“They don’t make ‘em like they use to.” Or maybe they do. That is, if the Lindy effect applies to music, then the future life-expectancy of music in the public consciousness can be roughly predicted by how long it has lasted thus far.
The Lindy effect, recently popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Skin in the Game, tries to explain the ‘Test of Time,’ or granny’s wisdom. It’s a heuristic to streamline decisionmaking over the long term, and it has predictive qualities. For example, if a business is only a year old, the most likely scenario is that it will last one year more. However, if it does last two years, then the likelihood that it will last an additional two years increases.
To state the hypothesis as it applies to music: If a song or an album has been remembered for 20 years, then it’s more likely to be remembered for another 20 years. If it’s been remembered for 50 years, then it’s probably pretty damn good. If it’s been remembered for centuries, then it’s probably better than you can understand.
If this is true, then it might explain why anyone who has been listening to music for more than a decade has the sense that music was simply better back in the day. It’s not that music is necessarily worse now, on average – we’re in the moment, and it’s difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.
What we hear in the daily soundtrack of life, when you’re getting your hair cut, out shopping, something coming from someone’s phone at the other end of the bus, is noise. The quality of this music is going to vary wildly because what is popular doesn’t necessarily correlate to what is good. The signal is the true state of music, which fluctuates, and can come from anywhere from the top of the pop charts to underground niche movements.
What we think of as “good older music” is not representative of the general state of music back then. It might be the case those songs that are remembered, and still played on the radio, TV and movies, happen to be the exceptional outliers. The Lindy effect is about filtering: Time has sifted out the mediocre songs that were popular for arbitrary or non-universal reasons, or were just faddish. If you’re going to go to the trouble of looking back to the 1980s now, what you bring back for us better be good.
And what is considered as great music from decades ago wasn’t necessarily chart material. But in the long term, they have been rediscovered by subsequent generations.
Of course, the quality of the music, on average, could have been better for any number of reasons. To test this I conducted a highly-scientific test, whereby I listened to the Top 10 Singles Chart (UK) for this week 24 February 2019, and the Top 10 Single Chart from the same date 35 years ago, gave each song a rating out of 10 and averaged them out.
If the Lindy effect applies to music, and that popular music at any given time is mostly noise, then the average should be pretty similar. If I’m wrong, and music was really better when our parents were young, then the average from 1984 should be significantly better.
Top 10 Singles Chart 24th February 2019:
- 7 rings by Ariana Grande – Rating: 7. Vibey twist on Favorite Things.
- break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored by Ariana Granda – Rating: 6. A boring song about being bored. If Ariana is the next female hyperstar, then we’re in dire straits. (The non-capitalisation is also obnoxious.)
- Someone You Loved by Lewis Capaldi – Rating: 5.5. Uninspired crooning with a perfunctory dance vibe.
- Giant by Calvin Harris and Rag’n’Bone Man – Rating: 7.5. I can more than cope with this head boppy production.
- Don’t Call Me Up by Mabel – Rating: 5. What plays in bars you should avoid if at all possible.
- Dancing With A Stranger by Sam Smith and Normani – Rating: 6.5. Kind of dull but inoffensive.
- Wow. by Post Malone – Rating: 7. The less said about the lyrics the better. Let’s be thankful it has chest-shattering bass.
- bury a friend by BIlie Eilish – Rating: 7. Sounds like People Are Strange. Irreverant.
- Options by NSG featuring Tion Wayne – Rating: 6.5. Better production than most of this recent sub-genre.
- Sweet But Psycho by Ava Max – Rating: 6. Overly loud and robotic.
Top 10 Singles Chart 24th February 1984:
- Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Rating: 8. Homoerotic dancefloor classic.
- 99 Red Balloons by Nena – Rating: 8. Unironically fresh.
- Doctor! Doctor! by The Thompson Twins – Rating: 6.5. Strained singalong.
- Radio Ga Ga by Queen – Rating: 8.5. When Queen went synth – a proper anthem.
- My Ever Changing Moods by The Style Council Rating: 6.5 – Kept waiting for it to take off.
- Break My Stride by Matthew Wilder Rating: 6 – Irritating earworm.
- Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell Rating: 8 – Don’t forget what a tune this is.
- Girls Just Want To Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper Rating: 6 – Ugh.
- Wouldn’t It Be Good by Nik Kershaw Rating: 6 – You can hear this song being composed in the boardroom.
- Joanna by Kool and the Gang Rating: 6 – I love the Gang, but this is too obvious.
2019 average: 6.4
1984 average: 6.95
So the 1980s wins, but not by much.
It could be that one of those songs from 2019 becomes a classic like Radio Ga Ga is now (though I doubt it).
Despite my impeccable taste, this has some subjective element to it, but I defy anyone to do the experiment I just did and come up with drastically different results. You might find that your rose-tinted glasses have helped you forget the flim-flam that rubbed shoulders with the greats at the time, and skewed your perception of music in chronology.
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