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GOAT: How we’ve made it less about about ‘greatest’ and more about ‘time’

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The crux of my thesis is that as a society, we overvalue old things because we perceive them as classic and we undervalue new things because of their newness. I find the view that everything old is good because it’s classic while everything new is getting worse, to be problematic. It’s especially troublesome as it relates to music because the primary assumption that we make about art is that it will be novel in some way.

Let me illustrate what I mean by looking at music.

Below are Rolling Stone’s Top 10 Rock Songs of all time along with each song’s release date:

Song Release Date
“Like a Rolling Stone” – Bob Dylan 1965
“Satisfaction” – Rolling Stones 1965
“Imagine” – John Lennon 1971
“What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye 1971
“Respect” – Aretha Franklin 1967
“Good Vibrations” – Beach Boys 1966
“Johnny B. Goode” – Chuck Berry 1958
“Hey Jude” – Beatles 1968
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana 1991
“What I’d Say” – Ray Charles 1959

Is anyone else thinking “what the fuck has the music industry been doing for the last 40 years?”

The men’s 100 meter dash record has been broken about 15 times since 1971 (as a testament to either improvements in training or improvements in chemistry–take your pick) and one song has made it into Rolling Stone’s top 10 list since then. In a domain like track and field, where things can be measured and nostalgia has no place at the table, things progress over time. In a domain like music, where nostalgia reigns supreme and where human judgment has taken the place of the stop watch, one song has cracked the top 10 since 1971.

Let’s look at this issue from a slightly different angle. Let’s say that in 1971 I handed you a list of the nine greatest rock songs ever and the list looked just like the one above, minus Nirvana.  Then let’s say that I asked you to guess as to how many of those songs would still be recognized as being in the top 10 after 40 years had passed.  How many would you guess? Keep in mind that over that 40 year span, millions of rock songs will have been recorded. There’s a probability issue at play here similar to monkeys at a typewriter trying to bang out a work of William Shakespeare. Except in this case the monkeys are actual musicians. Also in this case the threshold to get over isn’t Shakespeare, it’s John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which is a piece of garbage. Just from a numbers standpoint it seems almost impossible that the best that music had to offer was largely recorded over about a decade’s time, some 40 years ago.

Rolling Stone’s list isn’t actually a list of the best rock songs of all time. It’s a list of the best rock songs of all time if you also stipulate that any ties among songs will be broken by awarding the older song the higher place on the list. Then, because there are a lot of good rock songs that mostly tie, the list becomes one of really old songs. Largely this methodology is silently accepted because a bias in favor of old songs also feeds into our willingness to be influenced by nostalgia.

There is an obvious objection to what I am saying and that is that the songs on Rolling Stone’s list, while they might occupy their places partially due to nostalgia, are also there because they were groundbreaking and revolutionary. Related to this idea is the notion that all music that has come since has been able to stand on the shoulders of those early giants. But the problem with that objection is that it ignores the fact that early artists benefited as much from the music vacuum that preceded them as they were challenged by it. How hard is it to come up with something new when the perception of newness will be calibrated using artists like Frankie Avalon or the Everly Brothers as benchmarks? By contrast, consider that an act like the Beastie Boys, in order to be considered new or groundbreaking, had to be more novel than all of the acts that were their contemporaries as well as all of the acts that preceded them. Further to the objection that Rolling Stone’s list is valid because of the groundbreaking nature of the songs on it, “Imagine” is a horrible song that features a piano part that my friend Dave can play (it’s the only song he can play) and lyrics that attempt to pass off a 4 a.m. intoxicated rant as philosophy. I don’t see anything particularly revolutionary about a simple piano line and some lyrics that a disaffected 15-year-old could come up with.

Even if we spot the songs on Rolling Stone’s list their places based on innovation, it’s probably worth thinking about the accomplishments of the early artists in a way that separates out the frontier conquer from the goodness. To borrow an example from sports, Dick Fosbury is not considered the greatest high jumper that ever lived. He is perhaps the most innovative and all of the world records of the last 30 years have been set by jumpers using Fosbury’s flop. But Fosbury himself couldn’t even set the world record using his innovative jump. If the values applied to music were applied to high jumpers, then none of the six-inch increase in the high jump world record post-Fosbury would matter because Fosbury’s achievement would have been judged as the last one that really mattered.

I don’t find anything particularly objectionable about any of the songs on their own (with the exception of the aforementioned “Imagine,” which offers a jokey philosophy that dismisses human institutions without ever acknowledging that there is probably something universal to being human that has led to the creation of those institutions). I just think they reflect our cultural bias toward the idea that old is good and new is bad. We are biased in favor of things deemed classic. The problem with elevating classic above other ideals when it comes to music is that it undermines music as an art form. Art is creating something new where nothing existed before. Art is invention without utility. All of the songs on Rolling Stone’s list would have been inventive at one time but now are classic. In fact, you can be sure that when those songs were created, they never aspired to be classic. Most of the songs included an implicit rejection of the idea that old is good and new is bad. But what’s happened over time is that the revolutionaries have become the rulers. 1

I’m being overly dismissive of nostalgia as a legitimate value in order to prove a point that I only partially agree with. I do think that we carry an inherent bias toward old in evaluating music and I don’t think that bias serves lists like Rolling Stone’s very well. But it’s also incredibly hard to know what to do about that bias because nostalgia is such an important element of listening to music. I was at dinner last night and heard Dave Mathews’ “Crash Into Me” and it almost made me drunk. I was a freshman in college when the song came out and I can’t separate my perception of the song from its ability to transport me mentally to a house party where I’m holding a red solo cup. That nostalgia means that I couldn’t offer an opinion on the song that would be honest. I can’t be objective because I’m under the influence.

It’s probably not possible to separate nostalgia from our evaluation of music, but that also means that Rolling Stone isn’t creating a list of the best rock songs of all time. The list should probably be re-titled “Here’s a list that reflects our collective biases and who the hell knows whether these songs are actually the best of all time . . . but we numbered it . . . so there.”

If it sounds like I’ve spent a number of words taking shots at the Rolling Stone list and haven’t offered any alternatives, it’s because our staff song draft is full of alternatives. The draft goes about 200 songs long, which means that we’ve put together about 200 songs that are better than Lennon’s piece of trash “Imagine,” which Rolling Stone should have been embarrassed to call the third best song of all time. Stay tuned.

Notes:

  1. What’s more: there are shit tons of baby boomers and they’ve dominated culture at every generational coming of age until now.

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  • Kat G

    Great points about revolutionary music Frank. Why aren’t Sugar Hill gang or Run DMC on the list if revolutions in music are valuable?

    • obryan

      Because those are examples of music that the Rolling Stone looks down upon

      • Kat G

        No argument there