This past week, I was at a folk music festival, and a singer-songwriter sang a song about social networks. The references to Facebook and Twitter were obviously intentional, and they were clearly to make a point, but it got me thinking about when topical and tech references work, and when they don’t.
Some references are timeless, even though they’re timely. Folk music has a lot of these, particularly in the form of “topical songs.” The best example I can think of is one of Bob Dylan’s early, pulled-from-the-headlines songs, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which details the 1963 killing of a black barmaid by a rich, drunk, racist 24-year-old tobacco farmer. Though the story was taken from the news of the day, its rich storytelling and vivid emotion make it a song that can be listened to and empathized with even now, almost 50 years later.
But this isn’t the case for all the arts. Take, for example, the 2009 book The Song is You. It’s the story of a man “in love with his iPod,” as the book blurb tells us. I find relying on technology a huge mistake if you’re shooting for a timeless feel to your story (let’s try replacing the iPod with a Sony Walkman and see how this reads). The book goes on to talk about emails and text messages sent between the protagonist and his love interest. In my opinion, the best thing this book can ever hope for is recognition as a period piece.
And if novels are being written that rely on Sony Walkmans—I mean, iPods—then songs have even more throwaway references in them. Here’s a great list of songs about Facebook, all of which should be obsolete in the near future. If you think Facebook is worthy subject matter, maybe we could take a trip in our time machines back to 2006 when the Gym Class Heroes were composing the completely topical lines “But its hard for me to not hate/When I’m on myspace I never see my face in your “Top 8″.” Remember the Top 8 and how it was so much a part of daily life? And now is completely laughable.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not always out to create something for the ages (see the song I wrote and posted here with my partner, musician Jeremiah Birnbaum, about when Rick Santorum was a presidential candidate), but if you’re going to create something, it seems worthwhile to at least sometimes put time and effort into it and try to touch on things that are human rather than the latest trend or tech gaget. It’s the difference between being a Bob Dylan and a Gym Class Hero. It’s the difference between a classic and a fart joke.