Yesterday, Norman Greenbaum celebrated his 75th birthday, and it was hopefully a happy one. On the strength of one hit song in 1969 (that peaked at #3 on the Billboard chart the next year), Greenbaum has made a handsome living. So, what is it about “Spirit In The Sky” and other songs we call one-hit wonders that make them so powerful decades after their release?
There's a psychology to music as those of us in the radio business know all too well. Certain songs magically have a special, often difficult to explain power, triggering powerful memories, nostalgia pangs, and visceral feelings that go beyond the other senses.
Now, a professor of literature and linguistics, Hal McDonald, attempts to explain why one-hit wonders elicit these outsized reactions and emotions. In a recent article in Psychology Today, he recounts a lengthy drive, and while listening to the radio (but of course), came across a special song that brought back a torrent of memories.
He lists some of the major neurological forces at work here – and they go a long way toward explaining how programmers think as well as what we continue to experience in music testing:
1. It's a brain thing
There's something neurological going on. Dr. McDonald confirms that brain imaging studies show that music kicks in certain chemicals – dopamine, serotonin, and other happy substances. When that right song comes along, there is a whole lot of brain activity goin' on.
2. It's a nostalgia thing
As those of us who have spent time in the Oldies and Classic Rock worlds know so well, songs we first heard in our teens are especially powerful because that's when our hormones were going berserk. Songs from our youths are disproportionately more reactive. They resonate more than new music that isn't tied to those age-old memories.
3. The element of surprise
In focus groups, we often hear listeners yearn for radio to “Surprise me.” An unexpected song with nostalgia power packs an even bigger wallop. Dr. McDonald says a spontaneous encounter with one of these songs can be an incredible mood elevator.
4. It's on the radio
And connected with that “oh wow” effect is hearing one of these songs on the radio as opposed to on a self-created playlist on Spotify. As Dr. McDonald notes, “emotions are far more intense when we hear that song unexpectedly on the radio…” He noted that same impact may come from hearing the same song in a store. But my instincts tell me that when you're surprised by a song on the radio – the same place you probably heard in in the first place – it generates an even more powerful moment.
5. Hop in the “Wayback Machine”
As Dr. McDonald points out, the same song can trigger the same memory every time we hear it. But if we only bump into it on rare occasions, it packs a one-two punch – first, nostalgia, but second, “novelty detection.” McDonald writes that our brains react very positively to novelty, so when we experience a memory for the first time, it's super-charged. If a song has simply not been on your mind (or one of your playlists), it stimulates what he refers to as a “high degree of chronological remoteness.” Therefor, old and familiar meets new and unexpected. Pow!
This helps to explain why what we call “novelty records” often test especially well in gold music tests. Embedded among familiar (and often repeated) hits, like “Jet Airliner” or “Won't Get Fooled Again,” they literally explode in a Marriott meeting room filled with respondents, Scantron sheets, and #2 pencils.
But it also tells us that when we see their high test scores and just throw them into “power,” we end up diminishing the impact of a one-hit wonder or novelty song. When they're rolling around tight one-day-and-a-day-daypart rotations, even “Ballroom Blitz” and “Do You Know What I Mean” lose their nostalgic potency.
So, back to Norman Greenbaum and his durable one-hit wonder, “Spirit In The Sky.”
If you've been watching TV lately, chances are you've hear it as the new soundtrack to an inspiring spot by Chase called “The Above and Beyond Financial Strategy.”
Those you who are fans of Greenbaum's “greatest hit” may recall hearing the song again and again – on other commercials, as well as movies, TV shows, and video games. Here's a partial list of all the pop culture touchstones “Spirit” has been heard in:
Commercials for Adobe Systems, Lyft and ESPN's College Football Playoff (2016)
Film and TV appearances include “This Is The End,” “Wayne's World 2,” “Miami Blues, “The Longest Yard,” “Suicide Squad,” “Remember the Titans,” “Blacklist,” “Redemption,” Shameless,” “House,” and many others
The song also was on the “Rock Band 2” playlist.
In the article, Dr. McDonald never reveals that one-hit wonder that set off his neurological fireworks. But a check of his resume shows he's a professor at a place called Mars Hill University. My money's on Norman Greenbaum.
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Kevin Fodor says
Which also explains the Facebook memes exhorting, “My music’s great and yours sucks”. 🙂
Fred Jacobs says
Exactly! These memes are in our heads!
Tai Irwin says
Another great post. Growing up with AM top 40 via Cousin Brucie as a small boy cemented songs in my brain, 1964 up until WLIR came along with FM album oriented rock. Somewhere in between, WCBS and the word “oldies” came to mean super hits that were immediately recognizable as genius to me, until the backwash of the 1970’s crept in.
Playing all this music for a living was vibrant and wonderful – playing the “classics” from later on was numbing and awful. Now, years later I can appreciate all of it, totally detached. Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” gets my vote.
Dave Mason says
I wasn’t gonna comment until I read Tai’s post. I am SOOOO in agreement with “Something In The Air”. It tweaked my memory of hearing it on XERB (AM) when Wolfman Jack ruled the airwaves of Southern California in 1970. The semi-nasal voice of John “Speedy” Keene and the “loneliness” of the piano solo in the middle 8..and the monstrous crescendo after-an everlasting testimony of the turbulent times we were living in then. I had just returned from a year in Viet Nam-and was well aware of the protests going on here in the states. It’s one of the ways these songs connect -and this one is special because of the relevance of the moment. It compelled me to buy the entire album -which wasn’t half bad.
Fred Jacobs says
Looks like Dr. McDonald is right again. Thanks for the comment, Dave, and the story.
Fred Jacobs says
Thanks and great choice!
Mike Watermann says
I was at Norman’s birthday party on Sunday! Considering he almost died in a car accident 3 years ago, he’s doing extremely well. He lives here in Santa Rosa, and I met him several years ago when he came up to me at a remote. He said that every time we play “Spirit in the Sky” on 97.7, The River, someone will call or email him and say: “Norman! They’re playing your song on the radio!” He told me it took him 15 minutes to write that song, and he’s never had to work a day since then. He has a Double-Platinum Album award for being on the soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy.
Fred Jacobs says
Truly an amazing example of getting it right just once – and having all the planets line up. There is something still haunting and so hooky about “Spirit’s” open. Glad he’s doing well. Thanks, Mike.
Brad Lovett says
You can give me “But Its Alright” by J.J. Jackson from 1966 any day of the week. It still shows up on some oldies streams.
Fred Jacobs says
Good one, Brad!