Good songs come in all shapes and sizes. “More Human than Human” by White Zombie is a good song, and gets a lot of mileage out of one power chord. The bass line could be played by any 6 year-old. “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” by Megadeth is a good song because it has the movements and structural complexity of an orchestral work, performed with painstaking precision and speed by a highly accomplished group of technically skilled musicians (and a muppet on vocals . . . never mind those).
But “great” songs are something different than just “good” songs. The above examples might be “great.” But could you play them with a high school marching band? “More Human than Human” would sound like one sustained mush, and “Holy Wars” requires too much musical dexterity and busyness. Maybe that doesn’t matter – but it does.
I want to know what makes certain songs become instant classics, because it’s not clear: if it were a simple formula, the record industry would have figured it out long ago. I posit that the songs which reach out and become ubiquitous, the kinds of songs everyone knows, become that way not because of musical ability. That is the obvious conclusion so many jazz and metal snobs miss. “Dude, John Bonham’s terrible. He could never play (insert highly technical jazz composition no one has ever heard here).” But every marching band plays “Kashmir.” The musical artists who rose to popular music prominence (especially in the album era) were not the most gifted instrumentalists.
What they did have was an ear for compositional dynamics and for being interesting.
I present the most perfect two minutes in pop music history: The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.”
It’s impossible to quantify greatness in a specific sense. But the song has the perfect combination of two musical qualities which on their own descend into pretension or blandness: “complexity” (harmonic and rhythmic; unpredictability) with “repetition” (a beat you can dance to, a verse-chorus structure, a recurring refrain). Find me a song which more perfectly rides the line between these two attributes. More perfectly.
The song has propulsion. It gets you to sit up if you’re lazily lounging in a comfy chair. A simple, sparse verse melts into a lush and building chorus. It has dynamic change and contrast. It is equal parts fresh and instantly recognizable. And the sign of a good melody is one that gets stuck in your head and doesn’t get annoying. It has that timeless quality. You can know nothing about California cruisin’ in the ’60s and still fall in love with the song. And if you somehow don’t like “I Get Around,” no worries. The song is in and out in under two and a half minutes. Perfect, concise exploration of musical ideas.
The Beach Boys’ music is about compositional excellence. But only to a point; their works (and most popular songs) are often hummable, simple songs with ingenious and deceptively complex harmony parts. It’s about the music and that alone. This isn’t Megadeth, where if you blink you lose track of what’s going on. It’s replicable. You can reinterpret the songs in your own way, and Brian Wilson’s genius will shine through.
Some pop acts attract attention through personality. This is the White Zombie approach. “More Human than Human” isn’t a good song because of anything on a page. It’s about attitude and texture. It sounds good, and it has a vibe. The lyrics are nothing. That’s the entire appeal. Rob Zombie is not a particularly gifted musician. But he puts on a compelling show, creates an atmosphere. That’s been the appeal of countless artists. Some would argue The Rolling Stones are a “personality” act. There might be some validity to that: one of their biggest hits, “Start Me Up,” has the most boringest structure ever. It’s a would-be two chord wonder. It floats only on the strength of the band members themselves. Mick’s style is inimitable, and enticing. That’s why not a lot of people cover The Stones. Only a few of their songs are actually great on a structural level. And even then, you can’t replicate what’s great about the Stones. They were and are a one-time thing. But if a somewhat decent vocal group started into “I Get Around,” the genius in that song would be immediately apparent. The music alone speaks for itself.
It may be that “pop” as a concept has died out. There are still some headline acts – Ariana Grande being the first example I think of. But it’s hard to imagine a true singer songwriter the likes of which defined ’60s and ’70s pop music showing up today. The market is too fragmented. You can find any type of artist you want on the internet, and Pandora makes it easier for fringe genres to find fans. Can people still put out instant classics? Or will all our music become specialized, texturized, and reduced to the magic of the original recording? Will marching bands 50 years from now be playing songs from 2019, or will they still be pulling out “Crazy Train” (the closest we ever got to a metal “pop” song – who doesn’t know it by heart?), “Enter Sandman” and “Seven Nation Army”? I’m not sure. In some ways, pop music has become something that must be destroyed. And surely there are still great musicians composing iconic works somewhere. But the market drives down anything it perceives as “too mainstream,” and emphasizes the social media profiles of the artists themselves. The Beach Boys would have had the worst Twitter ever in 1964. “Just wrote another song. Bout to go to the beach . . . again.” So if we insist on valuing the personalities behind our pop, we must be content to rehash and reuse the same old hits, because our modern pop artists probably won’t be writing any classic compositions any time soon.
We’ll have to settle for good, for now.