I have been debating with two of my brothers for over a decade about the longevity and importance of 20th century popular music and musical artists. In 100, 200 or 300 years, assuming basic continuity of our civilization, which artists from the last century will be household names, will be known at all outside of music historians, will be considered important in any way?

Our positions have changed a bit over the years, but I tend to argue like this: How many artists can you name from the 19th century? The 18th? The 17th? My music history education is probably better than average, but my lists quickly narrow. I can think of ten or so 19th century composers (and zero musicians) off the top of my head and have put in significant listening time with only Brahms, Chopin, and Beethoven. I can think of about five 18th century composers and have spent significant time with two–Mozart and Bach. I can only think of one composer from the 17th century and have spent no time with his music. By the 16th century, I don’t even recognize any musicians‘ or composers‘ names.

And none of the above wrote in English. If I had needed to understand the words to enjoy the music I would have no use for any of them.

So, I argue, why should we expect more than ten or so musical artists of our era to be generally known and considered important in 100 years, or more than five in 200 years, or two in 300 years? To do so seems to inflate the importance of our music, and to deflate the probable importance of future generations’ music to the generations that produce it and the probability of major shifts in the dominant culture. It’s an easy mistake to make, I think, for the Gen Xers and Millenials in the cultural shadow of the Boomers. After all, who have our generations produced to eclipse The Beatles or James Brown?

And there’s the way language changes. Even assuming English remains dominant, our modern English is quite likely to sound stilted in 100 years and pretty hard to understand in 300. How many people will listen to Bob Dylan purely for the sonic experience, especially once the historical context of 20th century folk music and Dylan’s “going electric” is long gone?

My brothers, on the other hand, tend to argue that digital storage of music and globalization have changed everything and my looking at history to predict the future is not clear thinking. First, there is unprecedented access to fame in modern times: The composers I cite could write down their pieces and try to get others to play them, but couldn’t put them on YouTube with a video to go viral. As far as I know it’s true that even the best known of my list of composers had nowhere near the fame of Michael Jackson. Maybe popes or emperors had a shot at that kind of fame, but not Bach. Second, my composers wrote on paper that can decompose or get thrown away with grandpa’s old junk after he dies. This is way, way less likely to happen with the way we store information now. A recording of music can theoretically live forever in easy access. Third,  the trend seems to be nichification, not extinction. The memory of and enthusiasm for Carl Perkins, for example, lives on in young people who are into neo-rockabilly, psychobilly, gothabilly and who knows what other sub-genres to come.  Finally, my wife, Reanna, points out that language may not drift the way it used to because of globalization and the internet. It seems like standardization (to Californian English) is the trend these days, not drift. Dylan may be only a little harder to understand in a couple centuries than he is today.

For all these reasons, they argue, why should we expect any really great music from the 20th century to lose its place in the popular culture of the future?

We will never know the answer. Still, it makes for an interesting exercise to predict. When or if general knowledge of 20th century music narrows to 10 artists, who will it be? Five artists? Two?

Here are my best guesses. This was very difficult, though a very interesting process to go through. Compelling, even. How can I keep my aesthetics and hopes out of it? How long can a dead musical artist remain in memory based on the force of their charisma or persona or being a major voice of their generation?  I am actually less sure about my guesses now that I’ve thought them through. Perhaps I’ll write another post about the process. 

I’d love to know, what are your versions of these lists?

100 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2100:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Billy Holiday
  • Bob Dylan
  • Duke Ellington
  • Elvis Presley
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Michael Jackson
  • Ray Charles
  • The Beatles

200 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2200:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis Armstrong
  • The Beatles

[Note: I gave myself five slots to fill on this list but decided not to.]

300 year list: 20th century musical artists still generally known in the year 2300:

  • Duke Ellington
  • Louis Armstrong
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