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"

The starring role in this movie went to a rat
The starring role in this movie went to a rat | Source

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"

Michael Jackson when he sang "Ben"
Michael Jackson when he sang "Ben" | Source

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

Janis Ian

"At Seventeen" describes Janis Ian's life between the ages of twelve and fourteen, before she became a success
"At Seventeen" describes Janis Ian's life between the ages of twelve and fourteen, before she became a success | Source

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

"At Seventeen" single cover
"At Seventeen" single cover | Source

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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Comments 10 comments

Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 5 years ago from North Carolina

Loved the old MJ footage!


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Anaya! "Ben" is my favorite Michael Jackson song, and he is so genuine when he sings it in that clip.


Mentalist acer profile image

Mentalist acer 5 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

You made a very useful point Aya about being popular to be unpopular...not too many people ever state that they were ever very popular;)


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Mentalist Acer. Not too many of us ever were very popular...


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Ben - although you're just a sewer rat..

Ben - to me you're simply where it's at..

Ben - you creature of the night

you stranger to the light

you swim around in sh1te..

but I say you're all right

Was that the lyric? ;)


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Yes, Paraglider, something like that, but much cleaner.

Nice filk, though.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 5 years ago from Oregon, USA

Gosh, It was nice to see footage of little MJ when he still looked like a human.

I think most people don't think they're popular enough so I'm not sure unpopular people are trend setters. I think the aches of adolescence resonate with most young adults, even so-called popular people. And of course I've known since the days of American Bandstand and Casey Kaseoms top 40 that popular music was basically sheep behavior. People paid attention to that stuff so they'd know what to "like/buy." I had music in 4 categories: music I really like but is not popular, music its trendy to like and I also like it, music it's trendy to like but I hate it, and music I just plain hate.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Hot Dorkage, thanks for dropping by. Yes, it is good to see Michael Jackson at his best, before his life and appearance took some strange turns.

Most people are not very popular, but they are not very unpopular, either. Most people are not in the top ten percent of their peer group for popularity. Likewise, they are not in the bottom ten percent of their peer group. They are not prom queen popular, but they are not cabin-in-the-woods, Unabomber material, either.

When I suggested that the tend setters are unpopular people, I meant extremely unpopular. Not very popular doesn't cut it!

If popular music is sheep behavior, then who is the shepherd? That's what I'd like to know.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 5 years ago from Oregon, USA

I don't think there really is a shepherd. It's kinda like cellular division in that game of life. There are factors, but there's randomness to it also. When enough people like something they turn into miniature sales people for the music, because music, by definition is what you play for (sell to) your friends. Whatever gets played on the radio, and nowadays, pushed out the social media channels. There are people who do nothing but that.

So like everything else, whoever has the most resources for promotion gets popular. That's the only way to explain some of the S**T that's out there. Remember "My lovely lady humps"? Jeez what a stupid song!


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Well, actually, I don't remember "My lovely lady humps." I had never heard of it till you mentioned it just now. But then, I'm really, really out of the loop!

My daughter, though, is just now starting to get hip, and she gets all her music recommendations from friends. She has an mp3 player, and she downloads music.

I agree that there's no shepherd, but I think that it might be a little less like cell division and a little more like how a ferromagnet works. The individual electrons want to be parallel to each other. But how do they decide which way to point? I figure it must be the less tractable people who get others all going the same way.

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