Most of us have our favourite musical artists, the ones we deliberately seek out, but what about the other kind, the ones who wriggle in through the trapdoor of your mind? That, in the sweetest, strangest way, gatecrash your cultural consciousness when you’re not quite paying attention, then embed there. Forever.
When news came of the death of Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie at age 79, the internet did one of its loving, sorrowful double-takes. Of course it did. There’s much to applaud about the multitalented McVie: those scuffed-velvet vocals; the chilled charisma of a woman who truly knew herself; that decades-spanning rock’n’roll sisterhood with fellow band member Stevie Nicks laying waste to the sexist fiction that two highly creative women always have to end up in a catfight.
And, of course, McVie’s songwriting: Little Lies, Songbird, Don’t Stop, The Chain – the last three all from a single album, Fleetwood Mac’s 1977, 45m-selling Rumours. This is where the reaction to McVie, and more generally to Fleetwood Mac, starts to splinter. On the one hand, the many devotees, the Mac-heads. On the other, people, hazy on details, but who realise they know more Mac-songs than they thought. And who mentally flash on to the Rumours album cover (Mick with his ponytail; Nicks arching in shadowy robes) as easily as recalling the face of a childhood friend.
None of which is remotely surprising. What McVie’s passing brings home is that, somewhere along the way, she and Fleetwood Mac near as dammit became their own genre. That they’re part of a relatively select canon of artists who have not only been enjoyed for decades, but have become culturally indelible, like a tattooing of the collective psyche.
There’s nothing new about this or about monetising it. It’s why companies such as Hipgnosis have been paying out billions on back catalogues, to older and younger artists (with McVie and certain other members of the band signing up). The companies know certain artists have an impact far beyond music platforms. That it’s not just about what people choose to hear through their headphones or speakers, it’s also about musical osmosis: background sounds swirling around us. The idea that, to a certain extent, the soundtrack of your life is decided without you.
This is how songs from rock, pop, and every other genre become as immortal as Christmas carols. How Elton John can announce that next year’s headlining Glastonbury slot will be his last, but we all know Goodbye Yellow Brick Road isn’t going anywhere. It’s where Madonna will always be vogueing and the Beatles eternally walk barefoot across the Abbey Road crossing. It’s also where Christine will be playing synth and singing into her mike, alongside Stevie, John, Mick and Lindsey forever.
Isn’t this the sweet spot in which Fleetwood Mac find themselves? They’re woven into the tapestry of life in a way beyond mere commercial longevity, rather a blend of talent, magnetism and cultural immersion. I like to think the famously modest McVie was privately thrilled this is where her musical contribution ended up. She did the work, she paid her dues and now all those songs – those California-soaked hymns to dreams and nightmares – are just “there”, part of the collective memory; music society has decided it just can’t shake.
• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist
• This article was amended on 4 December 2022. Little Lies was not on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album, as an earlier version said.