What Was That Song Again?

I’ve used a huge number of words on this blog complaining about the short attention spans of the American population. Apparently I owe some of the population an apology.

I was browsing through the July browsing trends on Google and was stunned by ten top searches for songs.

The Number One song on the list is Happy Birthday. Let that sink in for a moment… Now let this sink in: It was also the most-searched song last month and has been in the top ten for the past eighteen months. That’s right: for a year and a half–longer than I’ve been writing this blog–Americans have been desperate to find a song they’ve heard at least once a year for their entire lives.

What’s going on here? Can the public not remember the words from year to year? Are they looking for recordings so they don’t have to strain their vocal chords with a fifteen second tribute to their loved ones? Maybe they can’t remember the tune? No, forget that last one; if it were The Star-Spangled Banner I might buy that, but Happy Birthday barely has a melody in the first place.

Speaking of The Star-Spangled Banner, guess what’s in third place? That’s right! The American national anthem. That’s been in the top ten for thirty-nine months, more than three years. Again, this is a song is pounded into every American’s head from childhood on. It’s taught in school*. It’s played at every sporting event (and we’ve seen that Americans are obsessed with sports). Why this strange determination to find it online?

* Well, the first verse is. But since that’s the only verse anyone ever sings, it doesn’t affect the argument any. All those searches aren’t coming from people who want the rest of the lyrics.

I’ll admit it’s damn near impossible to sing if you’re not drunk (the tune is lifted from an Eighteenth Century English song celebrating the pleasures of wine, women, and–amusingly recursively–song). Even so, it seems unlikely that all the searches are coming from people looking for recordings to play at the neighborhood kids’ soccer game. Maybe it’s drunks looking for sheet music? That seems doubtful too. Aside from the fact that alcoholic indulgence increases the drinker’s confidence in his memory, there just aren’t enough Americans who can read printed music to generate those kinds of numbers.

Still, the fact that both songs have remained in the top ten so long does run counter to claims that America’s attention span is declining. The rest of the list also supports the idea that Americans are capable of remembering things beyond a single twenty-four hour news cycle.

At Number Two, we have Let It Go, from Frozen. The song has only been on the list for three months, but the movie came out last year. Apparently people can remember last November if the spectacle is large enough.

Further support from positions Four through Seven: Katy Perry’s Dark Horse was released last September, as does Ylvis’ The Fox. Magic!’s Rude goes back to last October, and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which has racked up twenty-three months in the top ten, dates back to 1984!

This leads me to offer a suggestion to any activists concerned that their causes might get lost after the next news cycle. (Yes, I realize that’s all of them.) The evidence suggests that if you can set out your concerns in a single verse and set it to the tune of a popular song celebrating sex, drugs, and/or rock ‘n’ roll, you can stay in the public’s mind for years.

Just ask Arlo Guthrie

6 thoughts on “What Was That Song Again?

  1. What did I do before the Internet when I had a random lyric shard stuck in my head? Now, the name of the song is just a Google search away. (Of course, back before the Googler, my brain was young and supple and could remember every song and every word … even the bootlegged ones.)

    Did you know that someone actually holds the copyright to the “Happy Birthday” song? It’s estimated that the song earns $2M in royalties annually. (I need to steal an old tune and write lyrics and clear $2M a year. … hey, that sounds like Bob Dylan!)


    • OK, since you’re offering yourself as a test case, I’ll ask you to tell us how often you’ve needed to Google the lyrics to Happy Birthday and The Star-Spangled Banner.

      As for the copyright status, that’s a matter of some dispute. The Source of All Knowledge has a good write-up. In short, the claims of authorship have been disputed and the words and music were both published prior to the publication that the claim is based on. It’s a mess.


      • Yes, you’re right about the birthday song mess … but still, there really IS a copyright (and no, Paul McCartney doesn’t own it).

        Hey, I’m an Orioles fan … the Star Spangled Banner is from Baltimore, too … so, I’m good with the lyrics, including the hearty “O” at the end of the first verse and the weird verses that follow, so won’t need to look those lyrics up.

        But, just to help out, I went ahead and did the Googler on “lyrics Happy Birthday” and I was delighted that the second link to come up helpfully included the bootleg version: “You look like a monkey and you smell like one, too.”


        • Let’s not forget that McCartney doesn’t even own the copyright on all of his own songs–doesn’t the bulk of the Beatles’ catalog still rest with Michael Jackson’s estate? Either way, I think I’d prefer McCartney owning the rights to Warner.

          Ah, yes. A piece of every American’s childhood… Say, I wonder if singing the monkey version could fall under the fair use exemption as parody. Hey, if changing the lyrics works for Weird Al, a good lawyer might be able to make a case.


    • Well, that certainly doesn’t hurt–although one could argue that “anything” may just be the logical step up from “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” part of the formula.

      On a related note, it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Arlo’s greatest commercial success was a song about smuggling marijuana.


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