Popular Songs For and About People Who are Unpopular
What makes a song popular? Does it appeal to the masses? Does it embody the values that are already accepted by the culture? Is it the same thing that makes a person popular?Does the popularity of the song and the popularity of the singer go hand in hand? Can a song taking an unpopular stance ever be popular? Can anybody except unpopular people identify with unpopularity? Isn't unpopularity instant disqualification for something seeking to achieve "pop" status? Wouldn't it stand to reason that popular songs take the popular person's outlook on life as their unspoken premise?
But what about popular songs about unpopular people? Or songs whose very theme is unpopularity? How do songs like that become pop classics?
Poster for the movie "Ben"
Type "Ben" into a Google search. The first thing that comes up is the movie about the rat by the same name. The next thing you get is a video of Michael Jackson singing the theme song from the movie. How did a song about a boy's love for his pet rat become so popular?
And this is not just any pet rat: this is a super rat planning to take over the world, too. If you don't believe me, just read the IMDb synopsis:
"A lonely boy becomes good friends with Ben, a rat. This rat is also the leader of a pack of vicious killer rats, killing lots of people."
Now, keep this in mind when you listen to Michael Jackson sing the song in the video embedded below.
Ben -- A very big hit for Michael Jackson!
Michael Jackson's single "Ben"
Movie Trailer for "Ben"
The Ending of "Ben" featuring Michael Jackson's voice
Ben: History of the Song
The song "Ben" was composed by Walter Scharf and written by Don Black. It was written specifically for the movie Ben, which was a sequel to another rat-centered movie: Willard. The song was written for Donny Osmond to perform, but since Osmond was on a tour and unavailable, it was offered to Michael Jackson. Jackson had already had a number one hit, but Ben allowed him to become the third youngest performer to score a number one single.
For a whole week, the song Ben topped the U.S. charts. It did even better in Australia, lasting eight weeks in the number one spot, but only made number seven in the UK. Why were so many people attracted to a song about a killer rat and how much he was loved by a lonely boy? Did population density have anything to do with the degree of success in each country?
"Ben" sung by Michael Jackson
Who Are the Trendsetters?
Do you think it was popular people who made Ben a popular song? Do you think they identified with the rat and the boy? Or was it the lonely, unloved individuals at the fringes of society who made this an unexpected hit?
How do people decide which songs they like, anyway?
Research has been done on the subject. It turns out that people are influenced by the choices of other people when it comes to choosing their favorite songs. Each of us has an internal aesthetic meter, and each person in isolation can choose his own favorite songs. But... as soon as people become aware of what other people's choices are, they tend to follow rather than to lead. They change their favorites based on what they believe their peers have listed as their favorite.
So... only isolated people could possibly choose a song based on merit. And who is more isolated than unpopular people?
Songs with Unpopularity as their Theme: "At Seventeen"
What is unpopularity, anyway? For a person, unpopularity means not being liked by others. For a musical work, unpopularity means not being appreciated, bought or listened to.
Janis Ian's hit, "At Seventeen" has unpopularity as its subject. Listen to the song. Who do you think made it a pop classic: socially well adjusted people or outsiders?
Janis Ian "At Seventeen"
The cover of the single: At Seventeen
Released in 1975, "At Seventeen" hit number one on the Adult Contemporary chart and won the 1975 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance: Female.
How did this happen? Is it because every music fan had been unpopular at one point? Or was it because, popular or unpopular, people appreciated the merit of the song? Or did it get a boost from the unpopular listeners who dared to say they liked it, whether anyone else did or not?
Popularity is like Wealth
Popularity, like wealth, is based on percentages. There can be only one top hit in any given country at any given time. There can be only so many people in the top ten percent of the most wealthy in any place at any time. Take any community of one hundred people, and only ten will be in the top ten percent for anything: wealth or popularity among them.
Unlike wealth, popularity cannot be forcibly redistributed. Nobody can make anybody like us. Not even at the point of a gun. (Most especially not at the point of a gun!)
Love flows spontaneously. It cannot be commanded by others. If we like someone, it's because we can't help it. Are people influenced by what other people like? Most people are, but the influence is subliminal, and they are not necessarily aware of it. Those who aren't as susceptible to social influences are often left completely out of the loop.
But there is an upside to all this for unpopular, socially isolated people. Sometimes their preferences trump everyone else's and create surprising smash hits. People who always navigate by a social compass don't really know where their needle should point. It's then that the less popular of us can help them to find true north.
The next time you write a song that couldn't possibly have broad appeal, remind yourself that for one whole week all of America was enthralled by a song about a lonely boy's love for a killer rat! If that's possible, anything is possible, provided that the song is really good!
Copyright 2010 Aya Katz
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