‘Over The Rainbow’ Voted 20th Century’s Best Song

Judy Garland's yearning classic edges 'White Christmas,' 'This Land Is Your Land,' 'Respect,' 'American Pie' on NEA, RIAA list.

And you thought teen pop got no critical respect.

The recording industry and the National Endowment for the Arts have put a yearning ballad by a 17-year-old pop sensation on top of a list of the 20th century’s defining songs. The teen in question is Judy Garland, who sang the Harold Arlen-E.Y. “Yip” Harburg classic “Over the Rainbow” in the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz.” Coming up right behind on the “Songs of the Century” list are four American classics of different stripes — Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” (written by Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie’s folk standard “This Land Is Your Land,” Aretha Franklin’s soul staple “Respect” (an Otis Redding composition) and Don McLean’s rock epic “American Pie.”
The list is bound to incite arguments. Elvis Presley’s best showing is #68 (the “Don’t Be Cruel”/”Hound Dog” single), Frank Sinatra does no better than #144 (“My Way”), there’s no punk, hardly any heavy metal and only a smattering of hip-hop: M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” Will Smith’s “Men in Black” and Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” represent for rap’s most recent decade, while Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, the Notorious B.I.G. and the Wu-Tang Clan are nowhere to be found. And although the country explosion of the 1990s registers with seven selections, from Billy Ray Cyrus to Garth Brooks to Faith Hill, the teen pop explosion of recent years doesn’t register at all.

“The first thing I noticed is that there aren’t any of the new teen [acts],” said Spin magazine editor-in-chief Alan Light, who participated in the industry poll and complimented the “broad swath” of the resulting list despite some curious exclusions.

“There’s no Backstreet [Boys], there’s no Britney [Spears] or ’NSYNC,” Light said. “If you’re telling the story of popular music over the past couple years, that’s the story.”
But there may be a good reason why teen pop from more than 60 years ago was ranked highly by the musicians, critics, record executives, politicians and educators who were polled for the project, while more recent examples were overlooked.

“It’s the same problem the Ken Burns jazz series came up against,” Light said, referring to the recent PBS documentary series that won acclaim for its coverage of classic jazz music, while drawing criticism for ignoring much of modern jazz. “The older you go, the more obviously iconic stuff is. … The more modern stuff, it’s the place of the critics — not the historians — to talk about.”
The project, a year in the making and co-sponsored by the Recording Industry Association of America, began with a list of 18,000 songs, according to Robert Oermann, a veteran music journalist who put that list together with the help of music experts, reference books and earlier lists. He was asked to whittle the list down to a ballot of 1,100 songs, which was divided by decade and sent to 1,200 voters, including all 50 U.S. governors, then-President Clinton and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. Two hundred ballots were returned.

The voters were asked to pick songs from nine different eras. While “Over the Rainbow” got the most votes overall, Oermann stressed that voters were not asked to compare songs from one era with songs from another. “A lot of people may think ’Yesterday’ by the Beatles is the greatest song of the century, but there was only one Judy Garland song to pick from, [while the Beatles] may have split the votes.”
The Beatles’ British Invasion rivals the Rolling Stones placed only one song on the list, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” but at #16, it beat out the top Beatles entry.

Although Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” carried the grunge flag onto the list, where it was singled out as the most significant song of the ’90s, no ’90s metal and no hard-core rap made the list. That’s at least partly by design, owing to the list’s primary target — fifth graders across the country, who will hear a song a day throughout the 2001-2002 school year using streaming audio technology from AOL and lesson plans designed around each song by Scholastic Inc.

“There’s just no way we can send some stuff into a fifth-grade classroom,” Oermann said, explaining why he left hard-core rap off the final ballot. He said metal was less of a problem, with “fewer questionable records … than there are in hip-hop,” although voters shied away from that genre, too.

But Spin editor Light said, “There are an awful lot of fifth graders that are listening to hip-hop that is more hardcore than TLC and M.C. Hammer. … I think M.C. Hammer should be on the list, but if you have to use a clean version of an N.W.A song, I think you should. That’s hitting kids where they live.”
“It’s always easy to throw stones,” said Billboard magazine’s director of charts, Geoff Mayfield, “but I think the merit [of the list] is it will get people to think about music, whether they liked the list or hated it.”
The top overall rap song? The Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” (#191).

Top Motown song: Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (#21).

Top country song: Jimmie Davis, “You Are My Sunshine” (#14).

Top jazz song: Glenn Miller Orchestra, “In the Mood” (#10).

Top blues song: W.C. Handy, “St. Louis Blues” (#69).

Top Bob Dylan song: “Like a Rolling Stone” (#92).

Only Madonna song: “Material Girl” (#161).

“The biggest surprise,” Oermann said,” was the popularity of ’American Pie’ by Don McLean. I just would never have guessed it. And I was surprised at Woody Guthrie from the other direction — it’s a really classy choice, and I just never would have thought he was on the radar screen of the voters. It wasn’t a hit.”