WHAT MAKES A GOOD SONG? The eternal question. What does ‘good’ even mean? How do we judge music at all? How do we judge the arts?!
All very pertinent questions. All questions pertinent to our class discussion this week.
Tim Dalton / Teebo brought up the concept of what makes a good pop song. Before we reached any depth in the deliberation, or enlisted the opinions of reputable/experienced sources (such as Phil Spector and Richard James Burgess), I thought, ‘surely there couldn’t be a list!?’ – music, and our relation to it, is completely personal, with qualities that cannot be described in words (especially through definitive ‘lists’).
An issue I had was how one would define a ‘good' song – is it whether it is successful? Does ‘successful’ mean to be critically acclaimed, well-received by the public or loved by even a few individuals? Does a successful song need to make a high volume of sales, make gold, make platinum?
I guess you it could be a combination of these things – which many songs have done, so it is worth considering the question of ‘how?’.
Tim referred to Phil Spector. I admire the man greatly as a producer, specifically in his work with the Beatles on Let It Be, with George Harrison and John Lennon on solo records, and with the Ronettes (Be My Baby is a genius song). I accepted, then, that there must be some validity in what he has to say about what makes a good song.
Spector's 3-point list says that to make a popular song, it:
1. Must be repetitive
2. Must have a primal beat
3. Must be about sex.
Firstly, this list couldn’t possibly be exhaustive because there are songs that tick all three of these criterion whilst not being what would necessarily constitute a good song (though that is always debatable). In saying that, the list isn’t misdirected and I agree with it to an extent.
I completely buy that popular music needs to be repetitive. Actually, I cannot think of a single song I enjoy that doesn’t repeat at least one section - whether a riff, a melody, a beat - or contains some sort of a structure (not to say it doesn't go in and out of it). Even the unpopular, alternative music I listen to contains at least a small element of repetition. You need something to latch on to with songs, that instigates it growing on you as the song progresses, and that will be catchy enough for your mind to grasp (and continue recreating even when it’s not playing).
The beat point is also very indicative. To have a steady, predictable beat, that drives a song and often underlies the various sections, helps to make a song repetitive and catchy, and give it its ‘feel’. We all like having something to clap along to, and drum on whatever tables and body parts are in reach. I think ACDC are a band that really got this (often using the steady 4/4 rock beat, with the kick on one and the snare of 2 and 4), and Led Zeppelin! John Bonham, the king of the kick...
The magnificent 'When The Levee Breaks' from Led Zeppelin - probably my favourite drumming in a rock song ever - so solid, grounded and strong... And it is continuous and quite simple in structure!
The sex point is debatable/questionable. I think it had more relevance in the 50s/60s than today, when talking about sex was (even) more ‘taboo’; making it more likely to fire a hit to number one in it’s utter outlandishness *outraged-posh-voice*. If the word 'sex' was swapped for 'love', the claim would have more leverage, but even then, it was never, and still is not, a prerequisite for good music. I can list a huge amount of GOOD songs (songs that are loved, have had critical acclaim, reached the top of the charts etcetera) that are not about love, or sex, or relationships, but have other purposes and messages...
David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' - a song that has its meaning in something mysterious, sci-fi, technological, futuristic... YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYMCLz5PQVw
Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' - with its huge scope of subject and imagery.
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGxjIBEZvx0
The Clash's classic, 'London Calling' - like many of their songs, a political commentary with angst.
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfK-WX2pa8c
Sam Cooke's passionate social commentary 'A Change Is Gonna Come'. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfK-WX2pa8c
What I consider to be the best of the Stones' - 'Gimme Shelter' - a musical expression of the horror of the Vietnam War. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9Y2gontVXs
One of my all-time favourite songs, The Ramones' fervent reaction to the controversial visit of Ronald Reagan (a.k.a Bonzo) to a WWII memorial cemetery in Bitburg - 'Bonzo Goes To Bitburg (My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down)'. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Su0Hvt6hTmA
I’d extend the requisite though to say that good songs do have some sort of a ‘point’ - a subject, or a particular feeling. They are about something, or convey something - something that can touch and affect the apposite function in people... it's about the FEEL (as the above songs illustrate)!
This 'feel' is addressed more by Richard Burgess' consideration of what formulates a good song. Burgess' list, which seems more wholesome, composes of 8 aspects, in order of importance: