Returning on a family trip this New Years Day, I asked my son to play the Top Billboard charting song for the year of each of our graduations from high school. It was insightful and fun, as it led to other listening and forced us all to listen to songs we might not otherwise have chosen.
My daughter graduated in 2013. We declined to play the lyrically nasty Number One of that year, “Blurred Lines,” by Robin Thicke, featuring T.I. and Pharrell, on my son’s recommendation. I looked up the lyrics later. I can’t repeat most of the them here, except to say the mildest part of it was “you're an animal, baby it's in your nature/ Just let me liberate you,” and it goes downhill from there. My son fared little better, with Ke$ha’s (and how do you pronounce a name with a dollar sign in it?) “Tik Tok,” which is a girls-go-dance-and-party song. Turning to 1976, the year of my graduation, I felt like things had to be better, though I was concerned about the incursion of disco into the playlist. The number one song in 1976 was “Silly Love Songs,” by Paul McCartney and Wings. The lyrics are, in fact, light and silly, but they are not profane. The melody, unfortunately, sticks in your head.
Finally, my wife’s year of graduation, 1973, produced “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” by Tony Orlando and Dawn. While I’m not particularly fond of the song (though it is infectious, as are most pop tunes), it apparently had a storied tradition rooted in folklore. A convict is returning home after three years imprisonment, and he tells his love to tie a yellow ribbon around the oak tree if she welcomes his return. There are, to his surprise, 100 ribbons around the tree on his return. Variants of the story date back even as far as the civil war, when a woman’s tying a yellow ribbon in her hair was a sign of welcome to a returning soldier. So you have to respect the writers for re-working the story and putting it in song, particularly at a time when many soldiers were returning from an unpopular Vietnam War. The yellow ribbon was a symbol for a welcome homecoming which resonated in a culture not particularly welcoming to returning vets.
As a mark of how the culture has shifted — from the meaningful to the silly to the nasty — just compare these songs. It’s quite a shift. And then go listen somewhere else, because there is still a lot that is true, good, and beautiful --- somewhere back of the Top 100. Start here or here.