What makes longevity?

A joke for a late-night variety show monologue may only be funny for one day (e.g. a joke about a celebrity). A newspaper article may lose relevance in days or weeks. A TV show might feel dated a couple years after its run ends (e.g. most problems on Seinfeld could be solved with a smartphone). Computer programs don’t fare well over time either (though there are exceptions).

The best songs demonstrate better longevity. Beethoven and Bob Dylan still work today. There will always be something amazing about “Good Vibrations”, at least to the trained ear.

Even the rap trope of yelling the year the song was recorded has a timeless quality to it; it serves as a marker for the state of affairs. “Nineteen eighty nine!” is the first thing shouted in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, marking the historical context for what Chuck D is about to tell us.

Why is this? I suspect it underlies the act of making music. Besides hit factory music, i.e. ear worms you hear on the radio, a musician’s goal is to make something expressive. Expressiveness often leads to qualities that give a piece endurance; timelessness, nostalgia, high quality. Expressiveness is less often an objective for jokes, headline journalism, or television.

That enduring quality, it’s tricky. It happens in film, television, and books too. But, for me, there’s something about music that has a more direct emotional connection. They vibrate my ear drum and work their way directly to a part of my brain containing “the feels”. I hear a good song and I’m immediately thinking about why I enjoy it so much, what makes it so good, or when I heard that song and connected it to an experience.

Maybe that’s why music is such a big deal in our culture. Really, really good music connects in a way beyond “haha that’s funny” jokes or “huh, that’s interesting” writing.

Is it possible to write expressive non-fiction or an enduring computer program? It seems like the answer is yes, but the answers are outliers. Hofstader’s Godel, Escher, Bach and Knuth’s TeX come to mind. For every GEB or TeX, there are thousands of less interesting works.

Further, the qualities of an enduring, expressive, and yet functional work seem somewhat at odds with the pragmatics of the daily act of writing or programming. A lot more perfectionism, experimentation, and principle goes into these works than the typical news article or application.

And yet, for every “Good Vibrations”, there’s probably a thousand commercial jingles composed, elevator tunes licensed, ringtones purchased, and bar bands playing “Brickhouse” yet again. Perhaps music is just as prone to longevity as writing, film, or programming but has a far longer timeline on which its easier to see what really worked. In fifty years perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll start to learn what is really amazing in film and software.