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Formulatin’ da Funk

Nov 16 2006 Posted by in music | Comments Off on Formulatin’ da Funk

What makes a great song? A couple of months ago I wrote about leaving enough interpretive room to engage the listener. But that’s just one element. And I’m not referring to what causes a song to chart or sell. That’s simple:

• Payola. Free merch, ticket giveaways, exclusive access, etc. in exchange for airplay.
• Imitating whatever broke out last year. Only works for a few years.
• Marketing. Promotional tie-ins, ads, appearances.
• Looks. A hot singer in a sexy video. Or a trendy one.
• Extortion. Leveraging/witholding a label’s other successful artists for airplay.
• Catchiness. The one variable that actually has to do with the music.

I have no inherent vendetta against pop music. “Pop” just means that it’s popular. It just so happens that the buying public has poor taste based on a limited menu. My ire is invoked when the music is actually constructed with the sole intention of being palatable to the most people. The lowest common denominator. Focus groups debating chord changes. Producers slathering the tracks in auto-tune.

So, commerce aside, I ask again, what makes a great song?

A driving beat. Where it all began. Ask the Funk Brothers, the studio band for most of Motown’s ’60s hits. It’s the first thing you feel, but the last thing you’d notice. That involuntary grinding in your chair, rock’n’roll’s 2/4 suggestion of sex. Shuffle. Waltz. A double-bass-inspired headbanging frenzy. It’s what moves you at the most primal level.

Passion. Hard to quantify this, but we all know a phoned-in performance when we hear one. A mediocre song can ascend to immortality when the artist puts herself out on the line. It’s not always the vocal, either. As Trent Reznor once instructed his guitarist, it’s not E and F-sharp, it’s “fuck” and “you.” Jeff Buckley may not have had much to actually say, but he meant every single note of it.

Transferral. Music is a mood regulator to me. If I’m on the verge of road rage, maybe I’ll tune in some smooth jazz to defuse. Or if you’ve just been dumped, maybe you actually want to wallow or stew, so you go on a Manilow bender. It’s along the same lines as Passion, but how effectively does the artist convey the chosen emotion to the listener? What devices do they use to make me feel what they felt?

Appropriate production. Not everything needs that Mutt Lange/Shania Twain gloss varnish. Some tunes do call for that saccharine sheen, but what fits the tune? “When Doves Cry” has no bass, and it’s haunting for that subliminal reason. The Kinks overloaded their amps to get distortion. It’s an unnatural sound, but one that every guitarist since then mimics for its implied rawness. I think the last Flaming Lips CD was recorded in my bathroom. Pink Floyd drowns in interstallar reverb. All of it sets a stage for the experience, clothing the music.

Catchiness. Just being memorable. Sometimes it’s the phrase, like the clichés country songs often rely upon, like “We’re Two of a Kind Working on a Full House.” Other times it’s an irresistible melody, like Edie Brickell’s “What I Am.” Or a ballsy riff, like the sax in “Baker Street” or Van Halen’s “Unchained.” Even for non-musicians, these tickle some medically-unidentified G-spot. And don’t dismiss instrumentals. Joe Satriani probably gets a nickel every time you buy a coke.

Drama (Optional). Dream Theater, Fiona Apple, Beethoven – they will often go through several movements in the same song, transforming into something uplifting or descending into hopelessness. A journey was taken. This is music as high art, and demands your full attention, not just a soundtrack to fumblings in the back seat.

Meaningful Lyrics. They’re way down the list, because most people aren’t really aware what they are until the song’s hit them many times over and they start to internalize it and listen for something deeper. But once they do, good ones will enrich the meaning. I never cared for Aimee Mann or Bob Dylan until I read their prose, and it added unseen layers. Conversely, it’s ruined me for just as many others. Some model-turned-actress’s producer enlists top writers and hires a crack Nashville band but decides the lyrics would mean more coming from her, so I’m stuck forever hearing adolescent diary entries while I’m trying to two-step (not really).

Certainly, there’s way more to the process, but frankly . . . I’m kinda tired of typing right now and giving away all of our secrets, not to mention that it’s nothing I can necessarily bottle myself. Now go forth and make some magic of thy own, and unseat these tuneless hacks atop the MTV4 playlists.

So what do you guys think makes a song great?