Once upon a time, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway sang an important question:

"Where is the love?"

I'm reminded because this morning, for the umpteenth time, I switched my car radio from the coarse, materialistic and/or profane musical offerings on a local black-music station to the less jarring sounds of oldies, jazz and classical.

Switching from rapper Juvenile's unforgettable lyric, "You'se a big, fine woman, won't you back that thang up," I had a thought:

Movies have musical scores. Products from blue jeans to detergent have their own advertising jingles. Singers and musicians have their signature songs.

How would the soundtrack for a century sound?

What would we hear if we set 100 years to music, if we collected the rhythms to which we jumped, twirled and sighed for a century? Because music gives depth to and relief from life's daily beat, it's no wonder magazines publish lists of the century's "best" music-makers.

But how can a handful of critics, most of them born in this nation after 1940, decide what was best for the more than 9 billion who drew breath on the planet in the last hundred years? How can they say Elvis, the Beatles, Bob Dylan or anyone else had the most impact? Such lists are exercises in ego, produced by people whose decision about what's best depends on their age, nationality, culture, income and skin color.

In truth, millions of equally valid lists exist, one for every individual who ever got teary over a torch song or bounced behind the wheel to "my" song on the car radio. Many of us have such tunes, "theme songs" whose lyrics or moods capture something essential about us.

I was 17 when my first one floated from the radio of the car in which I was flirting with a guy named Duane. Its yearning melody and cornball lyrics stopped me mid-wink. By the refrain, I was a goner.

"Betcha by golly wow. You're the one that I've been waiting for forever."

Duane, I never dated again. But my appreciation of the Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly Wow" has stayed with me, through years when its notion of a forever romance felt like a joke, and to today's knowledge that your true love is sometimes less likely to exchange steamy glances with you than heated words about whose turn it is to change that burned-out light bulb.

Today, hearing just a snatch of "Betcha By Golly Wow" zooms me right back to the teenage optimism and hopefulness that never has entirely left me. So do other cuts from my life's soundtrack: the Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes I memorized; the Jackson Five's bubble-gum bounciness; Carole King's vanilla soul; Peabo Bryson and Aretha Franklin's ballads; brooding cafe standards by Frank Sinatra and Joe Williams; soul-stirring offerings from Sly and Stevie and Prince and Marvin and Luther and dozens more.

The problem with lists is who gets left off. What magazine's "best" list would stoop to include such critically dissed artists as, say, Barry Manilow or Celine Dion, however the masses adored them? What of groups such as Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Dells, the Emotions or the Spinners, who fueled many folks' fiercest romantic fantasies?

Such artists' impact came from knowing, as Flack and Hathaway did, where the love surely was: inside us. And from making music that coaxed it into the open.

As I switched stations I realized: Every century's most lasting, influential music centers on love--of God or humanity, of artists' own soaring, romantic feelings.

Where do today's girls get what "Betcha By Golly Wow" gave me--and that Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine's songs gave my mother? Artists such as 'N Sync, K-Ci & JoJo, the Backstreet Boys and Brian McKnight still make wildly popular love songs. But they're often overshadowed by potty-mouthed guys who moan about getting some booty and attitude-flaunting women who denigrate them right back.

Which doesn't bother many of today's girls. Take Theresa Cane, 15, a sophomore member of the chamber choir at Montgomery County's James Hubert (Eubie) Blake High School. She enjoys singing along to Whitney Houston, Faith Evans and Destiny's Child, and she appreciates 98 Degrees "because they're cute."

Yet Theresa says, "I'm not into romantic music--it's mushy; I don't like that."

In real life, Theresa insists, she "wouldn't stand for" the sexed-up behavior touted by her favorite male hip-hop artists. "I don't listen to the words, really," she adds. "I like the beat--it's easy to dance to."

Most boys she knows aren't romance-ready anyway. "I think of romance as something that will happen--when boys get more mature," she says.

At the century's end, some would say girls don't know what they're missing, music-wise. Others would insist they're just realistic about the romance-reduced times in which they live. Either way, I expect love-based music to make a comeback. Who can live for long on current music's rage, materialism and emotion-free sex? Romance will be back.

I betcha, by golly.