Evergreens: those songs that everyone knows and can sing along to – those enduring super-hits. Are they still being written? This is the question we put to trend-watcher Thimon de Jong, who, after extensive research has uncovered the sad news that the Evergreen library is in serious need of a restock – and for multiple reasons.

Evergreen Songs: Are They Still Being Written?

What’s an Evergreen?

Evergreens are those songs whose popularity never wanes, no matter how many years or even decades have passed. A true evergreen isn’t exclusively popular within a single small group, but manages to cross the boundaries of subcultures and even generations. Amsterdam-based cultural scientist and trend-watcher Thimon de Jong noticed some things within the musical sphere that set him thinking and started asking himself ‘is anyone even writing any evergreens these days?’ And, if they aren’t, then why not?

“I went to this ‘80s night and found myself surrounded by kids who were definitely too young to be there. The crowd was no older than 18 or 19, so most of them weren’t even born until the mid ‘90s or later. If there are any rules in this, then their music is the music of the 2000s, so what were they doing there? A little while later, I was helping organise a ‘00s night and went looking for the biggest hits from that period – so, the evergreens – for the playlist. I was shocked because we could only find maybe two or three evergreens amongst all of those songs.” This was a shock to Thimon. Were there really so few superhits made within the last two decades? Where were all those songs that anyone could sing along to? Where had all the evergreens gone?

The Time of My Life

Thimon started looking into things more deeply. “I started by studying the Top 2000 and other well-known hit lists like the Billboard charts. I even studied compilation albums that claimed to cover the Top 100 songs of all time and variations on that theme. One thing became very clear to me very quickly. If you look at an all-time list that was made, say, in the early nineties, you’ll find loads of songs from the early nineties. If you look at an all-time hit list made last week, then you’ll be lucky to find a song on there that was written in the last ten years. It confirmed my suspicion that far fewer songs are being made these days that everyone knows and that are popular across a wide demographic. It looked like the evergreen was becoming an endangered species.”

But how did that happen? Is it a question of quality? According to Thimon, not necessarily. A few other factors are apparently at play. He picks an example to illustrate his point: “In 1988, I was eleven years old and my favourite song was ‘The Time of My Life’ by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. You know the one, from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. It was a superhit at the time and even my parents could sing along to it. But after it had been in the Top 40 for around five months and stayed at number one for nine weeks, my parents had had enough of it. The song was played out – literally a broken record. Ten years later, I went to my first eighties night. The moment The Time of My Life came on, everyone in the room was singing along. Everyone knew the song inside and out, simply because it was such a big hit in its time. You couldn’t get away from it.”

A Broken Record

According to Thimon, this is one of the important qualities that an evergreen has: the song needs to be played so much that everyone gets sick of it. It needs to be a broken record. “This is where the big difference between now and then lies. Until the end of the twentieth century, everyone discovered new music via the radio and television. And you only had maybe a handful of radio stations and TV channels to choose from at the time so, if a song was a hit, you couldn’t escape it. It was played everywhere. This is exactly why people who were hard-line punks in the eighties still know all the words to the ABBA classics, whether they want to or not.”

These days, things are very different. “Because of progressive technology, the way we consume music has completely changed. Music is now extremely individualised and fragmented. Now, you can just listen to the music that you want to listen to and can avoid the stuff you don’t like. If you want to skip anything by Lady Gaga, you can.” Therefore, it’s almost impossible to make a song that no one can ignore. The inescapable hit is dead. “People listen to the radio to find new music less and less and the Top 40 is on the verge of dying completely,” according to Thimon. “Not even MTV plays music videos during the day anymore, and doesn’t even bother with their own charts. As a result, no songs are played to death; no songs have a chance of becoming ‘broken records’, and this is what you need if you want to make evergreens.”

Youtube Hits

What about platforms like YouTube? You could see that as a pretty popular music channel. But, apparently that works very differently, explains Thimon. He offers an example: “‘Girlfriend’ by Avril Lavigne sat in the top three of the most viewed clips on YouTube for a year and a half. It was unbelievably popular, but is it an evergreen? No. Because so many people have never heard of it. Unless you’re talking to young teenagers, beyond that specific group, it’s highly likely that no one will know what you’re on about. The target audience for a song like that is far too limited when it comes to making an evergreen.”

There are some melodies that everyone knows, like the soundtrack of Tetris or Harry Potter. “Sure, but far less pop music melodies, and that’s a big shame. Trying to make an evergreen by getting into the Top 40 just isn’t possible anymore, but there are other channels you could use. A few years back ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkeley was used in a worldwide Vodafone advert which is exactly why the song is one of very few recent evergreens.”

Delayed Innovation

To what extent does the quality of the music dictate whether or not a song can become an evergreen? “That’s something for the musical academics to unpick. I’m more focussed on the socio-cultural aspect,” Thimon replies. “Most evergreens are easy to sing along to, but there are also evergreen songs with really complex melodies like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen.” Thimon also thinks that, to really gain status as an evergreen, a song needs to be innovative. Something that’s become harder and harder to achieve during the last couple of decades.

“There are no genuinely new music styles emerging now. Musical innovation moves at a much slower pace than it did during the sixties, seventies and eighties, for example. The music being made in the early eighties sounded very different to the music that was made during the early seventies and, during the period in between, innovation within music moved extremely fast. If you compare the music that was being made in the year 2000 with the music being made in 2010, you’ll hear barely any difference, even though the span of time is exactly the same.” This delay in innovation isn’t exclusive to music either. It also crosses over into fashion: we’re not dressing all that differently to the way we did ten years ago. Compare that period to the clothing styles that emerged between 1970 and 1980 and you see a world of difference.


A really striking contradiction is the insanely fast moving innovation that technology has seen within the last couple of decades. Thimon pulls his iPhone out of his pocket to underline the point. “The stuff you can do with this thing is incredible. So incredible that we wouldn’t have believed it possible at the beginning of this century.” Technological advancement moves at a lightning fast pace, but development in music, fashion and other cultural phenomena seems to have ground to a halt by 2000. The term ‘cultural deceleration’ was first used by Mark Fisher in an article in the New Statesman, who posited the theory that culture was decelerating as a whole because no new subcultures are emerging anymore. Throughout the twentieth century, it was subcultures that gave birth to most new styles of music, and those new styles brought their own anthems, or evergreens with them. The hippies had ‘California Dreaming’ by The Mamas & The Papas and the grunge movement had ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana. “Music is inextricably linked to the identity of a subculture,” Thimon points out. “As such, music is stamped by its own time period; forever bound to its zeitgeist.”

Immediate Mainstream Status

The faster spread of information and the enormous influence of advertising has delivered a sledgehammer blow to subculture. Thimon explains: “If a hundred kids dress up in strange clothes and hit the streets of a suburb in Berlin to perform a weird dance to make a political statement, the next day it’ll be all over Instagram and YouTube. A week after that, it’ll be featured in a fashion blog and a month later, this fledgling subculture will already be lying on the table of a big fast-fashion brand ready to inspire the next line. The moment that a young and tender subculture is pulled into the mainstream, it dies an untimely death. This is exactly why cultural innovation is standing still.” Lacking something that’s their own, youth culture falls back on the subcultures of times gone by, looking to the punk, goth, rave or emo movements for guidance. They give the scene their own spin with a couple of small new additions, but at its core, it’s an old and recycled subculture.

In the years between 2000 and 2010, the search for individuality and innovation brought us the mash-up because, if it’s not possible to make your own music movement or subculture, then just mix some old stuff together to make something new. These mash-ups often took bits of evergreen songs to give them that ‘superhit’ feel and create a bridge between generations. “A good example is ‘Pokerface’ by Lady Gaga, which clearly uses the chorus from ‘Ma Baker’ by Boney M. But the mash-up movement wasn’t and isn’t a subculture. It’s a re-working and perfecting of the remix trend that started back in the seventies.”

Group Sense

When writing his book ‘The State of Time’, Belgian psychologist Herman Konings was surprised to find that kids no longer rebelled against their parents’ music. This is because, in their search for evergreens, young people automatically turn to the heroes of the generations that came before. This seems to indicate that there’s no longer a generational divide when it comes to music. Young people even love and appreciate the music that their parents listen to. Something that used to be unthinkable. “Apparently there’s a need for evergreens, even among young people,” Thimon notes. “When Michael Jackson passed away, teenagers, young people and even children were playing his work on repeat, even despite the fact that Michael was probably their parents’ hero when they were kids and despite the fact that he hadn’t released a hit since 1991. The Top 2000 chart is filled with old music, which goes to show you what’s popular among young people.” According to Thimon, this has a lot to do with the fact that, as humans, we want to create the sense that we’re part of a group. “If we like something, we want to share it with other people. That’s human nature. If you’ve just seen a brilliant film, then you want other people to see it too. Being alone with the experience just isn’t as nice. People are looking for a shared experience.”

No Cultural Pessimism

If pop music started producing evergreens again, Thimon would welcome it, especially if it meant that good music was also given the chance to become evergreen. “Three or four centuries ago, we experienced the baroque period, which was an extremely important stylistic period,” Thimon muses. “It lasted from around 1600 until around 1750, so a good one-hundred-and-fifty years. If you were born halfway through that period, you wouldn’t have known that the music you heard was baroque – it was just music. It wasn’t until 1750 that things changed. Maybe it’s just that, right now, we’re sitting in a similar in-between period and will have to make do with the music of the twentieth century for the next one-hundred years.” Thimon published his findings in a national newspaper and received a lot of responses. “Some people called me a cultural pessimist, but I’m really not. I would just really welcome it if pop music started producing evergreens again, because I’m certain that we don’t just want them – we need them.”

See also

» Good Music Can Be Measured
» Writing Catchy Songs Is All About The Hook

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