What makes something a classic?

Today I was just wondering out aloud to Priya Raju about why something becomes a classic. My curiosity stemming from a great song scored by reigning king of cine-music in India – A.R.Rehman (for US readers he is the closest equivalent of the No.1 musician on the current Billboard charts).

I reminisced about the arguments, we the Sast Wingees used to have in college about Ilayaraja Vs. MS Viswanathan – the previous 2 dominant music directors of their time. The argument usually ended with one group saying that Ilayaraja with his new age music could never create classics like MS Viswanathan did and the other vehemently opposed to that view.

Interestingly, the argument centered around the fact that Ilayaraja’s new-fangled music could not be listened to as many times as Viswanathan’s. Today, the same argument gets played out, with a group of people claiming that A.R. Rehman’s new music does not have the lasting power that Ilayaraja’s has. Ergo, A.R. Rahman’s songs will never become a classic! The exact same fate that Ilayaraja’s songs were supposed to meet.

But then, today, we know that so many of Ilayarja’s songs have attained classic status. So, that led us to the question, what is it that makes something a classic? Priya Raju and I started looking at some obvious examples of classics that are accepted the world over as classics – George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield, Alfred Hitchcock’s many movies, Cecille De Milles’s Ten Commandments Movie, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and so on.

One obvious pre-requisite for something to even hope for classic status is that it must become popular somehow. Additionally, We came to the conclusion that, a classic should either be genre-defining or should have pushed the genre to its limits.

Looking at it slightly differently, it should open up new vistas in your mind that leaves a lasting impression on you. Possibly pushes the buttons of imaginations, so much so that, you actively evangelize it to your family, friends, at a later stage your children – catch the number of times you tell your children – in my younger days, this movie or this show or this book was huge.

That’s how something becomes part of the folklore and gets passed generation to generation and becomes an immortal classic. As a child, i and my friend saw the movie Star Wars just as it had come out and were instantly mesmerized by it. I am sure i will evangelize it to the next younger generation even though the movie is not even remotely cool for even the current younger generation.

Priya Raju made the point that sometimes a few good ones do slip by a generation completely, but its later rediscovered by a later generation and achieves classic status. One of the best examples of this category is Vincent Van Gogh. Today, if you told someone that Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings is not a classic, you will be laughed at. But during his time, his genius was not recognized and he died a pauper.

In sum, before you dismiss that new-fangled whatever, pause to think about its mind-bending potential – it may be the next classic in waiting.

1. Brayden says eloquently that classics shift the debate in new directions.
2. Pittsburgh Tribune Review ponders the question – what makes a classic?