What makes a classic?

Glenn Rohrbacker

What makes a song a classic? Why is it that when “Don’t Stop Believing” comes on the radio or when yet another band plays it at a concert, we all just instantly drop everything and proclaim the lyrics to the sky, despite our ability to actually sing?

The Beatles, pictured above on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, are still as relevant today as they were back then (AP photo)
The Beatles, pictured above on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, are still as relevant today as they were back then (AP photo)

What about songs like “Piano Man,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Hotel California,” “Baba O’Riley,” and about half of the Beatles’ repertoire?

How do songs that were written in a time so different, for people so different, and by people so different who we now view as legends make it in to the 21st century and still have relevance as if they were written just recently.

I can give you the short answer: they make us feel good! But there are very few songs that do it like a classic. Sure, I’m sure we all jammed out time and time again to “Baby” by Justin Bieber, but think about it—when was the last time you actually heard that song? Excluding of course those who still have Bieber-fever. But to hear songs like “Don’t Stop Believing” or “Hey Jude,” you really don’t have to be an avid Journey or Beatles fan. In fact, you may not have even known who sang those songs up until I just told you, but you love them. Why? To be honest, I don’t think we will ever know. It’s a cultural and social phenomenon that we are experiencing for the first time as pop music’s first generation is still alive and well. As time passes, we will definitely be able to tell what goes into a classic song, but for now it’s just an observation.

What I’m sure a lot of people wonder when they hear these classic songs is: “When will they be over?” In other words, when will the time come when the songs that we all know and love and once defined a generation suddenly aren’t relevant anymore? Maybe that’s the secret. Try to think of a situation or time when “Don’t Stop Believing” was unnecessary.
Also, music today is so diverse that its hard create something that reaches every demographic for several reasons. One would be that there are a lot more people and a lot more music out there for them to experience.

Second, once people experience so many different types of music they develop their opinion so that they like a very specific type of music. It is so much harder today to break out and become a top musician and even harder to make a hit.

What will be the classics of the future? Are we looking at these future legends right now like Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Drake or the plethora of artists in the mainstream?

Personally, I haven’t come across a mainstream pop song that I could see myself still loving the same in 20 or 30 years. Has the window to make a classic song closed? Maybe these are just thoughts a music obsessed teenager has but I think they are valid to everyone. Do society a favor: teach your children to appreciate the classics of yesteryear. And more importantly: teach them to teach their kids as well and hopefully we can keep these classics alive.