MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now everybody knows the Library of Congress has a huge catalogue of books and printed materials, but in the year 2000, Congress also gave the library the additional mandate of creating a national recording registry. Its mission: to select 25 recordings each year that are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. The 2007 inductees were announced earlier this month. The list ranges from the first transatlantic broadcast recording in 1925 to "The Sounds of Earth," an LP created for the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 to introduce other life forms to - well, the sounds of earth.
Thankfully, there was also some music. Here to tell us about that is Oliver Wang. He's a cultural critic and a sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach who visits with us from time to time to keep us up to date on cultural happenings. Oliver, welcome. Nice to talk to you again.
Prof. OLIVER WANG (Sociology, Cal State Long Beach): Yes. Glad to be here.
MARTIN: So let's take a look at some of the songs in the registry. One that popped out for you was "Oh Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison. Let's listen to that for just a little bit.
(Soundbite of "Oh Pretty Woman")
Mr. ROY ORBISON: (Singing) Pretty woman walking down the street. Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet. Pretty woman, I don't believe you. You're not the truth. No one could look as good as you.
MARTIN: So apart from being the inspiration or the soundtrack or whatever, of a hit Julia Roberts movie, why is this song important?
Prof. WANG: Well, it's funny because, you know, it's not my personal favorite Orbison song. You know, I think it's a great song. I've always preferred "Only in the Lonely," but you know, "Pretty Woman" sold something like seven million copies which especially by today's standards, it's almost impossible to imagine a single having that kind of popularity, and especially at the time when it came out - I think in the mid 1960s - it broke, in both the U.S. and the U.K., the Beatles stranglehold on the charts. So it was a really important and again immensely successful and popular single. And as you point out, you could say that it inadvertently launched Julia Robert's career in an elliptical way.
MARTIN: Why do you think it was so popular?
Prof. WANG: I mean, the way that the song opens with those guitar chords, you know, in that hard-driving back beat, it's just so striking. You know, you can see how it works on the dance floor. It's got a great hook in terms of "oh, pretty woman," it's easy to remember. So, you know, as a pop song, and all these dynamics come together really well in that single song.
MARTIN: OK. So this song made a lot of waves in 1964. Apparently it also made some waves in 1994 when it was sampled by 2 Live Crew. Do you want to hear a little bit of that?
Prof. WANG: Yeah. Sure.
(Soundbite of "Pretty Woman")
2 LIVE CREW: (Singing) Pretty woman. Walking down the street. Pretty woman. Girl, girl, you look so sweet. Pretty woman, you, you bring men down to their knees. Pretty woman. You make them want to beg please.
Prof. WANG: I haven't heard that song in about 20 years. Yeah. I think 2 Live Crew got sued over that in terms of copyright infringement because they didn't clear the sample and, you know, this came out at a time when there were a lot of rappers being sued by artists. The Turtles sued Day Lost Soul over something they had used. Gillbert and Sullivan had sued Biz Markee. In those cases the rappers lost, but in 2 Live Crew's case, they argued the song was actually satire and a parody, and on that basis they were able to actually win the case in their favor because, you know, for satirical purposes, that's allowable sampling. And so I think 2 Live Crew avoided what would have been, I'm sure, a major financial bullet on that one.
MARTIN: Oh. It's interesting. OK. Let's listen to another song that came out in the sixties. This is from 1965, and it's Smokey Robinson with "Tracks of my Tears."
(Soundbite of "Tracks of my Tears")
SMOKEY ROBINSON: (Singing) So take a good look at my face. You'll see my smile looks out of place. If you look closer it's easy to chase the tracks of my tears. I need you. Need you.
MARTIN: Why do you think the Library of Congress picked this song?
Prof. WANG: Well, the registry has been really good to Motown. No Motown artist made the first year, I think, which was 2002, but since then they've had at least three other Motown artists, including Martha and the Vandells, Marvin Gaye, and most recently Stevie Wonder. And so Smokey and the Miracles are, I think, the fourth Motown group to be included, and with them in particular, they were such an integral part to Motown's success in the early 1960s. I think they're the first band that Berry Gordy signed. Their string of hits helped, really, launch the label and get its footing.
And Smokey Robinson, in particular, as a singer-songwriter, was such a pivotal and integral force to Motown's success in the 1960s in terms of he wrote so many of their major hits, not just for himself and the Miracles but also for the Temptations and other Motown artists.
MARTIN: Let's move into the seventies with Herbie Hancock and his album "Headhunters," and let's listen to "Watermelon Man."
(Soundbite of "Watermelon Man")
MARTIN: What do you think the library was recognizing with this song, and why do you think we still like it?
Prof. WANG: Well, I think for one thing, you know, it was the best selling jazz album at least in that era, which still blows my mind because we're talking about an album, and with "Watermelon Man" in particular, this is a song that combines everything from "Take Me Chanting," which opens the song, to those really heavy p-funk rhythms. I think that's Paul Jackson on bass there. And the idea that that would have this mass audience, at least in hindsight, seems really surprising to me, especially because fusion jazz has gotten such an immense bad rap from so-called jazz purists.
But to me, especially with the "Headhunter's" album, it had this, you know, really great combination of these creative collisions of musical styles, but still based around something that's really physically appealing because it's incorporating these funk and soul rhythms. It doesn't hurt that it also has one of the most memorable album covers that I can think of.
MARTIN: That is true. That is true.
(Soundbite of "Watermelon Man")
MARTIN: OK. The last recording that the library included on the 2007 registry is the best-selling album of all time - this should be a Trivial Pursuit question. It probably is a Trivial Pursuit question. What is it? Oliver, tell me.
Prof. WANG: I want - I wish I could do the Dave Chappelle voice - it's "Thriller."
MARTIN: It's "Thriller," that's right.
(Soundbite of "Thriller")
MARTIN: What else can you tell us about "Thriller" and its cultural significance?
Prof. WANG: Well, I think, as you noted, I mean, it's the best-selling pop album of all time. I think it sold something like 27 million copies. It still continues to sell exceptionally well, even 25 years later. And the thing that really, really blows my mind is, you know, seven of its singles made the top ten, which is again, by today's standards, that's really difficult to imagine unless, you know, Hannah Montana, T-Pain and Carrie Underwood collaborated to make some fusion album. You know, just that achievement that "Thriller" was able to execute is just really, really amazing.
MARTIN: There's something about that group dance scene that sort of sums up the time for me, you know, where everybody's kind of throwing down as a group. It's kind of like my generation's "West Side Story," I think. You know, you all sort of imagined yourself in the video, you know, somewhere, you know.
Prof. WANG: Oh no. Absolutely. I mean, I would add that I think one of the things about "Thriller" is that it really benefited from MTV and the kind of exposure that music videos changed our perception and our relationship to pop music because now we had a visual set of things to go with it. And you can't listen to "Thriller" and not think about, you know, the dance scene in it. You can't think about "Billie Jean" without, you know, those dance steps that he would do in those lighted tiles, and so I think that our memories of "Thriller" are very much connected not just as sort of the acoustic qualities, but the visual qualities, and that's something that "Thriller" really benefited from, which is the rise of MTV coincides with the rise of "Thriller."
MARTIN: OK. Well, you come visit us out east and we'll have a dance-off.
Prof. WANG: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
MARTIN: All right. Oliver Wang is a culture critic, a soul curator and a professor at Cal State Long Beach. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Oliver, thanks so much for talking to us.
Prof. WANG: A pleasure as always.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We hope you have a great Memorial Day. Let's talk more tomorrow.