Last week Rolling Stone released its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, revising it for the first time since 2004. Despite the fact that most people with an interest in music no longer look to Rolling Stone as any kind of arbiter of taste, there is still an explosion of bitching that takes place whenever such a list is released. 100 Greatest Guitarists, Best Bands, Greatest Albums….the publication of every such list brings out the music critic in everyone…it’s all so exhausting.
It should be noted that the same is true of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Everyone says that it is a totally fucked up and meaningless institution, but they still lobby ceaselessly for their hero to be inducted. Because deep down we are all fans and we are all competitive in terms of our favorite music.
There are myriad problems with the list, but perhaps the biggest problem is this concept of ranking. Why do we do this? One reason is that is helps us process a large amount of information quickly. In addition, even though most rankings are fairly subjective, they seem to feed a need in our psyche. In any event, there is a lesson for marketers, and that is that it’s better to be the last in a group that ends in a zero (Top 10, Top 20) than to be the first in the next group. Even though the distance between number 10 and number 11 is the same as that between number 9 and number 10, it is perceived to be a greater division.
But music is meant to be a leisurely activity, so why do we need to learn about top albums of the ’80s, for example, using a list to help us categorize and memorize them? It’s a helpful tool for music writers, historians, industry analysts, radio people, and trivia buffs, but for the average person, is it that helpful? We’ve all seen the layered lists for various artists: Top songs, B-sides, deep tracks. I’d rather hear other people talk about their favorite tracks and albums from performers because that’s how I get redirected towards things I may have overlooked or find out about artists I may not be that familiar with.
The amount of recorded music released on various storage media in the world is a finite number, but it is vast. Add to that live versions, remixes, and edits made for various compilations and you can hardly imagine that there is a lack of music to listen to, document, and discuss. Yet we center ourselves on the same 100 or 500 albums, songs, and artists. These really don’t need to be ranked as their pervasive nature in our culture is well established.
But culture changes, and what was once considered indespensibly classic may some day no longer be so. One Twitter account posted a number of tweets comparing specific classic rock artists and the songs they had listed on the 2003 list vs. what is on the current list. Artists who held a half dozen or more spots on the earlier list now were cut to one or two songs. One reason for this is obvious–the longer span of time that is covered by the list, the more new items there are to be considered for inclusion. This happens all the time–we still consider Shakespeare to be of cultural significance, but Alexander Pope’s stock has fallen considerably.
In fact, the notion of a stock market-like index of cultural significance is precisely what can be gleaned from lists like this. Doors stock? Down. Kinks? Up and rising. Beatles? Still blue chip. And with the song catalog purchases made in the past year by companies like Hipgnosis and Primary Wave Music, influencing cultural perceptions of an artist’s catalog is already becoming the work of marketing departments and public relations firms. Keeping songs popular and in the public’s minds helps keep the underlying assets of these investment brokers valuable, ensuring we’ll hear them in commercials, movies, television programming, games, and more uses that haven’t even emerged yet.
Another thing worth noting about the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs list is that its really more about performances than it is the song itself. What should be listed here is the song and the songwriter(s), because if we are celebrating the song, it should not be singer-specific. Doing this quickly demonstrates two things. First, a lot of songs listed on the Top 500 are songs that are unlikely to be reproducible by another artist. Take ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for example. Is it a song that others have covered or will cover? A great deal of what we celebrate about the record relates to the performance and the creation of the track–Freddie Mercury’s voice and the labor intensive multi-tracking that that the band constructed. It’s an undeniably great recording achievement, but is it a great song? Maybe, maybe not.
The second thing you will discover if you look at the songs and their writers is that the days of the lone singer-songwriter are gone, at least as far as the charts are concerned. Top of the charts records that are written by a single individual are shockingly rare these days–Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” and Pharrell’s “Happy” are some of the most recent (going back to 2018 and 2014). This is not like having a collaborator, such as Bacharach/David or Elton John/Bernie Taupin. The average number of collaborators on songs from the U.S. market’s streaming Top Ten hits for 2018 was 9.1. That’s not collaboration, that’s songwriting by committee, and the resulting songs are less interesting and less likely to be listened to in twenty or thirty years.
Of course, the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs list gets the magazine what it most wants from these lists: it wants us to discuss and argue about it, to write op-ed pieces like this one about it, and generally react to it, and we happily oblige. Just keep in mind that the list tells us much more about where we are headed and whose stock is rising than it does about which songs are keepers.