Question the canon
Matthew Munhall | Sunday, September 20, 2015
During the last week of August, Pitchfork, the tastemaking online music publication, published its list of the 200 Best Songs of the 1980s. The introduction argued that from these lists “we learn something about how perceptions of decades change over time, and how the musical ideas from a given era filter through to later generations.”
Part of the motivation behind these kind of lists is to start a conversation that, in turn, drives page views. Twitter fingers quickly protested Prince’s “Purple Rain” position at number one. Other publications created playlists of the best ‘80s songs left off Pitchfork’s list. Salon, predictably, published a piece that asked, “Are these really the best songs of the ‘80s?”
What I appreciate about the Pitchfork list and the resulting conversation are the questions it raises about canon-making. Many of the huge hits typically included on ‘80s lists — like a-ha’s “Take On Me” or Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” — are not present. It makes the case for “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” as the quintessential Michael Jackson song instead of “Billie Jean,” which was the bigger hit at the time. It argues that the music of rap groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy is just as influential as that of indie mainstays like Sonic Youth and the Smiths, who have dominated past Pitchfork lists. These choices, whether you agree with them or not, probe expectations about what music from the ‘80s should be regarded as culturally important.
The list also raises questions of representation and which artists are included in the canon of popular music. Most notably, there are only three women in the list’s top 20: Kate Bush, Madonna and Whitney Houston (six if you include New Order’s Gillian Gilbert, Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon). In a decade in which so many women were creating interesting music, why do men still dominate lists of the best music?
Pitchfork’s list points to the necessity of continually questioning what is part of the canon and what drives these choices. Whether it’s ‘80s pop music or Western literature, critics should be skeptical about which artists and works are considered important to the culture at large. As Pitchfork itself noted, perceptions of decades change over time and so should our understanding of what art is lasting and important.