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What Makes a Pop Song Great?
Are great pop songs less like great rock songs than like great classical music?
By Rick Anderson
Unfortunately, like many fair and important questions, this one has lots of answers, many of them defensible but none of them ultimately authoritative. Here’s how it seems to me:
First of all, I think it’s important to think about categories and kinds of musical “greatness.” Hildegard von Bingen's monophonic hymns and sequences are great, I believe, because they combine melodic genius, philosophical acuity, and deep religious devotion to create music that can be appreciated on multiple levels all at the same time: as inventive and attractive melody; as theological thought; and as what seems to me to be a powerfully impressive example of God-seeking that bespeaks both intellectual rigor and fundamental humility. As an abbess, female composer, and thinker in 12th-century Germany, Hildegard could only have accomplished what she did with a tremendously solid sense of herself and her abilities, yet her music is never about herself — it’s always about things greater than herself, to which she consciously and resolutely (and not quietly) submits.
Palestrina's Missa Aeterna Christi Munera is a great piece of music, I believe, because in it he not only demonstrates mastery of a dauntingly complex art form (Renaissance choral polyphony) but also — perhaps more importantly — harnesses that mastery in order to create a musical experience that is both meltingly gorgeous and transcendantly devotional. Gorgeousness and devotion don’t necessarily need each other, but when they are coupled I find the results irresistible. I can’t listen to the opening measures of the “Kyrie” section without every hair on my body standing on end.
Mozart’s clarinet quintet is a great piece of music, I believe, because it begins with a melody that is already heart-stoppingly sweet and melancholy, and then takes its component parts and uses them to build a musical flower that is as perfect, as dense, and as fleshily beautiful as a peony blossom. Where Hildegard and Palestrina achieved greatness by putting beauty to work in support of devotion, Mozart put it to work expressing emotion. To listen to Mozart at his best, I think, is to hear the sound of deep feelings one has had in the past and perhaps forgotten, and to become more aware of the feelings of others. (For some reason, I find his sacred music to be much less compelling than his secular music.)
In each of the three cases I’ve described above, the composer is working in a musical language that I understand only incompletely. While I understand the basic grammar of tonality, rhythm, counterpoint, development, sonata form, etc., I don’t understand it well enough to comprehend everything that is going on in any of those pieces. I know enough to catch glimpses of the genius that informs them, but not enough to grasp the entirety of the musical structure. But I respond to it anyway. In each of these (and many similar) cases, I think what moves me about the music is that its maker has created something with multiple layers — on the surface, a sweet and often inventive melody; below it, a kind of structural ingenuity that can be comprehended at some level even by someone who doesn’t completely speak the architectural language; and underlying that, a spiritual or emotional gesture that attracts or at least interests me.
Pop songs obviously have to be judged according to different structural criteria than those you use when thinking about classical music. You don’t judge a Buddy Holly song based on his elaborations of the melody in the closing chorus anymore than you judge a Mozart concerto by its beat. But I think a great pop song does some of the same things that great classical music does, even if it does so by different and undeniably simpler means. Those means aren’t exactly the same from one great pop song to another, but the songs that I think are great do all seem to have something of a pattern in common:
Marshal Crenshaw’s “Someday, Some Way” combines a sweet, simple and jaunty melody with a wry lyric that simultaneously expresses confusion, affection and commitment.
Matthew Sweet's “I’ve Been Waiting” combines beautifully chiming guitar arpeggios and a sweet, simple melody with a wide-eyed lyric that simultaneously expresses wonder at his romantic good fortune and a longing for the complete realization of it.
Don Dixon’s “Not Giving Up the Ghost” builds musical and emotional tension with a dark and bittersweetly attractive melody during the verse in which he describes in a clear-headed way the fact that his relationship with his beloved is over; then the tension is released in a gentle explosion into the bright, major-key chorus in which he asserts that he’ll never give up on her. The song is brilliantly hooky, charmingly romantic, and subtly creepy all at the same time.
R.E.M.’s “Fall on Me” combines a heart-wrenchingly attractive melody with lyrics that are nearly nonsensical but convey a feeling of aching desire for something that is never defined in any coherent way. Because the words make little sense, you can’t pin them down — but they’re evocative enough that you can think about them in eight or 10 different ways and the song ends up being eight or 10 different kinds of moving.
Will Hoge’s “Let Me Be Lonely” takes a richly colorful (but thoroughly conventional) chord progression, lashes it to a torqued-up power-pop jet engine, and rides it into the sunset shouting a lyric that sounds simultaneously desperate and exalted. With all the energy of his soul, he’s pleading to be left alone by a girl who is obviously both attractive and toxic to him, and he roars through the song in just over two minutes — verse/chorus/verse/chorus, with no bridge.
What are the common elements here? Great melody; a compelling chord progression; lyrics that both reveal emotion and complicate it. Put all of them together, and you’ve got what I call a great pop song.
By my criteria, a great rock song is not necessarily a great pop song. “I Against I,” by Bad Brains, is a rock masterpiece, but by no means would I call it a great pop song. Same goes for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away,” King Crimson’s “Frame by Frame,” Pere Ubu’s “Non-alignment Pact,” and Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control.” (“Love Will Tear Us Apart” is utterly great and comes closer to being a great pop song, but doesn't quite make it — too desultory, too short of emotional nuance, too self-absorbed.)
My point, I think — a great classical composition and a great pop song have more in common than a great pop song and a great rock song do. And maybe it’s significant to my argument that some of the greatest polyphonic masses written during the Renaissance period consisted almost entirely of elaborate variations on pop songs.