Posted on Leave a comment

Singing to time travelers

So I kind of take for granted that everybody has little weird games their brains will go on auto-pilot and play if they’re standing in line at the post office without a book or whatever. I’ve talked about these before but not, I think, about this one. And then this morning one of my lj friends linked to this article about the most specific words in popular songs, decade by decade.

Frankly, I don’t think the article is very well done because it isn’t selecting for interesting words, so–for example, “you” is one of the words of the 1990s. But if you look at the line, songs from the 1990s have “you” in the title only marginally more than songs from the 1900s. Things like “Disco” and “Mamba” are interesting but not really surprising, so–I feel like a better methodology could have been found, basically.

But the weird little thing I do sometimes while waiting in line is called “singing to time travelers.” The premise is: how far back can any given song be taken and still be comprehensible to its audience without explanation? Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s “Cuz we’re Cousins” would seem by its sentiments to be pretty human-universal: young cousins sharing things and becoming friends. But one of the verses contains in a single couplet both XBox and DVDs, meaning that if you tried to time travel with it to even a decade before its 2009 release date, you’d have some explaining to do–even more so if you traveled earlier than the 1980s, where the more general concepts of a game console and a home method of playing recorded movies on a TV screen would be less familiar. On the other hand, John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” is on my list of darn near universal songs: as long as you’re in a settlement that understands that its landform is not the only landform, you’re good to go. (Different cultures might assume different things about the singers than the culture in which Denver wrote it, but that’s part of the fun.)

It’s kind of fun to notice which songs require which things. You think you’ve got a solid ballad concept for the ages, and then you notice that it leans on astronomical concepts like the moon having a generally-dark side. Or you get to thinking about what isn’t actually universal but feels that way from here: the existence of streets is a big one. Windows and mirrors–and the idea that everyone has windows, everyone has mirrors, not just rich people. Folk music seems like it should be a rich vein of songs for singing to time travelers, but in fact folk music often talks about very specific transportation technologies, specific ways of making a living with their own terminology and technology, etc. Also this can turn into a game of “which thing predated which other thing,” which is good nerdy fun. I’m particularly glad I shared this game with Mark and Tim so that we can be driving down the road and blurt out, “domestication of herd animals!” or “Christian era!” in the middle of a perfectly nice song that isn’t really about that. So I thought I’d share with the rest of you too.

Also I want you to be prepared. I would hate for you to be catapulted back to 825 with magical translation powers and yet nothing to sing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *