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.