2013-08-28

What Success In Music Really Means

For the teenagers who are heavily involved in what kind of music is cool and what is uncool, the current big thing is the coolest and most important thing that will ever be in music. How fascinating it is to see which popular songs actually survive the test of time despite our impressions of those songs when they first appear.

I was reminded of this today when I stepped out to get some lunch. Over the restaurant's sound system, I heard the song "Where It's At" by Beck, released in 1996. I have always liked this song, but if you had asked me back in 1996 whether I thought I'd still hear that song on the radio 17 years later, I probably would have laughed at you. It's not that it's not a great song - again, I've always enjoyed it. It's just that, from the vantage point of 1996, it seems silly to suggest that it's a timeless song.


A quick look at the Billboard Top 100 Songs for the year 1996 is pretty revealing. Here are the top ten songs on that list:
  1. "Maracena" by Los del Rio feat. the Bayside Boys
  2. "One Sweet Day" by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men
  3. "Because You Loved Me" by Celine Dion
  4. "Nobody Knows" by Tony Rich Project
  5. "Always Be My Baby" by Mariah Carey
  6. "Give Me One Reason" by Tracy Chapman
  7. "Tha Crossroads" by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
  8. "I Love You Always Forever" by Donna Lewis
  9. "You're Making Me High" by Toni Braxton
  10. "Twisted" by Keith Sweat
Of those artists, only Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and Toni Braxton would have any significant success later. In particular, the number 1 song of the year is a throwaway hit that most people find ridiculous today, if they remember it at all. I might be the only one who still vividly remembers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the truth is that when I hear their music today, it makes me cringe. I thought Tony Rich Project was a great group, but they did not experience any enduring success.

Tracy Chapman is still reasonably popular on the blues scene, but I seldom hear her music on the radio. It does happen, occasionally, though.

In any event, "Where It's At" does not appear on the list at all. And yet that is the song that has proved to have true longevity. At the end of the day, would you rather be an artist like Beck or an artist like Donna Lewis? Would you rather have Beck's success and fan base, or would you rather have Los del Rio's?