Nine Songs That Represent the Last Nine Decades

The 1940s, naturally

A list like this is a fool's errand. How can anyone choose one song to represent an entire year, much less an entire decade, with all its trends and transformations? It was hard enough to do it with movies. But I'm making an attempt anyway, because it's been fun to think about. Here goes.

  1. The 1930s: "BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?", Bing Crosby. Many of the songs we associate with the 1940s were actually recorded in the '30s: "In the Mood", "Sing Sing Sing", "Moonlight Serenade", etc. When you think about the '30s, however, you think about the Great Depression. That decade's songwriters (and the public) showed little interest in songs that reflected the desperation of the times, preferring upbeat numbers. One outlier: this bitter 1932 show tune, which Republicans tried to ban as anti-capitalist propaganda. (Some things never change.)
  2. The 1940s: "BOOGIE WOOGIE BUGLE BOY", The Andrews Sisters. A 25-song survey called Songs of the Century slotted this Army-themed jump blues ditty at #6. How can I argue with that? The Andrews Sisters were the personification of '40s music, and World War II was the story of the decade. (Interestingly, this song was recorded six months before America entered the war.)
  3. The 1950s: "HOUND DOG", Elvis Presley. This one's a no-brainer: rock and roll came of age in the '50s, and no one could top the King. The song itself sums up the music industry at the time: written in 15 minutes by two Jews (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), intended for a black woman (Big Mama Thornton), sanitized by a Vegas lounge act (Freddie Bell), and immortalized by a white Southern boy (Elvis Presley)... You can't get more '50s than that.
  4. The 1960s: "TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS", The Beatles. How do you sum up a decade that began with Paul Anka's "Puppy Love" and ended with Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused"? Exactly: with a Beatles song. I nominate this 1966 head trip from John Lennon, which plunged the Fab Four, pop music, and Western culture in general into an era of experimentation and rebellion.
  5. The 1970s: "DISCO DUCK", Rick Dees. What?! you scream. A disco track for the '70s, sure – but this crap, instead of Donna Summer, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, or the friggin' Bee Gees? Well, yes, and here's why: novelty songs like this were everywhere in the faddish '70s, in those final days of corny, snark-free humor before Late Night with David Letterman changed comedy forever. Celebrity impersonations were also all the rage, and this song's Donald Duck jabber (courtesy of one Ken Pruitt) fit right in.
  6. The 1980s: "PURPLE RAIN", Prince. I choose this not because it's a classic, but because it covers so many 1980s tropes: It's a power ballad. Prince's vocals reflect '80s R&B while his electric guitar touches on '80s hard rock. It comes from a movie. And of course it's by one of the biggest stars in history, a man who changed his music and his look to suit every individual year that decade, from 1980's Dirty Mind to 1989's Batman soundtrack.
  7. The 1990s: "YOU OUGHTA KNOW", Alanis Morissette. The 1990s was the Rebel without a Cause of decades. Although we had relative peace and prosperity, cynicism and anger were the order of the day, especially for us so-called Gen X'ers. You'd think I'd list "Smells Like Teen Spirit" here, but Kurt Cobain's angst was real and fatal; Morissette's screechy takedown of an ex-boyfriend (reportedly Full House dullard Dave Coulier) better suits the make-believe outrage of '90s music fans. It also brought the promising Riot Grrrl movement to its inevitable mainstream conclusion.
  8. The 2000s: "YEAH!", Usher. This funk/rap track, Billboard's #2 hit of the decade (behind Mariah Carey's "We Belong Together"), embodies the dumb but catchy sex/party anthems of the new millennium (e.g., "Low", "Don't Cha", "Hot in Herre"). I almost listed the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling", because of its liberal use of Auto-Tune, but "Yeah!" gets the edge for its blunt, goofy title. Black music absolutely dominated the aughts: of the decade's 20 top singles, only two were by white artists ("How You Remind Me" by Nickelback and "Big Girls Don't Cry" by Fergie). Compare that to the '90s, where Caucasians took up nine of the top 20 slots, and the 2010s, where thus far a whopping 14 of the top 20 hits are by whites.
  9. The 2010s: "ALL ABOUT THAT BASS", Meghan Trainor. There's a reason why white performers are ruling pop music this decade: because they have, as usual, co-opted black genres and vocal styles. Justin Bieber, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Robin Thicke... from the ridiculous to the sublime, their music is rich in blackness. So why did I choose the fleetingly popular Trainor for my list? Not just because this lily-white singer from Massachusetts laid the black on extra thick in "All About That Bass" ("I got dat boom-boom dat all the boys chase"), but because the song's theme of body acceptance reflects this decade's pop feminism attitudes, while its sound exemplifies our recent fetishization of 1960s soul.