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What's the Most Viral Moment in Pop-Music History?

The Beatles on 'Ed Sullivan'? Michael Jackson's Motown Moonwalk? Psy's 'Gangnam Style' Video? You Decide

By Published on . 7

A couple months back when Ad Age's staff began working on our Music Issue, I started to obsess about the inextricable link between music and viral media. Think of a pop-cultural moment that's "gone viral," and chances are pretty good it's music-related. (Unless, of course, it's a cat video. Then again, Keyboard Cat was nothing without his Yamaha.)

Credit: Kelsey Dake

Was it possible, I wondered, to pin down the most viral moment in music history?

I also wondered about what, exactly, constitutes historical virality. It's obviously easier in a post-YouTube/Facebook/Twitter world to quantify buzz. But then again, you might argue that in a pre-social world with way fewer entertainment options -- and more of a tendency toward monoculture -- what we collectively were all buzzing about routinely had a lot more scale (like when the series finale of "M*A*S*H" drew more than 100 million viewers).

TV and radio powered the popular-music-related conversation for most of the modern age. But was media-prescribed, marketing-driven virality automatically less "organic"? Sure, arguably. Or, you know, maybe people just really liked Michael Jackson.

At any rate, as a sort of thought exercise about the nature of pre- and post-internet music culture, I've put together a short list of the most viral moments in modern pop-music history -- with "modern" starting, for the sake of argument, 50 years ago. Which means the British Invasion of American prime-time TV makes the cut, but not Elvis' televised (and semi-censored) hip-swiveling in 1956.

I excluded moments that were purely musical -- which means no record releases, epochal or otherwise (like, say, the Aug. 8, 1988 release of N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton," which ushered in the gangsta rap era). And I left out notable births (e.g., the launch of MTV on Aug. 1, 1981) and artist deaths.

What I was looking for, generally, was viral musical moments that had multimedia dimensionality and which rocked the culture.

Here goes:

Feb. 9, 1964: The Beatles make the first of three consecutive Sunday-night appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Aug. 15-18, 1969: The Woodstock Festival is held at a dairy farm in Bethel, New York. The specific moment: Jimi Hendrix, the closing act, performs his legendary electric-guitar version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Dec. 14, 1977: "Saturday Night Fever" storms movie theaters, helping to turn disco music into a worldwide phenomenon.

March 25, 1983: Michael Jackson moonwalks at the Motown 25th-anniversary telecast on NBC during "Billie Jean," helping to cement his status as one of the greatest performers of all time and making his signature dance move internationally famous.

Dec. 2, 1983: "Michael Jackson's Thriller," an epic 13-minute music video directed by John Landis, premieres on MTV. (A quarter century later it's added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as "the most famous music video of all time.")

July 13, 1985: Live Aid, a satellite-linked concert staged in London's Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia's JFK Stadium, is broadcast to a live TV audience of 1.9 billion people. Organized by rockers Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, it helps raise more than a quarter billion dollars for Ethiopian famine relief. Specific moment: Freddie Mercury and Queen's 20-minute set at Wembley. (A 1995 music-industry poll by Britain's Channel 4 named Queen's "show-stealing performance" as the World's Greatest Rock Gig; Hendrix at Woodstock came in second.)

Jan. 27, 1991: Whitney Houston performs "The Star Spangled Banner" -- immediately hailed as one of the all-time greatest vocal renditions of the song -- at Super Bowl XXV before an estimated global TV audience of three-quarters of a billion people.

Dec. 14, 1993: The Nirvana edition of "MTV Unplugged" debuts on MTV; the band's acoustic performance before a live audience had been recorded in New York City less than a month before. Kurt Cobain's haunting renditions of songs like "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" take on added grim resonance -- and underscore his Last-Rock-Star mythology -- when the live album is released the next year following his suicide at age 27.

Sept. 4, 2002: Before an audience of nearly 23 million viewers, Kelly Clarkson is crowned the winner of the first season of the singing competition "American Idol," which becomes one of the most successful shows in TV history and which, for better or for worse, transforms music marketing -- and the Billboard charts -- in the new millennium.

Dec. 17, 2005: "Saturday Night Live" airs "Lazy Sunday," a low-budget comedic music video. Featuring cast members Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell white-guy-rapping their way through an afternoon of cupcake-eating and matinee-going ("The Chronic -- what?! -- cles of Narnia"), the video becomes an internet sensation, with viewers uploading copies of it to a then-new video-sharing site. And suddenly everyone knows what the hell YouTube is.

July 15, 2012: South Korean musician Psy releases the music video for his ridiculously catchy single "Gangnam Style," which makes his signature horse-riding move arguably the most (ineptly) mimicked dance move since Michael Jackson's moonwalk. It's a signal moment in the globalization of pop culture, with the video ultimately becoming YouTube's most-watched video of any sort ever (with 1,776,389,116 views as of this writing).

What truly belongs on the shortlist and what doesn't? And what'd I miss? Email me -- or tell me in the comments section below.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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