Decoding Perceptions of the Past With Spotify: What Makes a Song a Timeless Classic?

Writing a hit doesn't guarantee that a song will be listened to for decades. Yet, Spotify's <i>All Out</i> playlists can help uncover what factors shape a song's lasting impact.

Decoding Perceptions of the Past With Spotify: What Makes a Song a Timeless Classic?
Chris Dalla Riva
Chris Dalla Riva
September 13, 202311 min read
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If the success of a band was defined by commercial performance, then The Velvet Underground was not a success. None of their singles cracked the Billboard Hot 100, and the highest they ever charted an album was 85. Decades later, none of their releases have achieved gold or platinum status as per the Recording Industry Association of America.

Of course, musical success is not defined by commercial performance. Music is an end in and of itself. It can be joyful and healing to both perform and listen to. It binds people together during the highest highs and lowest lows of the human experience. Someone can record a song that nobody will ever hear, and still rightfully declare it a success.

Even so, The Velvet Underground is considered one of the most important bands of all time and are widely regarded for their work with Andy Warhol. Famed critic Robert Christgau declared them the number three band of the 1960s, after The Beatles and James Brown and His Famous Flames. Pitchfork ranked their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, the best album of the same decade. Rolling Stone magazine declared them the 19th greatest artist of all time. Legendary producer Brian Eno went so far as to say that “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” In short, no collection of songs from the 1960s is complete without Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Moe Tucker (i.e., The Velvet Underground).

Because of this, it’s not shocking that Spotify has featured four Velvet Underground songs on their All Out 60s playlist over the last few years. Spotify has similar playlists for each decade between the 1950s and the 2010s, each with a near-identical description: “The biggest songs of the [decade]” where [decade] is substituted for whatever ten-year span the playlist is focused on.

As noted, no song by The Velvet Underground could have been deemed one of “the biggest songs of the 1960s” when it initially came out. But songs that sold very few copies upon release can become classics. How common is something like this? Do listeners’ pictures of the past change radically over time or are groups like The Velvet Underground outliers?

These All Out playlists provide a glimpse into what people consider the largest and most important works of each ten-year span, so they can help answer these questions. Using Chartmetric, each All Out playlist was sampled for each year between 2016 and 2023, with larger samples coming from more recent years. Songs that appeared for at least seven days were aggregated and then paired with their peak position on the Billboard Hot 100 to understand how popular they were upon initial release. If The Velvet Underground’s journey from commercial failure to 1960s canon were common, then one would expect many songs on these playlists to not have been hits. Interestingly, this isn’t the case. The Velvet Underground are an outlier.

Independent of decade, nearly 70% of the songs featured in these playlists cracked the Billboard Hot 100. At least 60% cracked the top 40, and almost half made the top 10. In short, one of the best ways to have songs live on over the long term is to have them be popular upon release. It’s not advisable to bank on a song being discovered over time, like the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” becoming an inescapable sports anthem or Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” having more chart success in the 2010s than when it was released in 1979.

Writing a hit doesn't guarantee that a song will be listened to for decades. Yet, it’s easy to determine how much it helps by seeing how many songs that made it to No. 1 on the Hot 100 are included in the All Out playlists. In basically every decade, at least half of its No. 1 hits are still being curated on Spotify’s All Out playlists.

So, having a hit is one of the best ways to have a song live on for decades. But what else helps? Oddly, the year the song came out. In a perfect world, one would expect roughly 10% of songs on a playlist focused on the most popular songs of a decade to come from each year. Of course, this isn’t going to happen, as there are a different number of songs released each year. Nevertheless, a playlist like All Out 90s represents each year of the 20th century’s final decade pretty evenly.

There are some oddities here. Certain songs on the playlist were released outside the decade. In recent years these playlists stick more strictly to their timeframe, but, even so, a “90s song” released outside the 1990s is not that shocking. Musical movements don’t end suddenly when the decade ends. Because of that, one might associate an *NYSNC song released in the early 2000s with the decade prior. Regardless, there’s a clear difference in the distribution of songs by release year between the All Out 90s and All Out 60s playlists.

It looks like more music of the late-1960s has stood the test of time. Were there no hits in the earlier part of the decade? No — of course there were hits. With songs like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” (1960), Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” (1961), Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” (1963), and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (1963), that can’t be the case either. Though music post-1964 (i.e., British Invasion music) has come to define the 1960s, there was still tons of quality music released in the first half of the decade. Something else must be going on.

In a 2014 piece for FiveThirtyEight called “Why Classic Rock Isn’t What It Used to Be,” Eric Wellman, the program director for WAXQ, New York City’s classic rock station, described how the station’s playlist is selected:

“The standard in the industry these days is an online music test or an auditorium music test where you just gather a sample and have them rate songs based on the hooks — the most familiar parts of the song — and you just get back a whole slew of data,” Wellman said. The stations find a cluster of people who like the music that makes up the core of classic rock, and then finds out what else they like. They like R.E.M.? Well, R.E.M. is now classic rock. “It’s really that simple,” Wellman said.

Radio stations curate music based on what people are listening to. As the demographics of their audience shift, the songs that fall under a certain genre shift too (i.e., Nirvana was not considered classic rock in 1995, but they are now). The same thing is going on with All Out 60s.

At this point, there is a smaller addressable market of people who are looking for music of the early 1960s. The music of the latter part of the decade is better represented on the playlist simply because it is more recent. Research from Science has found that when quizzing Americans about U.S. presidents, people will know the most popular ones — like Washington and Lincoln — along with the one in office, but will forget older ones linearly, meaning that the 12th president will likely be less remembered than the 13th, the 13th will be less remembered than 14th, and so on. Musical memory likely functions the same. For a more recent decade, like the 1990s, there is relatively uniform representation across each year, but as you go back to older decades, like the 1950s and 1960s, curation is dominated by the last few years of the ten-year span.

These underlying circumstances are likely why Spotify curation doesn’t go much earlier than the 1950s. The addressable audience looking for an All Out 40s playlist is likely very small. Because of these dynamics, at some point in the next decade, Spotify might deprecate or diminish some of its 1950s curation.

This can already be seen at play with satellite radio. From the mid-2000s, SiriusXM had decade-focused pop playlists near the top of the channel list: 40s on 4, 50s on 5, 60s on 6, 70s on 7, 80s on 8, 90s on 9, and Pop2k, which aired on channel 10. In 2015, 40s on 4 was rebranded as '40s Junction and moved up to channel 71. In 2021, 50s on 5 was rebranded as '50s Gold and moved to channel 72. Likewise, 60s on 6 was rebranded as '60s Gold and moved to channel 73.

Channel 4 is now TikTok Radio, described as “Trending sounds from TikTok” and features artists like Ice Spice, Doja Cat, Lizzo, Taylor Swift, and Olivia Rodrigo. Channel 5 is The Pulse, described as “Your Pop on the Pulse!” with songs from artists like Lewis Capaldi, Meghan Trainor, Maroon 5, OneRepublic, and Taylor Swift. Finally, channel 6 is The Coffee House, described as “Fresh Music Vibes” with artists like Taylor Swift, Phoebe Bridgers, Noah Kahan, Passenger, and Kacey Musgraves. Beyond noticing that Taylor Swift is featured on every station, it’s clear that the coverage of older decades is being replaced by that of newer decades, where there is likely a larger market of listeners. Spotify curation is exhibiting a similar pattern, and will likely continue to do so.

The third factor that plays into what music gets remembered are non-musical shocks, which is when something unrelated to the artist or song affects their continued popularity. For example, TikTok has sparked renewed interest in some older songs. Aly & AJ’s “Potential Breakup Song” and Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” are great examples of this. Both songs — the former released in 2007 and the latter in 1970 — were hits upon release. As time went on, the popularity of each diminished, so much so that neither had been featured on their relevant decade playlists.

But, when “Potential Breakup Song” began popping off TikTok in 2020, it earned a placement on All Out 2000s. The song, it seemed, had reentered the canon of 2000s music. “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” experienced a similar phenomenon when it became part of a TikTok trend at the end of 2021. Not long after, it appeared regularly on All Out 70s.

These non-musical shocks are not always positive, though. During the 1990s and 2000s, R. Kelly charted 27 songs in the top 40 as a lead artist. But, as legal troubles mounted in the 2010s related to his grotesque sex crimes, his once ubiquitous music became absent from both All Out 90s and All Out 2000s. Since his conviction, his music has all but been erased from the musical canon of the 1990s and 2000s.

Humanity’s relationship with music of the past is always evolving. The biggest things that seem to affect the continued popularity of a song are if it was popular upon its release, if it was released recently, and if it has benefited from a positive non-musical shock. Furthermore, though it’s possible for an obscure group to gain popularity over time, it is not that common.

The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Using Playlists to Weigh In on Old Debates

Another fun thing about this data is that it provides additional context on some classic musical debates. For example, who’s the quintessential 1960s act, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? According to the playlist data, it’s The Beatles by a country mile. The Fab Four have had 19 different songs appear on All Out 60s over the last few years, while The Rolling Stones have only had 10 — putting them in third place behind Bob Dylan. Via this logic, it is possible to crown the dominant musician of each decade.

Again, the stature of each of these artists is subject to change. Though ABBA and Elton John are tied when looking across every year of the data, Sir Elton is the victor when looking at 2019 in isolation. That said, ABBA outpaced the pianist in 2022 implying that ABBA is becoming more popular, which is perhaps tied to the upcoming 50th anniversary of their Eurovision win which catapulted them to fame.

Tina Turner presents an interesting case, too. In 2019, she had only three songs spend at least seven days on All Out 80s. In 2022, she had seven, tying her with Phil Collins and Michael Jackson for the lead in that year. Maybe one day people will come to think of Turner as pop’s monarch rather than Jackson.

Tina Turner is doubly interesting because she had a multi-decade career. As evidenced by this data, artists generally have certain decades they are most associated with, and in Turner’s case, it is the 1980s because of songs like “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Private Dancer,” and “The Best.” Though Madonna had massive songs in the 1980s (e.g., “Like a Virgin”), 1990s (e.g., “Vogue”), and 2000s (e.g., “4 Minutes”), her biggest playlist presence is on All Out 80s. Whitney Houston, a chart rival of Madonna in the 1980s with hits like “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “Saving All My Love For You,” shockingly has had more songs on All Out 90s, including “I Will Always Love You” and “I Have Nothing.” Billy Joel had more than twice the number of top 40 hits in the 1980s than he did during the 1970s, yet his 1970s balladeering on songs like “Just the Way You Are” and “Vienna” have more regularly found a home on Spotify’s playlists. Finally, though Carlos Santana initially made a name for himself during the 1960s and 1970s with his guitar histrionics, he is just as associated with the 1990s because of late-career hits like “Smooth.”

To reiterate the same point, these are subject to change. Maybe one day in the future Bruce Springsteen will be more associated with his work during the 1970s. But, for now, The Boss is remembered for his 1980s pop chops like “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark.”

A Caveat & Conclusion

In 2016, Chuck Klosterman released a thought-provoking book called What If We’re Wrong?. Though his book went beyond music, it focused on a similar idea: What gets remembered, how people choose what gets remembered, and how things people remember shift over time. In one section of the book, he recounts a conversation that he had with David Byrne, the frontman of The Talking Heads, that suggests an important caveat to some points established earlier:

“I remember reading in John Carey’s book that Shakespeare and Rembrandt both went through periods of being considered not important,” Byrne concludes. “Carey’s point was that there is no such thing as absolute, timeless, eternal artistic values that will inevitably rise and endure. It just doesn’t happen. No matter how timeless and classic I think Hank Williams is, in one hundred years, some obscure recordings by some minister in Lake Charles might come out of nowhere and snatch the crown. It happens all the time. Or it might be that some cranked-out commercial crap gets cultural reappreciation. We’ve seen it happen too. For all we know, the classic Greek plays were daytime dramas to the locals. I can see it now – in one hundred years, university students will be analyzing the details of every Three’s Company episode!”

Byrne — and Klosterman by proxy — describe obscure art rising to the top “all the time.” This Spotify playlist data suggests otherwise. Then again, it’s possible that both this data and Byrne are correct.

This data starts in the 1950s, or 70 years ago. 70 years falls within the lifespan of a human. If it covered a longer, non-human scale, say hundreds of years, one might see that initial popularity, for example, isn’t that important for continued popularity. In either case, it reinforces the original point that the past is not some fixed object. It evolves over time, sometimes at the discretion of known forces, sometimes at the discretion of human whims, and sometimes out of pure dumb luck.

Graphics by Nicki Camberg and cover image by Crasianne Tirado.