What I like about the idea of era-defining songs is there is no way you can get esoteric with it. Universality is a requirement. You can define your own life through Captain Beefheart or Belle and Sebastian, but that shit won’t play in an exercise designed to be as broad as possible. Below are songs that I think help define the decade/era with which they are associated, thanks to ubiquity of play or the magic of film montages or just my own vague thoughts and feelings about times in which I never lived. This is the only time I’ll ever say this, but: These are just my opinions rather than stone-cold facts.
The Byrds, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
I’m blaming this one on the self-defined cultural arbiters (hey, like me!) who have reduced the ‘60s to nothing more than their deep thoughts about Vietnam. Good call on writer Pete Seeger’s part for pulling some hippy-dippy shit out of the Bible, but bad call on every filmmaker and flashback and TV show and classic rock station and Time-Life commercial for attempting to wrangle some era-defining profundity out of a very simple song which is, technically, millennia old.
(Also, life is not lived in binaries, but I guess I'll have to take that up with Ecclesiastes.)
Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive”
Fuck it. Disco. Soundtrack disco, at that. And whew, can soundtracks ever be era-defining. Just ask “I Will Always Love You” or “My Heart Will Go On.”
Michael Jackson, “Thriller”
Though “Thriller” is not my favorite Michael Jackson song, or even the best song on Thriller, it is pretty era-defining. When was the last time you looked at a history book for schoolkids? The pop culture of any given era is always written in very broad strokes, and Michael Jackson is about the broadest stroke there is. I was playing a “20 Questions” game a few days ago while thinking of a Michael Jackson song: When asked if the musician was popular, the answer was not only “Yes,” but that people in rural Mongolia are familiar. People in oppressive theocracies are familiar. Old people are familiar, young people are familiar. Three-hundred years from now, the entire concept of 20th century pop music is probably only going to be reduced to: 1. The Beatles and 2. Michael Jackson.
“Like a Virgin” was my runner-up.
Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
I wish it wasn’t the case, but it’s the case. Played, replayed, and overplayed to the point where nothing means anything any more, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has become the musical equivalent of seeing a simple word repeated over and over until you’ve completely lost the context.
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That’s what this song means to me.
If the ‘90s era deserves a rap song (and it probably does), which one should it be? I guess “Nothin But a G Thang.” And both of those songs are a bit too early ‘90s ... a late ‘90s choice would be Britney Spears, I suppose. A ponderous decade, and the one where I spent my childhood. It’s the Gen Y equivalent of the Boomer ‘60s.
2000 to Present Day
OutKast, “Hey Ya!”
I think the 21st century is the era open to the most debate. Mostly I just wanted to remind everyone how great this song is. It’s really great. It’s pre-9/11 great.
So! Thoughts, ideas, arguments, suggestions, essays, rebuttals, confirmations? Discuss.