The Perfect Song
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In addition to my musical theory, I also invented a musical category I call the “perfect song.” It’s just a weird little thing that I do, a silly game I play with myself that I didn’t think would be of much interest to anyone else. But recently I shared the idea with some people, and everyone started throwing out their idea of perfect songs. I thought it might be fun to write a post about it.
The original perfect song was Son Of A Preacher Man, by Dusty Springfield. This was at least ten years ago now, and I was listening to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, which is full of great songs. While listening to Son of a Preacher Man, which I wasn’t terribly familiar with, it occurred to me that it was a perfect song. It was a catchy melody. It built up gradually from a soft beginning to a climactic end. Ms. Springfield’s pitch was spot-on and her sultry, breathy voice was perfect for the subject matter. Most importantly, there was not a note out of place: there was noplace where the song dragged, no overly long guitar solo, not too many repetitions of the chorus, nothing overdone or underdone. It was, I thought, a simply perfect little song.
I didn’t arrive at these criteria immediately. The idea this is a perfect song came to me, and I filled in the blanks over the next several days as I tried to figure out the differences between a good song and a perfect song. And the frustrating truth is, the criteria I’ve named above are not universal. For example, a perfect song doesn’t have to be sung by a perfect voice. There are a lot of songs I love because of the roughness of the vocals; Lucinda Williams and Mick Jagger come to mind. And a perfect song can be long and maybe even a little repetitive and still be perfect: much classical music and Don McLean’s American Pie fit here.
And speaking of classical music, a perfect song can come from any musical genre. I do listen mostly to popular music, but I know that jazz and especially classical music have their fair share of perfect songs. There are probably even some perfect hip-hop or rap songs, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t listen to very much of that music (Michael Franti being the one exception).
A lot of “one-hit wonders” are perfect songs, which is a fascinating thing. How do musicians whose vast body of work is uninteresting and mediocre produce one song that is sublime? “American Pie” fits this category, as do songs like Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ and Tommy Tutone’s 867-5309/Jenny. Not to say these artists couldn’t have other great songs because they could, but if they do, they tend to get a little more media attention.
Conversely, a lot of great musicians have a huge body of fabulous, above-average work, but not really any perfect songs. Aerosmith comes to mind here, and maybe Led Zeppelin–both bands that I love. But many hard rock songs, although excellent, are too long and too repetitive to fit the perfect song category. I would also put Joni Mitchell in this category, who is an excellent songwriter of interesting, but mostly unappealing songs (Woodstock being the exception–but only the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version–not hers). I would also put Duke Ellington in this category, although I know many will disagree.
Then there are the mythical artists who’ve somehow been able to tap into the sublime on a regular basis. The artists in this category consistently produce(d) far more than their fair share of musical perfection. Bach certainly belongs in this category, as does Mozart, probably Louis Armstrong, and in my most familiar genre of popular music, the Beatles, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, and probably Gillian Welch. Interestingly, many of these artists produced most of their perfect songs in a small window of time compared to their entire body of work–and most of it when they were very young, usually in their early twenties. I don’t know if this constitutes an argument against the 10,000 hours thing and for divine channeling (which I think are both valid and probably complementary sources of talent), but I certainly find it fascinating.
Oddly enough, “perfect song” could even mean songs I don’t like all that much, but recognize as perfectly executed–perhaps by artists whose talents I admire, like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, although I have never really connected with their music. The disco soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever also contains a couple of perfect songs–I hated disco as a kid, but who could argue that Stayin’ Alive isn’t a perfect song, by just about any standard?
A perfect song is more than a favorite song, too. I started a Perfect Song playlist in iTunes, and as I added the hundredth-and-something song, I realized that it probably isn’t possible to know that many perfect songs; having so many renders the “perfect” category meaningless. “Perfect,” by definition, means rare–so my Perfect Song playlist should be small. It is only those songs that are somehow sublime, that somehow reach a transcendent level of…something. In separating favorite songs from perfect songs, I’ve found that I must be ruthless. I must view a song objectively and acknowledge its shortcomings, even if I like it very much. Which is kind of a weird thing, since this is a completely subjective categorization. But when I pay attention, I can qualify the differences, and I think making this effort has given me a more discerning ear. I listen to music a little bit differently than I once did, a little more carefully and a little more analytically–and it hasn’t ruined my enjoyment in the least. If anything, it’s enhanced it.
In the end, a perfect song seems to defy a standard definition. It may be perfect because it meets objective music theory criteria about tone and pitch and balance. Or it may be perfect because it defies those things. It may be perfect because it leaves you feeling empty or because it leaves you feeling full. It can belong to any category, genre or era. It doesn’t matter where the song comes from or what it’s about. All that matters is that it’s good–and good can strike anywhere.
Above all, good is in the eye of the beholder–or in this case, the ear of the listener. Because while I’d like to think that my perfect songs fit some yet-undefinable objective standard, I honestly don’t know if that’s the case. I’m not sure the sublime can be categorized, particularly for something as personal and emotional as music. All I know is that I know it when I hear it.
I’ll leave you with a short list of what I believe are indisputably perfect songs, and an open invitation to add your own. I would love to hear them!
Son Of A Preacher Man, Dusty Springfield
Kodachrome, Paul Simon
Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett
West End Blues, Louis Armstrong
Galway Girl, Steve Earle
Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now), Cracker
Guided By Wire, Neko Case
Brown Eyed Girl, Van Morrison
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John
The Weight, The Band
I’ll Fly Away, Gillian Welch
Ring Of Fire, Johnny Cash
Werewolves Of London, Warren Zevon
Categorised as: Misc (Opinions and Observations)