What makes a great song?
I asked my Facebook and Twitter audiences: “What is the greatest song ever written: “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell, or “The Gambler,” by Kenny Rogers?
It’s an absurd question with no “right” answer. I expected no one to choose one of those songs. I expected some people to suggest alternatives, and they did. But I also hoped (and was disappointed) that someone, anyone, would ask “Why are THOSE songs even on your list?” I think I was subliminally preparing to write this piece. The strongly expressed views did help sharpen my focus.
What makes a great song?
Is it the song? Is it the performance of the song? Is it the Music, the Lyrics? Yes to all of that.
Let’s stipulate that instrumentals don’t make the great song list. They make the great Music list. It’s an arbitrary rule, but I’m going with it.
No music, you might have great poetry. But not a song. Great music can be a big part of a Great song. Many facets should be weighed:
Virtuosity: A tour de force musical performance alone does not make a song “great.” Prince’s guitar on Purple Rain is exquisite. It carries a lot of the load in making that a good/great song. Take Joe Walsh’s guitar on “Life’s Been Good to Me So Far,” or the solo on Jackson Brown’s “Doctor My Eyes.” Signature licks that are catchy, instantly identifiable, but I’m not sure I can elevate the song to “Greatness” on the strength of the musician’s prowess alone.
Uniqueness/Distinctness: A song is enhanced in its quest for “greatness” by its musical uniqueness. NOT by the specific performance of any particular artist, but by the song structure.
Pick any great lyric you like, and if you put it over a 12 bar blues riff heard in 16,000 songs, it will be (to me) less great than if the artist has created a distinct, identifiable musical signature to go along with the poetry.
This is a legitimately divisive point. I simply prefer songs whose greatness rests more on the lyrics. I get the concept of music being a world within itself, a language we all understand, but if I’m ranking “great” songs, ones with lyrics will rise above instrumentals. Not always. Ravel’s Bolero goes way, WAY above Kid Rock’s “Summertime.”
But I know that this is pure “De gustibus non est disputandum” territory. We like what we like. I like well-crafted words.
Clarity: Lyrics ought to be understandable. Mumbled lyrics MIGHT open space for imagination, or simply leave room for bad lip readings. “Wrapped up like a goose, another sinner with a plight.” Bruce didn’t say that in “Blinded by the Light.” What did he mean?”
Concision: A song that encapsulates a perfect story and emotion in four minutes is greater than one that rolls out nine minutes long. A nine-minute song CAN be great. But on my scale, concision is a key ingredient to the designation of “great!” “The Gambler” hits on this criterion, via simplicity. Others reach this goal via poetry – distilling to fewer words, and somehow, magically, keeping the emotion and story intact.
Accessible Poetic Distillation: If a “poetic” lyric is going to be great, it must be poetic without being obtuse. Compare a few lines of two very good songs from great lyricists:
|Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”||Elvis Costello’s “Deep, Dark, Truthful Mirror.”|
Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war
For a leading role in a cage?
|A stripping puppet on a liquid stick|
Gets into it pretty thick
A butterfly drinks a turtle’s tears
But how do you know he really needs it?
‘Cos a butterfly feeds on a dead monkey’s hand
Jesus wept, he felt abandoned
Your spell-bound baby, there’s no doubtin’ that
Did you ever see her stare’ like a Persian cat?
Costello won the Grammy for Lyricist of the Year in 1989, and that song is one of many “great” songs on his “Spike” album. However, I can also say it’s less likely to be broadly considered great, to reach wide acclaim, because that lyric is “out there.”
Wide acclaim (popularity and recognition) on its own means jack squat. Everybody can sing Chumba-Wumba’s “Tub-Thumpin’” but it’s not a “great” song. But the wider the acclaim – the more people who can see themselves in the dark, truthful mirror of a great song – the better.
The Song Stands on Its Own: Songs that don’t rely on referential awareness are more likely dealing with innate, human experiences. Love, Death, Joy, Sex, Food. The more time or event specific, real-world events or times, the more difficulty it will have being great.
“Oh What A Night” is catchy, but it is a time-bound nostalgia trip. Late December, back in ’63.
Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” may offer a great “teachable moment” for anyone who wants to dig into every historical reference. But great songs appeal to an emotional core we already possess, and that song isn’t great.
Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” is allegorically specific, as is “The Gambler” but understanding the specifics is not a function of having lived through a specific time.
A great voice? That can help a song, but surely Dylan, Springsteen, Elvis Costello and others have sung some great songs without having silky tones or perfect pitch. Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” is a great song, despite or because of his raspy voice over perfect lyrics.
In many ways the vocalist is a part of the “music,” and the “virtuosity” discussed before. A singer can definitely cut to an emotional core with a powerful, clear, perfect voice, but that won’t make the recording “great” on its own. I think of Jewel, Sarah Maclachlan, Sinead O’Connor, John Denver, and Brandi Carlile. All of these singers have sent shivers down my spine with their vocal perfection on some songs, but this criterion strongly veers toward personal preference.
Applicability: A great song can be sung by everyone and they think it’s about THEM individually. “Even Hitler could sing “I did It My Way,” my high school English teacher once said. Likewise the plaintive chorus plea in “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is the voice of every human looking for connection and communication: “I’m just a soul who’s intentions are good. Oh Lord, Please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
Timelessness: A great song can be sung today as easily as it was 50 years ago, and still applies. There are some great songs with timebound references, but they’re (by my standard) less great than those that avoid being pigeonholed by an era.
Emotionally Universal: A great song conveys emotions of the universal human condition. This is why “Both Sides Now” is on the list. Four verses of human experiences/perceptions, viewed first from naivete and then through a cynical filter after disillusionment. In spite of the disillusionment, it’s the illusions we recall.
Emotionally Authentic: This one is nebulous. “Authentic.” I don’t know, you can just feel the truth leaking out. Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know” is an emotionally authentic great song about being angry over a bad boyfriend and a breakup, but that is a narrow section of the human condition. Yes, it’s a universal human emotion: every human experiences heartbreak. But not only heartbreak. And not everyone can relate to “going down on you in a theater.”
It’s the SONG, Stupid. Universality shows its face, too, in how a song survives as a cover. “Both Sides Now” is famously one of the most recorded songs ever, as is “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney. Though The Beatles’ classic will always stand as “THE” version, Mitchell’s version might place fourth among covers of “Both Sides” Judi Collins made the song famous before Joni. It’s the SONG that is great, not the specific performance of the song. Sinead O’Connor put Prince to shame in her version of “Nothing Compares 2U,” and that’s a pretty good song. Same with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Everybody thinks they know the “original” version was sung by the Animals in 1965. Not true. Nina Simone was the first to sing it in 1964. and I thought Elvis Costello’s 1983 cover of it on his “Goodbye Cruel World” album was better than the Animals’ “original” until I heard Simone’s version. That is a GREAT song.
The more times a song is performed greatly, over a long span of time… well, that might speak to the greatness of the song.
Roll all of that together and you have a rubric for understanding my tastes, and not much more. As with movies, what a person considers a “great” movie is partly driven by personal exposures, personal tastes, and the perverse “lock” that our psyches are. A song, or a movie, tries to open us like a key… and some people’s psyches are cut for “When Harry Met Sally” while others for “The Road” or “Parasite.”
Now… about “The Gambler.” That will have to wait for another day, and another 1,500 words.