Tomorrow Never Knows

Today I spent some time in a place where a tape was playing of old songs from the 1980’s. I happened to strike up a converation with a woman in her twenties, and we both realized that song after song was going by without her recognizing a single group – the Thompson Twins, Madness, Duran Duran. Of course this didn’t surprise either of us. Most pop music is ephemeral, something that speaks mainly to its own time and to momentary fashion.

But then, curious, I asked her about the Beatles – a group that had burst on the scene not a mere twenty years ago, but over forty years ago. “That’s different,” she said, “that’s the Beatles!” Point well taken.

As it happens, the other day I had finally gotten around to seeing Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” – a film that is clearly a thinly disguised love poem to the genius of the Beatles’ songbook. The plot of this film is mainly an excuse for the spectacle of beautiful young people singing Beatles songs that have mostly been reworked into contemporary arrangements. It was all very sweet and entertaining, and it really underscored just how powerful and timeless those songs are.

In contrast, I cannot imagine doing something like that with, say, the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now” – a song whose appeal cannot really be separated from its era-specific vocal performances and production effects. In contrast, a Beatles song like “Yesterday” or “Let it Be” may be as timeless as “Happy Birthday” or “Greensleeves”.

It fascinates me how some things start out as pop, and yet outlast their era, while other things fade away. I’m sure that the young woman I was talking with would have recognized a Sinatra performance, but probably not Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence or Mel Torme. Jerry Lewis, but not Peter Lawford. “Gone with the Wind”, but not “Ninochka”. Charlie Chaplin, but not George Jessel.

I find myself wondering if we can ever know, while something is still new, whether it will become a classic? I’ll bet that when the enormously popular Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians were dominating the radio waves in the 1930s, most people assumed his fame and music would continue to last down through the ages. But now he is remembered mainly for his patented blender.

And so I look around now at all the bright shiny new things in today’s pop landscape, and I wonder – who will still be known in another fifty years, and who will simply fade away from the collective cultural memory? Is there any way to tell the difference?

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