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Stop trying to impose order on music

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What use is a list of the greatest New Zealand songs if it doesn’t include The Phoenix Foundation?

[MUSIC]

In the last Idealog I talked about the power of song to sell products, and the flow-on effect that the resulting ad has on promoting the song.

September’s APRA Silver Scroll awards featured two songs that owe much to advertising for their success, with the coveted award ultimately going to ‘One Day’ by Opshop, a tune used in New Zealand Post’s ads. Opshop has been grafting away for a number of years, so it’s gratifying to see them rewarded for their endeavours (they also scooped the statistical award for Most Performed Work).

These types of awards, where contenders are whittled down to a final list of just five, always provoke their fair share of passionate debate, usually for their omissions rather than their inclusions. However, as anyone who has seen High Fidelity is aware, top-five lists are the cornerstone for any music nerd.

Who are we to argue? So without further delay, let me impart to you my Top Five Reasons Why Music Lists Suck.

1 Opinion is mistaken for fact

‘Nature’ by The Fourmyula is our best song. Apparently this is etched in stone and no further discussion shall be entered into, period. Likewise, the ‘consensus’ is that ‘She Speeds’ is the best Straitjacket Fits song, to the point that the mainstream media will play this clip and this clip only when highlighting a story about the a) the Fits, b) Shayne Carter, c) Flying Nun or d) Dunedin. It’s not even the best song on their debut EP Life In One Chord fer chrissakes, let alone their entire oeuvre*. This is the basic core of what I’ll call the She Speeds Principle: bash an audience over the head with a notional music ‘fact’ long enough and they’ll eventually lose all critical reasoning and judgement and simply regurgitate said ‘fact’ by rote, ad nauseum.

* That would be ‘Dialling A Prayer’. Sorry to burst that bubble for you.

2 Creativity is not a horse race

I’m cribbing this from Nick Cave who infamously withdrew from the MTV awards one year fearing that if he left his songs in competition like horses in a race, his muse may well bolt and desert him completely. It’s a fair point, too: can one piece of art be truly better than another piece of art when beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Does one song actually have to be proven better than all the others to be a good song? No and no.

3 It makes for lazy journalism

This one is just dripping with irony, isn’t it? I stopped buying mags such as Q and Mojo for the very reason that, with a dearth of any interviews or features lined up, editors simply filled pages with a never-ending parade of mind-numbing lists like ‘The Best 50 Singles Of All Time!’ or ‘50 Soul Records We Own And You Should Too But You Can’t Because They’ve Never Been Reissued And They Are Only In This List So We Can Gloat At You And Thereby Fill The Gaping Hole In Our Lives Where Meaning Should Be’. Not big, not clever.

4 Popular doesn’t equal better

Now, you would have thought everyone had learned this lesson from school, but apparently not. Don’t get me wrong—music decided by popular vote is a great thing, a barometer of the great unwashed or, at the very least, a barometer of the programme directors who decide what you’re allowed to listen to. But let’s not get Most Popular confused with Best. I’m not denigrating anyone who wins a pop choice award, fair play to ’em, but awards organisers the world over need to call a spade a spade instead of bestowing a mark of superiority on a single song or album by lauding it as The Best.

5 They’re only relevant for 15 minutes

If there’s going to be anything as grandiose as a ‘greatest of all time’ list then it behoves us to have the good sense to audit these lists on a regular basis. The prosecution submits, m’lud, that it is now six years since APRA’s Nature’s Best list first surfaced and there’s been a fair few songs released since then. Master tunesmith Dave Dobbyn has released his second album since 2002, Shayne Carter is on to his third Dimmer album (fourth if you count I Believe You Are A Star, which came out when the Nature’s Best list was still being tallied up). Elemeno P hadn’t even released an album when that list came out; ditto the Mint Chicks and The Phoenix Foundation, to name but a few. Of the first 30 songs on Nature’s Best almost a quarter of the songs are six years old or less, although the overall average is a healthy 17 years old. Of those newer songs, I wonder how many would now be edged out when faced with more recent releases? Would only a music nerd concern himself with such stats? Probably.

No doubt you’ll have your own lists, favourites and reasoning. Let me recommend to you an excellent place to vent: www.5alist.com, created by Stefan Lewandowski and sometime Idealog contributor Andrew Dubber. Log on and start listing.