At some point, it was decided that in order for a song to be great, it has to “stand the test of time.” This has since become a problematic cliché, but initially it must’ve seemed like a bright idea, and not just something that Jethro Tull fans use to dismiss Justin Bieber.
The “test of time” typically rewards iconic artists who produce capital-C Classic work; which is why over the course of decades, certain songs lose their original meanings and become statements about the legacies of their creators. It’s been 40 years since “Imagine” was a hit, and if people still care about that song 400 years from now, it likely will be tied up in the altruistic saintliness that John Lennon (theoretically) still signifies. Similarly, listeners no longer notice the jokey reference to a brand of kiddie underarm deodorant in the title of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; 20 years later, the song has been drained of its irreverence. “Teen Spirit” now tells us what Nirvana is supposed to represent about ’90s culture (namely shooting heroin and hating yourself). And while it’s been only five years since Amy Winehouse released “Rehab,” people from here on out will no doubt focus on the song’s tragic irony, not Mark Ronson’s brassy production.
These songs belong to everybody, which means they belong to no one. We all recognize their greatness, but they don’t really fit into our daily lives. There’s no room for us; the legend is too expansive. When we hear these songs, we think about the singer, not ourselves. It’s hard to talk about them without sounding like a VH1 retrospective.
There’s another type of song that endures but in a completely different way. These songs do make us think about our own lives. We carry them in our subconscious like our hands harbor germs; we don’t always see them but they infect us all the same, and there’s seemingly millions of them. (Actually, it’s more like 200.) It has nothing to do with liking these songs; they become characters in our memories, which makes them as personal as family photographs. They’re so deeply embedded in our pasts that we don’t notice they’re there — and then somebody points one of them out, and this makes us laugh.
Semisonic’s “Closing Time” is that kind of song.