Tuesday, June 8, 2010

James “Laid”

The normal trajectory of a successful song’s popularity goes something like this:

--It gains a few early supporters

--It becomes a hit in its genre (alternative, R&B, country, etc)

--It crosses over and becomes mass appeal, it’s everywhere, completely inescapable for a season

--The song burns out and drops to the background

And this process, at most, takes about a year. From there, it remains familiar for years to come, occasionally spiking in popularity as new generations discover it (or some cover version).

It’s a pretty simple, rarely deviated from, graph. It trends up sharply, within the first year, and gradually slopes off over a period of years. And this particular rate of popularity is pretty unique to music.

Think about other art forms. Their trajectories can be quite different.

Paintings might take years, or decades, or centuries before they become a cultural phenomenon. Van Gogh was derided in his lifetime; now he’s one of humanity’s most cherished artists.

Books, similarly, can sit on a shelf for years before being discovered.

Meanwhile, Fashion goes in and out of, well, fashion.

And movies can follow the same pattern as music, or they can find a greater following year after year. Neither “The Wizard Of Oz” nor “It’s A Wonderful Life” were big hits in their day, but built a following over time.

Songs just don’t usually do that.

So how did a song, a risqué one at that, pull off such a trick?

James released the song “Laid” back in 1994. It was the second single off a well-received record by the British band. It did fine on the alternative charts. But it wasn’t a huge phenomenon or anything.

So far, the trajectory is just as it should be. The song caught on, become popular, and then started to fade.

But here’s the weird thing, “Laid” stubbornly refused to leave the public consciousness.

Five years after it was released, you could walk into any pub in Boston that catered to the college/post-collegiate crowd, and “Laid” would be on the jukebox. And when it got played, you’d hear the whole bar singing.

Ten years after it was released, you could walk into any pub in Boston, and find the same experience.

Fifteen years later, you’d find the same thing.

Improbably, “Laid” seemed to enjoy more popularity as the years went on.

Without the first-year-ubiquity that is usually necessary to lodge a song in our collective cultural brain, it just isn’t likely for a tune to become a pub sing-a-long song. And yet, “Laid” defied the odds, perhaps because of the sexual content, perhaps because it was deserving, perhaps just because of a quirk. Who knows? But it remains a staple of the P.A. system of gathering places everywhere.

The musical equivalent of Van Gogh? Probably not. But it’s a great song to share a pint with.

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