You’re at a game, crammed into the seats like everyone else. It could be any of the big sports, but you can predict it especially easily when it’s hockey. At the first break in the action the wailing guitars crank up in a way that bring the image of a hand rolling the knob over hard. You sing along, or rather shout along, to the only word that goes along with it – “Hey!” Yes, it’s Rock & Roll (Part 2) by Gary Glitter, but neither you nor nearly anyone knows that. What you do know is that this is one of those songs that is part of a good time at the game, all as part of the price of admission.
It’s hard to talk about the bits and pieces of our common culture without starting with sporting events. They are the one place in our world where just about anyone from any of the many sub-cultures that live near each other have a chance of coming together. Part of the whole experience is the music, the stuff that we all know the words to – even if we don’t know who wrote it or that he spent time prison in Vietnam for child sexual abuse.
Very few pieces of music become this disconnected from their origins, but those that do have a special place in our culture. It used to be that mega-hits became bigger than the person that wrote them regularly. Top-40 radio was created as a format which broke up the traditional half-hour shows and presented a kind of jukebox for the listener, the number 40 chosen because it’s the number of singles a jukebox held at the time. The top choices from around the nation, determined by through a mysterious process that included at least a little payola, were listened to simultaneously by people across the nation. Some of them became so popular that people got to know the lyrics and called back to have them played again.
That’s what it takes for a song to become culturally important. People across all the various divides have to know it, and know it well enough to sing along. It has to be a ubiquitous background music that rises to the foreground. In short, everyone has to know it and pretty much expect it.
How many tunes make it to that place these days?
Without a common radio format, we can’t expect much new music to hit that level. It’s just that much harder to become a real Rockstar these days. If you look at the songs that seem to have gotten to that stage, Gary Glitter’s 1972 opus is just a shade newer than the Beatles. A few hits from the 80s seem to have the gotten close to the definition, and a few hits by Nirvana have a chance. Somewhere in there we all stopped listening to the same music. A decade or so ago Top 40 died once and for all.
That’s not to say that music and musicians don’t have a chance. In many ways, I’m a bit jealous of them as a writer because they get a chance to have gigs at bars that get them seen. Music is inherently about the moment, unlike writing, so semi-pro musicians get a chance to create a moment all the time. Writing is a more distant art that can easily go unshared forever.
But for all the live music we have in various bars and restaurants and all the musicians selling their mp3s on the internet, it’s hard to imagine any of them making it to the point where everyone knows the words and sings along. That’s not to say our lives won’t remain full of music even as we miss out on other art forms, but the music we hear will depend a lot on what kind of box we find ourselves placed in. Our sub-cultures define who we are and there is less spanning those lines every day.
That’s not to say that we could find ourselves at a hockey game one day with a totally new local group performing as an opening act. It wouldn’t be a big stretch because all the fans are already there and ready to be entertained. I would hope someone would think of something like just to support more like music. Of course, as a writer, I’d be jealous – but I’d do my best to sing along. Or just shout “Hey!”