When it departed our atmosphere in 1977, the satellite Voyager had onboard it a disc known famously as the “golden record.” This phonographic recording contained a collection of greetings in various languages, a message from President Carter, and twenty-seven tracks of music. Collectively, these were intended to represent the whole of human culture to any interstellar beings who might happen upon it. J.S. Bach was the most represented composer on the record; Beethoven and Mozart made appearances too, along with Chuck Berry, and a variety of other music from Native American, African, and eastern traditions. (The Beatles, explicitly requested by Carl Sagan, were not included due to contractual difficulties with their record label.)
Compiling the golden record was undoubtedly no easy task. How do you equitably represent the whole of a planet’s culture on one disc? The task is a daunting one, unforgiving: no matter the final result, someone will be displeased with the end product (“too little of this, too much of that”).
At least the compositors of the record, in the 1970s, had some cultural guideposts from which to work. It was a time that offered (and continued to offer through the end of the century) clearly delineated decades, generations, and eras. The cultural output of each had its proper place in the larger picture.
Musically speaking, for example, the ’90s offered up the start of the boy-band phenomenon, hip-hop that is now referred to as “old school,” the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and Sugar Ray. The ’80s were, well, the ’80s. The ’70s had disco, and Dylan, and Elton. The ’60s had the Beatles, Zeppelin, and the beginning of what is now known as “classic” rock, while the ’50s introduced Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll. The remaining early years of the century, through the 1940s, birthed a gradual but logical growth from ragtime to swing to jazz.
Before that, it was even easier. The 19th century encompassed all of the Romantic period of old music (think late Beethoven, Wagner, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, et al.), and some of the Classical period (early Beethoven). The 17th and 18th centuries offered mature Classical (Mozart and Haydn, among others) and its foundations in the Baroque (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Corelli, Couperin). Then there’s Renaissance and Medieval music, which take us back to around 1050. At this point, musical history in any sort of useful sense starts to calcify.
But where are we now? What about a “golden flash drive”? If today some committee were appointed, whose sole task was the representative compilation of Western (or, to make this a more practical discussion, American) music of the 21st century to date—in, say, thirteen songs (one per year)—where would we find ourselves? Would we really send Nicki Minaj and 2 Chainz into the stratosphere? And—lest we forget—what of Meek Mill (“Welcome to My [Space] Party”)?
Not that we shouldn’t legitimately consider these options—together they form an honest reflection of the culture. Though the thought of any kind of intelligent life encountering Waka Flocka Flame for the first time makes one uncomfortable; no doubt said life would dismiss any intentions of visiting our planet except to destroy it.
Embarrassment may be too strong a word, but that is certainly the foundation of this discomfort. We live in a world where singles can be manufactured in under one hundred hours; in the time of Elvis or the Beatles, it may have taken one hundred days. This disparity in production has become a problem—not for the booming music industry, or YouTube, or artists trying to be recognized—but for the culture’s constantly sagging benchmark of quality.
We now live in a world where the sheer volume of finished product is overwhelming. To sift through it all in any sort of meaningful way would be an impossible task, and it is within the musical realm that this is most profoundly felt: we’re constantly caught in the “moment,” except that moment changes every three and a half minutes—just long enough to stop us from changing the station.
Where are we left, then, with our golden flash drive? There would be a fierce contest, certainly, over who makes the cut and who doesn’t. The age-old debate of talent as a function of popularity, or vice-versa, would be endlessly had; it would be a worthwhile conversation.
So while it would be too difficult for me to select thirteen individual songs, instead I would modestly propose that perhaps one song (which, I’m unsure) from each of the following artists be considered for inclusion on our flash drive. In alphabetical order:
- The Black Keys (for their 21st-century incarnation of classic rock);
- Coldplay (for being a modern-day U2);
- Deadmau5 (because he’ll rock your socks off);
- Hans Zimmer (for being one of the most versatile, emotional, and inventive modern composers);
- Jay-Z (for being a staple of modern-day American culture, and for his major impact on the commercial development of contemporary hip-hop);
- Justin Timberlake (post-2000 only, obviously, for successfully establishing himself as a universal pop icon);
- Kanye West (for his intensely creative vision, and for expanding the boundaries of his craft like no one before him);
- Lady Gaga (for better or worse, the 21st century’s Madonna);
- Lil Wayne (because of his remarkable influence on, and meshing of, both the cultural and commercial shape of modern hip-hop);
- Mumford & Sons (for being the best modern display of bluegrass and folk that we have);
- New York Polyphony (because old music is still alive and can be done well);
- Phoenix (for convincing American audiences that elements of French house can be reimagined in a way they like, without sacrificing the music’s integrity); and
- Taylor Swift (for bridging an enduring gap between country and pop, and because we’re never, ever—ever—getting back together).
These artists represent the smallest slice of what has been created in the past thirteen years, and clearly not everyone would be happy about their inclusion (or others’ absence). I’d like to think the above list includes those artists about whom we could be more or less proud, though I welcome any additional thoughts.
We should endeavor to support art, specifically music, that speaks most eloquently about us as human beings. There is a vast universe out there that may be happy to listen to it.
“I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.”
—Lewis Thomas, scientist and author, suggesting how the people of Earth should communicate with the universe