Monday, May 3, 2010

Culture: When Songs Become Culture

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There are moments when one realizes that a song has become not just a pop hit, but a part of the culture of the times. When then-presidential candidate General Wesley Clark claimed to listen to OutKast, "Hey Ya" moved from crossover break-out to cultural icon of the time. When U2 performed "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out of" in the secretive post-September 11th concert in 2001, despite the fact that it was actually about suicide, it became the song symbolic of the time after the terrorist attack, more important than its modest commercial success would imply.

I take more stock of more casual moments to realize that a song has "made it" beyond the radio. Once, in spring 2003, while riding a local train near Zurich, Switzerland, a pair of teenage girls boarded the train, started horsing around, and one exclaimed, "Chihuahua!" At that point, I knew the hit by Swiss German rapper DJ BoBo (from whom, I oddly have only two degrees of separation) used in a Coca-Cola campaign had become at least a Swiss cultural phenomenon. (It never made it in North America outside of the owners of that breed.) When I was walking down Dundas Street West in Toronto in the summer of 2006 and heard Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" coming out of two different car radios not in simulcast, I knew that song had become the symbolic song of that summer and the World Cup soccer tournament ongoing at the time, as each car was flying a flag of their favored national team.

I had another of those moments yesterday. While walking down a very low-traffic street in my neighbourhood, returning after a Jane's Walk, I passed a family playing in their front yard. As two children circled after one another, seemingly chasing one another, the mother sang out loudly, "When I get older..." Immediately recognizing the tune, I sang back, "I will be stronger..." and then one of the children completed the phrase "They'll call me freedom, just like a wavin' flag" before breaking up in giggles while rolling on the lawn.

These, of course are the opening lyrics of K'naan's "Wavin' Flag", which had long-since became a global phenomenon when it was selected as the song for the 2010 World Cup, as discussed last week. Yet, in my mind, that moment yesterday will be the moment that the song became something more than pop music, a cultural touchstone of 2010.

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