest). But in the final analysis, any list like this is going to fall on its face somewhere in each and every music fan’s opinion, since music is such a personal thing. Taken simply as a starting point for discussion and discovery, though, they could have done worse — at least they skipped the teen pop flash-in-the-pans, both of the past and present…