I once dated a bassist who proclaimed that he hated love songs because there were so many of them. He didn’t understand why people still listened to them. That question always nagged at me – and I think about it often. Today I was driving a car without my phone – which means I had to *gasp* listen to the radio on my drive home. And it wasn’t even Pandora!! While flipping through channels (I don’t know the good stations in Portland because I never listen to the radio and I didn’t grow up here) I listened to all sorts of music, from Dubstep to Sublime to the Eagles and I thought about what makes music – or a book – or a movie – popular. This is a question that niggles in the back of my mind and has done for years now.
My theory is that any popular piece, whether well done or a complete steaming pile of crap, impinges on us in a very basic level.
For example, remember when the Backstreet Boys were popular? No? Well, I do, and so do these guys:
While their songs are completely terrible (sorry husband o’ mine, but they are) they have one thing in common – they are about basic human emotion. The top Backstreet Boys song (according to a website I pulled out of Google’s butt) is Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely. Which, while I’ve never been able to stand that song, is all about love and death, two very very basic human experiences. Not only is the subject matter basic, the music itself is incredibly simple. It’s a brand – because every goddamn Backstreet Boys song I’ve ever heard has this beat – but it’s also crazy simple and easy to follow along. The Chinese guys could do it – and so can literally everyone else in the world.
I think this is what people mean by “catchy“. When the subject matter is simple and the music itself is super simple. I specifically picked Backstreet Boys because they’ve always been an enigma I didn’t understand. I don’t get why they were so popular – but then again, I LOVED the Spice Girls, so I guess I shouldn’t hate on the Backstreet Boys too badly.
The same principles can be applied to books. I searched the top ten best selling books of all time – and for some reason found the top 21 best selling books of all time. Since I don’t want to get into religion, and since I haven’t actually read several of the books on this list (though I’m super happy Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None got on that list – it’s one of my favorite books), I’m going to just bring up one series that a lot of people have probably read.
Number four on the list is the Lord of the Rings. While this is clearly a complex story with epic battles and Ents – which I wish were real – the basic story is, for the love of family and friends and a keen desire for adventure, a young hobbit goes into the greater world to destroy a plague of evil. This is super basic. It, like many fantastic stories, boils down to love/hate and good/evil.
I will digress to make a point – the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham is for children and seems nonsensical, but it too boils down to love/hate. One guy is trying to make the other guy try green eggs and ham, while the other says “gross – I hate those”. The first guy is like “No way, dude, you’re gonna love it! Just try it.”
This is a recurring theme in life. How many trite “you never know until you try” or “there’s plenty of fish in the sea” sayings are there? How many times have you said something like “I LOVE my job” or “I HATE my ex”? Too many to count. We quantify our lives in love/hate and good/evil.
And that’s why there are so many love songs.
I’m kind of kidding – but I think my point is made. The reason there are so many love songs, so many books, movies, tv shows, and plays all about love/hate and good/evil is because that’s how we quantify life. And we love black and white “that guy’s a good guy – he gets the girl” but get offended when the bad guy some how wins. I think this is because it offends our sensibilities about real life. In real life, the bad guy may win, but we assume that he died suffering mentally or physically somehow. When a young person who seems like a nice, polite young man dies tragically from a drug overdose we get upset. If it were a book, we’d somehow be able to revenge ourselves on the evil drug dealer or something. But in real life, we can’t. And that’s why fiction is so awesome. We can wish fulfill and make all the things that offend our sensibilities in the real world make sense. That’s a reason I think fiction, music, and any kind of art is so important, good or bad, happy or sad. It may help a person make sense of the world around them – and that’s important.
And now for something completely different…. (*warning – the story linked to there will make you cry at the end. I cried in the parking lot of Office Depot. But it was worth it.)