The 500 greatest songs

The magazine Rolling Stone has just published its list of the ”500 greatest songs of all time”. I was interested so I looked at the website. Each entry consists of a paragraph about the song and its performers or writers, a 30-second excerpt and the full song. I have been going through the list listening to particular favourites and learning about how and why the artists wrote and recorded these songs.

     It has been pretty nostalgic. I have listened to songs from my childhood and teenage years for the first time in decades. I have learnt how surprisingly often a classic song was written on the spur of the moment, that great music is not always the result of hours and hours of hard work. On the other hand, sometimes it takes only minutes to write a song but months to record it in the studio exactly as the band want it to be. Sometimes the artist is disappointed with the result and is surprised at how popular the song becomes.  

     My only problem with this list is the title. It should be called the ”500 greatest English language popular music songs of the last 70 years.” There are hardly any songs in other languages than English (just a handful in Spanish). There are hardly any songs in English performed by non-English native speakers. There is no classical music. There are hardly any songs from before the 1950s. Which is why I have suggested the longer, more precise title. What about all the singers and bands from other parts of the world? What is popular in Russia, China, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil right now? What artists do people revere in those countries?

     Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but I think Rolling Stone’s attitude is typical of many Westerners. We assume that the whole world enjoys modern, western, Anglo-Saxon, popular music, not mention films, books and other culture and entertainment. We assume that what is normal in the western world is normal everywhere. It isn’t. Popular culture is very different is some countries, strictly controlled and censored is some, deeply religious in others. I am afraid some of us think popular culture, democracy and Christianity or a Christian heritage are the norm everywhere. In fact, a great number of countries are dictatorships, and two-thirds of the world’s population are non-Christian.

     I hope future generations are less obsessed with the western world view and more open to a broader, global view of humanity. I hope future generations respect the diversity of world cultures better than my and previous generations. And there are positive signs. My children seem to be getting a broader education that I did. What might have been exotic to my generation is normal to them.

I hope some day somebody will draw up a proper list of the 500 most popular songs in the world. 

Chris Montgomery

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