People have studied what gives music value for thousand of years. Even going back to its roots (ancient folk instruments), music has always been an art form to be appreciated and critiqued.
With the birth of pop music and mass media, however, standards have changed with commercialism and treating music as a business. One can argue that even classical composers “sold out” by performing for high-paying patrons, and that music was always an “industry” in relatively modern times.
That being said, what makes a song relevant or long lasting to humanity today? How are we even exposed to the thousands of songs to even make such a determination? Most people today don’t even consider the classical songs of Mozart or Beethoven to be “good”. It seems as the classical composers have been reduced to movie soundtracks or dance remixes.
Music critics and educators like to label songs and have them fit in certain genres, over-analyze the components of what makes a song great, and give scholarly analysis. But the bottom line is that songs are very subjective, just like an art. Songs are about emotions. They stir memories for you. If you’ve never heard Glen Miller back in 1933, his music would fall upon your deaf ears today. John Williams, one of the most well-known composers of today, has created the most recognizable classical songs, but since his pieces are forever tied to theme songs from movies, it’s kind of hard to listen to him in your car without people laughing at you, right? Mozart kicks John Williams’ butt, but the general public likes John Williams better now. And that’s a fact.
Music is a social experience. When I blast 8-bit Nintendo songs on my CD player with the windows down, I get looks from people. Are Nintendo songs crap? To 99.99% of music listeners, YES, because they have been conditioned to hate it or not take it seriously. Besides, they have no words. But I still like it even though it IS crap. Music is music. It’s a totally subjective experience.
I guess when people lecture about the “social relevance” of a song, they refer to a song connecting to a mass audience or showing an accurate portrayal of “The Truth” about a social problem or a natural human feeling. In that case, Bob Dylan should be recognized as the best, but his voice is odd, to say the least. Conversely, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is well-known and “relevant”, but…why?
How about the “socially relevant” songs that YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD yet, because of your age, or because the song wasn’t on the radio or never had a music video or wasn’t used in Titanic? Have you heard all the millions of songs that ever existed? No. Is it fair to rank the Top 100 Most Influential Songs or Top 100 Best Quality Songs when the only reason the general public ever HEARD of those mainstream songs is because they were marketed?
Let’s use “The Power” as an example of the anatomy of a pop song, and to show what I’m talking about. “The Power” came out in 1990, it was the first mainstream electronic pop songs that I was exposed to (although they probably had existed decades before, like the soundtrack from Midnight Express, but never got radio air time), and I LOVED IT. It used rap, too. I had no idea it was a hit in Germany or the U.K. Without the Internet, none of my teenage friends knew anything about the song, except that it was COOL.
Many other artists used samples from “The Power” and did remixes, so the song stayed in our consciousness for a while. In fact the voice samples which are so popular and synonymous with the song are not even from the original song. Over time, it became “mainstream”. Relevant? I don’t know. However, it seems important enough to put in commercials and movies, i.e. the song has no been forgotten.
Here’s a listing of the appearances “The Power” has made since it’s 1990 release:
- Coyote Ugly (film)
- Underdog Movie DVD Commercial
- Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie soundtrack.
- Bruce Almighty soundtrack
- The Fisher King as DJ Jack Lucas’ show’s theme music
- Sung in the second episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and used later in a scene when Will goes to a pool hall.
- The Perfect Weapon (1991) soundtrack.
- Pampers training pants commercial
- Hotels.com commercial
- Energizer batteries commercial
- Toyota power steering commercial (’90s)
- I Love The 90s
- A scene in Hudson Hawk
- A striptease scene in Brigada.
- During the floor exercise scene in the film Old School.
- T-Mobile commercial
- Neuf Telecom commercial (France, 2006)
- Jet’s Theme in UK Gladiators
- Phil Taylor’s Entrance Theme
- Three Kings (film)
- Marock (film)
- Turkcell commercial (Turkey, 2007)
- Terri Powers’s entrance theme in Ladies Professional Wrestling Association.
- Le Sancy commercial (India, 1992).
- Tons of CD compilations, like “Best of the 1990′s” or “Sports Themes”
Of course, you can hear the song during hockey and basketball games.
The song itself would fail any quantitative measures of excellence, but it’s catchy and used in different media, so it has survived 18 years of being in our minds (although older people have no idea what it is). “The Power” truly has no deeper meanings and it is not a reflection of anything- it’s just a good electronic song with a nice repeating vocal sample. It’s OK when you hear it now, but so many better electronic songs have come after it. It’s tempting to feel nostalgic and attached yourself to a song, and hard to apply objective measures of analyzing it.
So…coming back full circle here, what makes a song relevant? What is “relevance”? Does any of this really matter? I don’t think so. I think a song’s value should be based on personal taste, and attempts to rank or hold songs to a high standard are futile efforts. If you have an emotional attachment to a Billy Joel or U2 song, or if you believe “Freebird” is the best rock song of all time, more power to you. Your favorite song is your favorite song; I can’t prove it any differently, and neither can some VH-1 Top 20 List, Rolling Stone magazine, or a history professor. Using sale figures, number of downloads, or great reviews simply doesn’t cut it, since we are force-fed certain songs via radio, Yahoo, MTV, VH-1, TV Theme songs, video games, youtube, and movie soundtracks.
The irony is that, yes, you can find cool independent songs on the Net now that have cult followings, and your hard drive can store 50,000 songs, but there’s only a few hundred that are allegedly “socially relevant” or “recognized” as being “good”.
The conclusion is obvious: enjoy what you want to enjoy. Don’t let society tell you what’s good or bad. If you like an obscure song from the Netherlands, and feel it relates to you more than Simon & Garfunkel’s entire work, by all means, enjoy it. Defy labels. We live in a world where only certain songs get mainstream airtime and music videos, but we also have the Internet where you can listen to independent musicians, world-wide stations streaming to your speakers, and have access to hundreds of thousands of downloads. There is no denying music can be a very satisfying experience. Whatever a song means to you should be the deciding factor, not what the so-called experts by the water-cooler think. Try to block out labeling a song as “that one from Friends” and just appreciate the sounds.