Let me start by crediting my friend and inspiration, singer/songwriter Milton, for much of the following theory. He didn’t coin it (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he disagreed with some of it), but it was born out of hours of conversation between the two of us, over which I’ve been mulling for the last few years. Let me add that I don’t pretend that anyone can be an authority on this subject, and I don’t mean to sound like I’m trying to be one. I just like talking about it. The following is my current theory of great songs.
Songs are like lovers: the best ones have a good heart, a good brain, and a great body.
The heart is the emotion: the melody and harmony, the shape and feeling of the song. The brain is the insight: the part that makes you think, usually it’s conveyed in the lyrics, but sometimes with fancy chord voicings or time signatures. The body is the physicality of the song: the rhythm, the primal, erotic force that makes you want to get up and dance.
In other words: a great song should break your heart, make you think, and turn you on.
Since I started thinking of songs like this, I’ve noticed that most songs (like most lovers) tend to be unevenly distributed. Most are heavy on one or two of these categories and lacking the third. Even whole genres of music tend to concentrate on one or two aspects. For example…
Folk music tends to be heavy on the brain and heart, and light on the body. Think about Joni Mitchell’s canon: sweeping, heartbreaking melodies, brilliant lyrics, but generally not much going on downstairs. The few times Joni brought in some eros - some sexy, powerful rhythm - she had a hit (think “Big Yellow Taxi”). Leonard Cohen has the same concentration: “Suzanne” is one of my very favorite songs, but you could sing it to a metronome, and not lose anything essential. It’s got a tempo, but no rhythm. It doesn’t move rhythmically. To think of it another way: Dylan was a folksinger when he played solo. When he brought in The Band, he became a rock star.
Pop Music, for most of the last hundred years, tends to have plenty of heart and body, but no brains. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of pop music. The hugest. But rarely does a pop song contain much insight. This spans the decades, from “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, through “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “What’d I Say”, all the way to Bruno Mars’ “F**k You”. Those songs are like smokin’ hot lovers, sweet and kind and passionate, but without a thought in their pretty little heads.
Think about “Dock of the Bay”, one of my favorite pop songs of the last fifty years: It moves you, and it makes you want to move. It’s sexy and sweet and full of longing. But what is it actually saying? This guy is sitting on a dock, thinking about life. He thinks to himself “looks like nothing’s gonna change”. Then he whistles. Again: I adore this song - and I think it has “meaning” in a sort of cosmic, big-picture sense - but it’s not going to change anybody’s mind about anything.
I don’t know rap and hip-hop well enough to comment much, but based on the heart=melody theory, rap seems to be light on the heart, and heavy on the body and brains. I could say the same about punk and hardcore. It would make some sense, because so many of those songs are conveying strength, anger, and toughness, and you don’t want to show too much emotion if you’re trying to win a fight. You want to show brains and brawn: words and rhythm.
All of this is to say that the greatest songs of all, of course, shatter the boundaries. They transcend genres by displaying, in all their beauty and vulnerability, the heart, the mind, and the physicality of the singer. They sing of the complete human experience.
My fans are currently nominating their favorites. Here are a few of mine.
Lean On Me (Bill Withers)
Still Crazy After all These Years (Paul Simon)
Brown Eyed Girl (Van Morrison)
Picture in a Frame (Tom Waits)
What A Wonderful World (Theile/Weiss)
Forgiveness (Patty Griffin)