Think of all the time you’ve wasted after a song comes on the jukebox when you’re out somewhere, and you declare, “This song is timeless,” only to have someone else stare at you blankly and say, “I don’t know this one.” Good news: Now you can prove with 100 percent certainty which of you is right, and which wrong, through the infallible magic of science. Data scientist Matt Daniels has set out to determine which songs from pop music’s past stand the test of time, and to do so, he has turned to Spotify, the music streaming service that answers the question, “Why can’t I listen to “Shake it Off” from Taylor Swift’s 1989?” Daniels has measured the most popular songs from each decade among users of the service, and the results will surely end for all time any questions about whether Oasis truly will live forever.
For example, by a huge margin, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the most timeless song from the ’90s. (“Timeless” in Daniels’ parlance being roughly equivalent to “songs that young people who weren’t alive during the music’s original era of popularity are listening to.”) Cobain’s anthem has more than 50 million plays, with the next closest track being...“Iris,” by the Goo Goo Dolls. Really, Spotify users?
Daniels himself is obviously pleased, as his motivation for starting this project was to prove that “No Diggity” by Blackstreet was a timeless song, and by the metrics of Spotify playcounts, he is absolutely right. It’s the fifth-most-played song from the ’90s, and the number one rap song, just barely surpassing Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” (Though maybe it owes its success to Dre’s guest verse?)
Daniels admits the data is slightly skewed, though not for the reasons you or I might consider it as such: For him, the problem is that this sampling includes people of all ages, whereas it should only include people born after 1995, despite the fact that Spotify is largely used by people in their mid-20s and younger. Nonetheless, his graphs are highly informative, and quite interactive. His main point seems to be that we don’t get to choose which music is timeless—popularity does that for us:
For example, in 1961, Bobby Lewis’s Tossin’ and Turnin’ spent 7 weeks at #1. For all intents and purposes, Bobby Lewis was the Beyoncé of 1961. Yet, have you heard of it? Do you know who Bobby Lewis is?
Meanwhile, Etta James’ debut album dropped the same year, with At Last peaking on Billboard at #68.
Music historians will regard Bobby Lewis as a pioneer in rock and roll and R&B, yet whatever led to Tossin’ and Turnin’s popularity in 1961 has faded over time. His music, for countless reasons, didn’t persevere in the same way as Etta James’... perhaps Bobby Lewis was a huge personality. Great looks. Amazing dancer... But future generations don’t remember Bobby Lewis’s dancing and good looks. Spotify only catalogues his music. And unfortunately, that quality didn’t endure in the same way as At Last.
The Journey hit “Don’t Stop Believin’” is the most timeless song from the ’80s, and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” takes the top spot for the ’70s. Daniels is right about one thing: We don’t get to choose the music that becomes timeless. Apparently Glee and Wayne’s World have done it for us.
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