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March 8, 2001
Why the top-365-songs list isn't a
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
It is de rigueur for journalists like the one who is writing this article to cast aspersions on, throw brickbats at and generally find fault with these recurring "tops of the century" lists - your greatest-books list, your greatest-movies list, and now your greatest-songs list.
As you know, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America have put their heads together and come up with a list of the 365 top songs of the century just past. The newspaper commentary you see about the appearance of this list will invariably be critical in the extreme. We, on the other hand, want to point out what a fine list it is, and to do so without employing even the most microscopic bit of irony, let alone sarcasm.
The publishers of the list have exercised commendable discretion by declining to say (as if it were anyone's business) who actually made the choices and rank-ordered them, and why the number 365 was decided upon. It's quite obvious: 365 days in a year times 100 years in a century equals 36,500 songs. That's way too many, so you go back to 365.
Some will say that putting Don McLean's "American Pie” at No. 5 is patently absurd, merely because the tune happens to be pretentious and overlong. Yet any impartial observer will have to agree that it makes perfect sense to put a song about Buddy Holly so high up on the list and to put Buddy's own "Peggy Sue" at No. 111.
When we climb down the list to No. 9, we find nothing less than "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling."
Choosing the Righteous Brothers classic for so high a ranking has many of the qualities of modern art - it’s a move that is unexpected, bold, strange, and totally unaccountable.
And yet what, after all, could be more just than to place those Righteous dudes above Louis Armstrong, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Fats Domino, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Thelonius Monk, Ray Charles, John Lennon, Otis Redding, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan?
The anonymous list makers' aesthetic criteria are elucidated by the inclusion of the Village People's "YMCA" at No. 86. It becomes clear that the list's desiderata are not, as boringly conventional observers might think, good songwriting or good singing, which are, after all, a dime a dozen. What matters is whether at least one of the artists is dressed up like a plumber.
Which throws a good deal of light on the ranking of certain artists below the Village People, such as the Supremes, the Temptations, Patsy Cline, Miles Davis, Al Jolson, Little Richard, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, and Johnny Cash.
In the end, it's easy to see why the two groups who created the list tout it as a potential boon to the teaching of music in America's schools. Perhaps the most significant lesson the list has to impart to our schoolchildren is a very simple but time-honored one: If you want to capture the nation's musical imagination and make Stevie Wonder look like a piker while you're at it, don't forget the plumber's suit.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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