The Magazine

Loony Tunes

The worst list of best songs ever

Apr 9, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 29 • By MICHAEL LONG
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Put the guys in tweed jackets from the National Endowment for the Arts, the men in sharkskin suits from the main offices of the record business, and a bunch of cardigan-wearing textbook writers in a room together, and what do you get? The answer is a new "educational resource," the recently released list of "Songs of the Century." These 365 recordings -- "One for each day of the year!" a helpful press flack told me -- represent "America's musical and cultural heritage," according to the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade association of record companies.

"This project demonstrates that the recording industry takes seriously its role as a caretaker of our nation's cultural heritage," said NEA chairman Bill Ivey, proving once and for all that the reintroduction of clear thinking to the NEA is an utterly lost cause. If these are the best songs we've got, then our musical and cultural heritage doesn't need a caretaker; it needs an arsonist. After reading the list, one struggles incredulously to remember: Did, say, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" rank just above or just below "We Are the World" -- and what is either doing on a list of important recordings? And how about, oh, just choosing at random here, "Doo Wop (That Thing)" by Lauryn Hill? You ask why Hill's contribution makes the canon complete? Just check out the lyrics: Member when he told you he was 'bout the Benjamins / You act like you ain't hear him then gave him a little trim. This, from the aptly entitled album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" comes in at Number 311, despite the fact that it is, you know, "I Am Woman." Of course, by the time you've waded through the list to this point, the whole notion of ranking starts to look even sillier than it did back at Number 36, where The Sound of Music skated past Thelonius Monk.

"Participants were asked to keep in mind the historical significance" of the songs, states the press release. Okay, but since when was ABBA more historically significant than John Coltrane? Or how about this: Al Jolson, the first person to record an album, the first to sing on film, and a model for other entertainers for decades, ranks at a weak 124, his influence on American music trumped by Cyndi Lauper, Gloria Gaynor, and The Village People.

Does the history of rap belong here? Why not? -- though the question seems morally similar to whether we should preserve the boyhood home of John Wilkes Booth. And what about "No Scrubs" by TLC? This 1999 record is, arguably, less a song than a drum track laid down behind an episode of Oprah Winfrey's television show. How is it that a culturally informed individual is suddenly incomplete if his familiarity extends to Gershwin but not to TLC? (Gershwin, by the way, doesn't make the list at all.)

The influence of drugs on rock critics is apparent not by the presence of the drug-soaked Grateful Dead at Number 321, but as the only excuse for such indefensible inclusions as "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" by Hank Williams Jr. and "I Love Rock and Roll" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. And the mistakes just keep rolling on: "You're Still the One" by Shania Twain, "Don't Worry Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin, "9 to 5" by Dolly Parton. Oh, and did I mention "El Shaddai" by Amy Grant?

If you think most "music experts" have no business talking about music, then this is the list for you. Even Tim McGraw knows that Jimi Hendrix belongs ahead of Tim McGraw. Yet there it is, Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" squeezed in at the last position on the list, number 365, while McGraw's "Please Remember Me" chills out at 96. (Quick test: Hum "All Along the Watchtower." Now hum the McGraw tune. Case closed.)

Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday -- the appearance of these giants feels like the result of someone having made notes while walking through the jazz aisle at a Tower Records store. "Our hope is that each song will help tell a very different story," said the head of RIAA, Hilary Rosen. And at least one of those stories is that the RIAA and the NEA are run by hacks whose cultural discretion makes Kid Rock look like Carl Sandburg.

That icon of all baby-boomer music fans, Dr. Johnny Fever, once cried out in sorrow, Who's going to teach the children about Bo Diddley? The answer: not the NEA and RIAA -- at least not until they've covered Garth Brooks, Van Halen, and the 1910 Fruitgum Company.

Michael Long is a director of the White House Writers Group, a strategy and public relations firm in Washington, D.C.