This afternoon, when I was driving to and from dinner, I was listening to the top 40 hits played this week from the year 1989. One of the things that struck me about the songs I was listening to were that so many of them had been so completely forgotten, despite being very successful songs in their own time. Karyn White had two songs in the chart back-to-back in the 30s, but neither of the songs has been remembered by the music-listening public, and Karyn White herself is an obscure singer (despite having multiple year-end chart hits) who is perhaps best known for her #1 hit “Romantic,” and nothing else, despite having a successful career as a charting R&B musician who regularly crossed over on the pop charts.
Looking at the songs near the top of the charts, many of those songs remain obscure. “What I Am,” a top ten hit, is remembered if at all as the sole big hit of a one-hit wonder most famous for marrying an older famous musician of an earlier generation. Bon Jovi had a top ten hit with “Born To Be My Baby,” but the song has simply not been remembered like some of their other songs, even some which were not nearly as successful on the charts. Even Rick Astley, best known for being the singer of “Never Gonna Give You Up,” had a top ten hit with a song he wrote called “She Wants To Dance With Me,” but despite the song’s success at the time, it has simply not been remembered at all except by those who pay attention to his back catalog of hits.
Moving from music to other endeavors, the Jane Austen novel “Northanger Abbey,” published posthumously, even if it was the earliest novel of Jane Austen’s to be written and sold to a publisher, contains a reference to numerous novels that at the time were immensely popular. Many of those novels sold equally well if not more than Jane Austen’s own novels at the time, but have been largely forgotten except for specialists in the writings of the Gothic fiction of the late 18th century, or specialists in women’s literature as a whole, while Jane Austen’s novels are enjoyed by even casual fans of classic literature. Looking back on it, we can see that Austen’s abilities to faithfully portray the reality of her time and place in life were superior to her contemporaries and that she pointed to major trends in literature and represented a daring advancement in writing.
How long does it take to know what will be remembered from the present by the future? Some things are remembered for the wrong reasons, remembered as a joke or a novelty when they represented something that was genuinely creative and enjoyable. Some things are remembered fondly as if they were always popular, but which were only marginally popular at the time, well-known enough to find an audience that appreciated them far more than their own contemporaries. People who were once immensely popular may live long enough to survive decades and then die in obscurity, completely forgotten by future generations. Other people remain largely obscure in their lifetime, and do not survive to profit from the immense popularity they receive after death. Are not both fates tragedies to be avoided? But how are they to be avoided?
There are several different scenarios as far as memory is concerned. Some people are born in obscurity, live in obscurity, and die in obscurity. Their lives attract little notice, and they are remembered only by a few people, none of whom record those memories so that they may be discovered by others later on. Some people are born into obscurity, find some degree of fame during their lives, but the fame does not last and they die in obscurity and remain obscure afterwards, their efforts at fame not leading to true remembrance. Some people live and die in obscurity, but leave something behind that allows them to become famous after they are dead and no longer able to profit from the fame, being remembered by later generations who wish that they had been around when that person was alive. Still others are born or quickly rise to fame and remain famous throughout their lives and long afterwards, being early recognized as worthwhile and notable people and never lose that status. Whether or not that is a good thing is not always easy to determine.