I imagined I’d have the time of my life, but it was not to be
Hey, Mr DJ, put a different record on, then listen to it and you may find your Top 500 is far from it
In the final days of December, a popular Cape Town radio station embarked on a historic project: it would play the 500 “most iconic songs in history”, counting down until, on the first afternoon of the new year, it would reveal, I assumed, the most important song of the past 150,000 years.
As the hits rolled past, however, it quickly became clear that we were not going to hear the paeans of the mammoth hunters, or the hymns of the Israelites in Egypt, or the favourite ditties of Han dynasty, or even those immense political songs that provided the soundtrack for so many dramatic events of recent history; La Marseillaise or The Internationale, or God Save The Queen or Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika.
I soon discovered why. Humans, the playlist revealed, only started singing iconic songs in 1958, when Elvis Presley invented music with Jailhouse Rock. Everything before then was an unknowable before-time, best left to archaeologists and people over the age of 60: a distant din in which druidic figures such as Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby raised their prehistoric cacophony into the midnight sky, worshipping at the crumbling statues of even older musicians, ur-composers such as Cole Porter or Gilbert and Sullivan, who made music by beating together the still-cooling rocks of our newly formed planet...
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