Donna & Yoh in Conversation: Can Timeless Music Exist In the Streaming Era?

Donna and Yoh discuss if music can or cannot be timeless in the streaming era.
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If all albums are instant classics, are any albums instant classics? With the way music is moving now, we see the words "classic" and "timeless" thrown around more than ever. This makes us wonder: can we have timeless music if music is moving so quickly? We posed the question to DJBooth senior writers Donna-Claire Chesman and Yoh.

Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

donnacwrites [2:21 PM]

First off, how are you? Eventful day.

yoh [2:22 PM]

Ha, you could say that. Spent the night in the hospital. My sister is in labor, rather long labor, a sign that we will be running on my niece's time for the rest of our days. How about you? All is well in Donna's world?

donnacwrites [2:24 PM]

Finished a book, pitched a piece, ran a piece. The usual. I am excited to be on Yoh's niece's time. That sounds ideal and precious.

So, I was reading this Saweetie interview with Billboard and something she said really struck me. She mentioned that the way music moves now, if your work isn't timeless, it won't stick because music moves so quickly. That got me thinking: can music even be timeless now? With everything moving so quickly, do we know what timelessness is anymore?

yoh [2:33 PM]

Great question. I think a lot about time and our relationship to moments and how art can transcend beyond its release date. Saweetie is partially right. Music moves quickly. There's an abundance of songs being released every day through various mediums and being shared constantly on social media. Artists are fighting against this current, aiming to reach an audience with each song. Yet, I don't believe we can immediately recognize timelessness. There's a natural way that music enters our lives. Some songs are here for a moment, a season, and then you have songs that stick around for a lifetime. 

I could be wrong because I was too young to see how the song was received initially, but I wonder if, say, Juvenile's "Back That Azz Up" was championed as a timeless song 25 years ago? Did fans really believe "Cash Money Records taking over for the '99 and the 2000" would be something their children's children would hear and react to? I don't think so. 

What do you think? Is it possible to recognize timelessness in such a timely era? What even determines if a song will be timeless? Is it lyrics? Is it production? Is it a natural feeling of eternal affection?

donnacwrites [2:41 PM]

You're spot-on. We rarely know the value of something in the present moment, good or bad. The present is for living. We only seek to understand the past and predict the future. When you hear a song, much like when you meet a person, there is a chance to imagine yourself hearing that song years into the future. You know for yourself if something will stick, but as for the culture, it isn't as intuitive. 

Using Saweetie as an example, she makes good to great music. I spin her records fairly often, and I can see myself doing so for years to come because she strikes something in me. Same with Jack Harlow. Same with Mac. Does this make their work timeless? I am unsure, but it makes them enduring artists. 

You know who is timeless to me? Atmosphere. Atmosphere are timeless because of their writing. It has evolved so much from God Loves Ugly to Mi Vida Local. Slug explores his life with such candor, it's impossible to not to tune in because he's lived through so much. That's timelessness in motion, but he has a leg up since Atmosphere has been in the game for a long, long time.

Timelessness, too, can be determined by a moment. Instead of writing life music for decades, if an artist creates a sensational cultural moment, even when the moment passes, they've immortalized themselves. With production, it's much of the same. What stamp are you leaving? Travis Scott made a timeless sound. Everyone—and I mean everyone—raps over a Travis Scott type beat. They have been for the past handful of years, and will for even more. Eventually, it will become vintage, but it's not going anywhere. Wondering if Travis would have gone up during the '80s is a fool's errand because we did not have the capacity for his sound then, but I would have to venture yes because his production choices are grander experiences than some top 50 songs.

On the opposite end of the timeline, Big L is timeless to me. He didn't have the chance that Slug did to make himself timeless by literally working over time, but he did write about his time on this earth with equal candor that inspired everyone all the same. Where would punchlines be without Big L? There is a core truth to his music that floats up and is beyond explanation, but when you hear it, you know you're hearing classic, real, of-the-earth rap. There is no one word for that feeling, but artists new and staple have spent their careers trying to summon it.

yoh [2:57 PM]

Beautifully said. My question for you is, is there a difference between enduring artists and timeless artists? If you are able to endure time, to last beyond the moment for someone, won't you break through the barriers that tend to cause artists and songs to fade away? I'm pretty certain reaching the status of an enduring artist is just a few steps from lasting as someone who transcends time. 

Due to our relationship with art, every artist is timeless to someone. The more I think about Saweetie's answer, the more I believe immortality is the desire. Big L is immortal. As you said, where would punchlines be without him? That's not something every artist will be able to say. The conversation then turns to influence, to how what you create not only exists outside of time but is carried into the future by those who champion what you made. I imagine most artists want their art to last forever, not just in people's hearts but at the heart of the culture they operate within.

donnacwrites [3:07 PM]

I absolutely agree with you. Enduring is a step away from timeless, but cultural timelessness is different from personal timelessness. Every artist, conceptually, is timeless to someone. Monkeys and typewriters, you know? You'll get the great American novel eventually. There are more concrete parameters when we think about cultural timelessness. Someone has to start the consensus for those things, though I'm not entirely sure who is on the committee. 

I guess for Atmosphere, I am on the committee as you are on the committee for your own artists. Timelessness, when we boil it down, is not just an emotional impact but influence. Any artist can strike the heart of a person; there are just so many people. But not every artist can be influential. That's why everyone is trying to influence the culture. Touching the fans is sometimes just the cherry on top. Yet, as Noname loves to remind us: Everything is everything. As long as music lives forever, I will be happy.

yoh [3:14 PM]

Absolutely. You just sparked a thought. I'm a few years older than you. Thinking back on a time before social media, I don't remember hearing the word "timelessness" too often. "Classic," definitely. But even that word was only used to describe certain albums of revered status. My experience with music the thought of classic and timeless wasn't present. I just cared that it was good. Do you think the climate of so much music and this era of social media discourse encourages an artist to think about their art as classic and timeless?

donnacwrites [3:16 PM]

Because things move so quickly, and there is so much, we still care if it's good, but the language has changed. People call things classics the day of release as a means of saying, "This album is good, you should listen to it," because simply saying that will not cut through the noise. People have learned how to scream louder because you have to belt to be heard in social media times. That's why we have the obsession with instant classics and timelessness now more than ever, I would say. And maybe you are older than I, but one of us has a three o'clock tea time.

yoh [3:21 PM]

LOL. Invite me over sometime.

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