What is the “Yesterday” of today?
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Al Martino was never a superstar crooner on the level of a Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, but he did record for a major label—Capitol Records—and notched several Top 40 Billboard pop hits in the ’50s and ’60s. He was a respected and established performer during his heyday, as well as a frequent guest on The Mike Douglas Show (and later a key player in the Godfather movies). On one 1967 Mike Douglas episode, Martino sang the Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern standard “The Way You Look Tonight,” then segued into a version of “Yesterday,” by his Capitol labelmates The Beatles. In the chit-chat segment afterward, Martino felt the need to justify his decision to sing a song by a rock ’n’ roll band, saying, “The Beatles have been accepted by everyone in the world.”
They have; that’s true. And “Yesterday” had a lot to do with that. According to the oft-repeated origin story, the melody for “Yesterday” came to Paul McCartney in a dream, and he spent months playing it for everyone he knew, to make sure that he hadn’t subconsciously plagiarized another song. Once he was confident that the tune was original, McCartney spent a few more months waiting for the right set of words to come to him—in the interim, the song was called “Scrambled Eggs”—and once he had the lyrics right, McCartney wrangled with producer George Martin over the proper arrangement, and argued with his bandmates over whether “Yesterday” was too soft for The Beatles’ image. Finally, the song was released in the fall of 1965, quickly becoming a No. 1 hit and a million-seller. The Guinness Book Of World Records cites it as the most-recorded song in pop music history. It helped change the public perception of The Beatles—from scruffy rockers to pop craftsmen—and gave McCartney and his mates license to keep expanding the parameters of what “a Beatles song” could be over the remarkable run of albums that followed.
Pop music has changed so much since the late ’60s that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another song with the far-reaching impact of “Yesterday” (just as we’re unlikely to see any other set of musicians progress as quickly and record as many classic songs in as short a time as The Beatles did between 1965 and 1970). But is any recent song even close?
To be the new “Yesterday,” a song would need to meet more than one of the following criteria:
- Massive, crossover popularity
- Frequently covered
- Changed the perception of the artist
So here are a few possibilities:
Eminem, “Lose Yourself”
Back at the turn of the millennium, cultural commentators and parents’ groups alike fretted over the lyrics to Eminem songs, which seemed to encourage violence against women, homophobia, drug-taking, narcissism, and just general misbehavior. That was all before 8 Mile, the quasi-biographical 2002 feature film that featured the blood-pumping anthem “Lose Yourself,” a song about overcoming anxiety and humble origins to seize an opportunity. “Lose Yourself” won an Oscar, and became the “Eye Of The Tiger” of the ’00s: the go-to track for athletes, soldiers, or anyone else who needed a little motivation. The song has since been featured in a Chrysler commercial, to represent the renewal of Detroit and the comeback of the American auto industry. So it definitely qualifies as a huge hit that altered Eminem’s image. What it doesn’t have is a rash of cover versions, though a recent viral video of country-pop star Taylor Swift performing “Lose Yourself” in concert may be an indicator that the tide is turning there as well.
Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone”
Becoming the first winner of the televised talent show American Idol didn’t garner Kelly Clarkson much cred, but recording Max Martin and Dr. Luke’s aggressive break-up song “Since U Been Gone” for her second album helped keep Clarkson from being tagged with the “amateur pop star” label that has stuck to so many other AI contestants. Granted, “Since U Been Gone” isn’t as ubiquitous as it was in the mid-’00s. But at the time, it did convince some die-hard indie-rock types—including Ted Leo, who covered the song unironically—that Billboard’s Top 10 didn’t completely suck.
Coldplay’s second album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, was already a hit by the time its third single, “Clocks,” was released in late 2002. But “Clocks” transformed Coldplay (for better or worse) from “band on the rise” to “one of the biggest bands in the world.” The song’s haunting, repetitive piano signature found its way into TV shows, movies, and commercials, but perhaps the biggest boost to Coldplay’s profile was the embrace of “Clocks” by the hip-hop and R&B community. During end-of-the-year round-ups in 2002, “Clocks” was cited by musicians from wildly different genres as one of the year’s best, and over the past half-decade the song has been sampled multiple times.
My Morning Jacket, “Golden”
Okay, this one’s a bit of a reach. Since its appearance on My Morning Jacket’s 2003 album It Still Moves, the sunny acoustic ballad “Golden” hasn’t exactly become a world-beating monster smash. But it sure has been covered a bunch: by the band America on its 2007 comeback album Here & Now, by jazzbo Marco Benevento on his 2009 LP Me Not Me, by Grace Potter & The Nocturnals in concert, and so on. And while MMJ is already plenty popular, “Golden” seems like the kind of song geared to propel the band beyond the “epic Southern-rock jam” crowd. The right cover version or placement on the right movie soundtrack could revive “Golden,” making it the breakout hit it always should’ve been. (The same could be said of any of about a dozen Ryan Adams songs.)
Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”
This one’s also a bit of an outlier, since it’s not a recent song; Leonard Cohen first recorded it in 1984. But “Hallelujah” has had an astonishing run since then. The late Jeff Buckley recorded a heartbreaking version for his 1994 album Grace—aping John Cale’s 1991 cover—and Rufus Wainwright did a Buckley-ish take for the 2001 soundtrack to Shrek. (Hop on YouTube and you’ll find dozens of “Hallelujah” covers performed by kids, nearly all labeled as “the Shrek song.”) K.D. Lang recorded “Hallelujah” for her all-Canadian covers album Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, and has performed the song live on several high-profile occasions, including during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics. British X Factor winner Alexandra Burke scored the coveted “Christmas Number One” slot in 2008 with her cover, and in recent years, “Hallelujah” has gone from being a “gutsy” song choice on American Idol to being one of the show’s standards. And it’d be almost impossible to calculate how many movies and TV shows have featured a plaintive montage set to some version of “Hallelujah.” It’s hard to argue that the belated success of “Hallelujah” has changed perceptions of Leonard Cohen though, because not that many folks have actually heard Cohen’s original.
Green Day, “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”
Speaking of montage-bait, Green Day’s acoustic ballad “Good Riddance” is still—nearly 15 years after it was released—being used to score sweetly nostalgic “goodbye” videos, even though the song itself has bitter overtones. It’s also become a karaoke staple, and the kind of song that a veteran performer like Glen Campbell can sing without coming off as kitschy. As for what “Good Riddance” did for Green Day: Well, it showed, three years after Dookie and two years after the relative letdown of Insomniac, that the band was still capable of making hit records, even outside of its pop-punk comfort zone. Step one on the path to Broadway?
The White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army”
When I reviewed music critic Simon Reynolds’ new book Retromania for another publication, I used “Seven Nation Army” as a counterpoint to Reynolds’ main argument, saying that the embrace of the song by other musicians, sports fans, and citizen protestors alike shows that The White Stripes weren’t just making irrelevant homages to outdated sounds. Like the melody to “Yesterday,” the main riff to “Seven Nation Army” sounds like it’s always existed, waiting to be transformed into a rallying cry.
In honor of the Stripes, I’ll stop at seven, though I could make also cases for the likes of Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’,” Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You,” and many, many others. Instead, I’ll now throw it open to the floor. What is the “Yesterday” of today? And please… show your work.