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The purpose of cultural lists is to get people talking. That Modern Library list of the century’s 100 best novels or the American Film Institute’s list of 100 best films couldn’t possibly do justice to their subjects, but they did start discussions. The same is true of Rolling Stone’s recently published “Pop 100,” a collaboration with MTV that purports to be—well, almost nothing. A cover line says these are the “100 greatest pop songs,” but the introduction doesn’t even go that far. Nowhere in the intro does the uncredited author say much of anything about the list’s benchmarks or significance—except for shrugging phrases like “love them or hate them” and “pop honors the ephemeral just as much as the lasting.” Funny, then, how the ephemera this list honors seem to date mostly from 1999 to 2000.

The principal, if unarticulated, standards for choosing these songs seem to be that they were (1) very popular, (2) not by one-hit wonders, and (3) emblematic of some shift in the pop marketplace. Thus the top three are “Yesterday,” the Beatles’ most-covered composition, if not the favorite of many Beatlemaniacs; “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” a song that is widely accepted as the first great Rolling Stones hit; and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the last big song that seemed to signal a new rock consciousness. They’re followed by “Like a Virgin,” the exemplary nondance Madonna hit; Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the biggest hit from the second biggest-selling album of all time; the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the song that announced the British Invasion; Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” standing in for dozens of mid-’60s soul chart-toppers; “With or Without You,” as good a popular U2 song as any; and the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” late-’60s soul and bubblegum in one convenient package.

Then, with No. 10, it gets weird: the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”

The Boys and their peers—Britney Spears, whose “…Baby One More Time” is No. 25, and ‘N Sync, whose “Bye Bye Bye” is 55—are a major problem for Rolling Stone. They sell millions of CDs, and their fans may someday grow up to be regular readers of the magazine. But their music has no place in the continuum that includes “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Brown Sugar,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “I Wanna Be Sedated.” It belongs with the oeuvre of Shaun Cassidy, the Osmonds, Andy Gibb, Bobby Goldsboro, Leif Garrett, and Debbie Gibson, none of whom made the Pop 100. Sometimes, it seems, “ephemeral” is just shorthand for “We don’t have to pretend to care about you any more.” In other words, don’t expect to see Britney and Backstreet on the list when the magazine does another Pop 100 in, say, 2010.

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Granted, these contemporary teenypop tunes aren’t quite as out of place as they might seem. Despite the presence of the Stones, Nirvana, the Ramones, Green Day, and AC/DC, the list definitely puts the pop into “Pop 100.” Such mostly—or at least sometimes—hard-rocking bands as Guns n’ Roses, Queen, Van Halen, Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt, and Foreigner are all represented by their most soft-centered crossover hits.

So the standard is Top 40 success? Well, no. Many influential bands that were strangers to U.S. pop-hits radio—including Led Zeppelin, the Clash, the Velvet Underground, and the Sex Pistols—are excluded, but the list makes room for the Who’s “My Generation,” a hit only in retrospect, and a few songs that were never released on singles, including the Beatles’ “In My Life” and Green Day’s “Longview.”

In fact, most Pop 100 contenders apparently need a successful rock career to legitimize that big pop smash. That seems to explain why the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” qualify. But many successful bands that specialized in such sugary power ballads—among them Bon Jovi, Toto, Loverboy, Genesis, Styx, and Survivor—are excluded. You gotta snarl convincingly before Rolling Stone will sanction your pop sellout.

Wacky as that logic may be, it’s got nothing on the reasoning behind “Songs of the Century,” a new poll being conducted by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. Just as I was trying to retroactively puzzle out the rules for the Pop 100, along came a very fancy booklet/ballot for the newer project. I was asked to vote for up to 360 songs in 12 chronological and stylistic categories, stretching from 1890 to 1999. Voters are allowed five write-ins, but the rest must be chosen from the existing nominees. As might be expected from a project sponsored by the RIAA, the prospective songs of the century are weighted toward mainstream commercial hits. Still, that’s clearly not the only consideration.

The RIAA-NEA list is even less congenial to underground phenomena than Rolling Stone’s; there’s no punk whatsoever, for example, or even “My Generation.” Still, the index finds room for endearing ’60s garage rockers like “96 Tears,” “Louie Louie,” and “Woolly Bully,” throwaways that have aged better than “…Baby One More Time” probably will—and that Pop 100 excludes. It has space for these because it blatantly rates the ’60s the pop decade of the century: Voters are asked to select 75 songs from that decade but only 25 from the ’90s.

That’s not the only sign that “Songs of the Century” intermittently lets social impact blunt straightforward commercial considerations. The RIAA-NEA ballot includes all the 1999-2000 teenypoppers that made Rolling Stone’s compendium, but neglects all their ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s counterparts. Hey, I prefer “96 Tears” to “One Bad Apple,” too, but the fact remains that the Osmonds—in their various permutations—had 35 Top 40 pop hits. Does that make them significant or not?

Both Rolling Stone and the RIAA-NEA poll say not, but at least the latter cites its criteria right up front: “The record vividly reflects its era and genre. The song says something about us as a people. The artist is an icon.” And Britney Spears meets that test? At the risk of sounding like a Florida Republican, it looks as if both the Pop 100 and “Songs of the Century” are changing the rules after the fact. Pop may honor the ephemeral just as much as the lasting, but that doesn’t mean its chroniclers need to contort themselves to accommodate platinum cash cows that will be forgotten as quickly as the Cowsills. —Mark Jenkins

Find a complete collection of What Goes On columns on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.