Will the 21st Century produce any “oldies but goodies”?

By Andy Beaubien, BPR

The Daily Mail recently posted an article based on a study of Millennials (18-34 year olds) and their familiarity with pop songs from the past. The study, which was conducted by New York University, revealed some surprising results. The 643 participants were able to recognise songs from 1960-1999 more readily than songs from this century. Songs such as Blondie’s “The Tide is High” (1980) and Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” (1966) were among the songs that 18-34’s most recognise. However, their familiarity with songs from 2000 to the present was much lower.

The following is a brief exert from the article originally posted by The Daily Mail:

Researchers were unable to identify what explained the stable level of recognition for songs from the 1960s through to the 1990s. They noted that during that period there was a ‘significantly greater diversity’ of songs reaching the top of the charts compared to 2000 to 2015 and 1940 to 1950.

They said the large number of popular songs during the latter part of the 20th Century may explain why so many are still recognisable decades later. The results, published in the journal PLOS One, underscore the popularity of certain songs from the 1960s through the end of the 20th Century.

In selecting songs for the study, the researchers included those that reached the No. 1 spot on the Billboard ‘Top 100’ between the years 1940 and 1957 and No. 1 on the Billboard ‘Hot 100’ from 1958 to 2015.

The study’s participants included NYU students as well as others from the greater New York metropolitan area. The sample was largely of young participants, with an average age of 21.3. The majority (88 per cent) were between the ages of 18 and 25. Each participant was presented with a random selection of seven out of the 152 songs in the sample, asked to listen to the selection, and report whether they recognised it.

In response to hearing each song, the participants were prompted to indicate whether they recognised it. The researchers then plotted the recognition proportion for each song as a function of the year during which it reached peak popularity.

The results revealed three distinct phases in collective memory, according to the researchers. The first phase showed a steep linear drop-off in recognition for the music from this millennium, steadily declining, year by year, from 2015 to 2000; the second phase was marked by a stable plateau from the 1960s to the 1990s, with no notable decline during this 40-year period. The third phase, similar to the first phase, was characterised by a more gradual drop-off during the 1940s and 1950s.

While there are no obvious answers to explain this phenomenon, we can suggest some possible explanations. Access to older pop hits is greater than in past decades with the advent of on-line streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. However, these same services also make available virtually all the hit songs from the 21st century as well.

Another possibility is that the variety of pop songs from the 60’s to the 90’s was quite wide. In the US, pop music at various times included hits from Rock, Disco-Dance, R&B and Country as well as more traditional pop styles. In the past 20 years, songs making it to the top of the charts have had a relatively homogeneous sound. In addition, we have seen a diminishing “shelf life” or durability of pop hits from recent decades. The trajectory of pop songs has been much more meteoric than before. Contemporary pop hits rise quickly in the charts but once they make it past a certain point in time, their appeal declines rapidly. This is especially true of Hip Hop-based styles. This same pattern can be attributed to contemporary artists. Few of them have the longevity or catalog depth of a Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney or Madonna.

Finally, the use of pop hits from the 60’s to the 90’s in films, TV programs and on You Tube may also be contributing to their familiarity to an audience that was not even born when the songs were released.

We are in an age of disposal hits. The relevance of pop songs fades quickly as they are replaced by the newest and most fashionable sound. How many timeless hits from the 21st century can you recall? How many Ariana Grande, Drake, Lil’ Wayne or Katy Perry songs will still be popular in the year 2039 or even 2029?


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