A fellow musician friend and I were recently discussing, well…music. How surprising, right? We were each on our respective high horse talking about how we can each appreciate a song in any genre of music — as long as that song is good, of course. This discussion got me thinking about how one would go about defining a "good" song anyway.
Occasionally when I write a song, I’ll immediately have the feeling that it's a good one. How do I know? Usually, when I hear what I consider to be a good song, it gets stuck in my head for the rest of that day (sometimes longer). Most people I know are the same way. So, whenever I am left singing, either out loud or in my head, a song that I just wrote, I am pretty confident in the quality of that tune. Hey, I can admit I’ve written a few bad ones. But just a few, okay?
The real question, though, when considering what defines a good song is, "what is it about the song that makes it good enough to be stuck in my head in the first place?" And, "does simply being memorable automatically mean that a song is good?"
Let us first evaluate "I Kissed a Girl" by Katy Perry, which turned out to be the biggest hit to top the charts since the Beatles "I Want to Hold Your Hand." "I Kissed a Girl" spent seven weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart, tying it with the song that helped launch the career of arguably the biggest band of all time.
I’ll admit it; this song got stuck in my head, but why?
Obviously the subject matter and lyrics of this song are memorable (to the dismay of some and possibly a contributing factor to the downfall of our civilization), but is shock value the only reason "I Kissed a Girl" became such a big hit? I would argue no. It is, in fact, a combination of several things.
To my ears at least, the song has a hooky beat and a great melody line, and melody is always the first thing I listen for when considering a good song. To the nation’s top music critics, however, melody is apparently not that important when considering greatness.
Take Radiohead, for example. Their earlier work is widely considered to be some of the best music to emerge from the 90’s. The Bends is a great alternative/ British rock album oozing both beautiful and angst-ridden melodies. Their second album, Ok Computer, added a nice level of experimentation to the mix and kept the great melodies intact.
With their fourth album, Kid A, Radiohead seemed to lose their focus when it came to writing melodies, choosing instead to create an even higher level of electronic weirdness and ambiance. On this particular album, singer Thom Yorke began wailing instead of singing, making what little melody was there sound the same.
Rolling Stone gave the album four out of five stars, though. Pitchforkmedia.com gave it a perfect 10. The list goes on.
As I said earlier, each genre of music has its share of songs that can be considered good by me within the confines of that style. I despise 99-percent of country music, but even I can appreciate the greatness of "Rusty Cage" cover by the late Johnny Cash. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. Still, this doesn’t tell us why it’s good. It could be the cool guitar line or maybe just the overall vibe of the song. Cash has the tendency to talk as much as he sings in his songs, so it definitely isn’t just the melody.
A real revelation on this topic came to me while shopping at Wal-Mart. Don’t most revelations happen there? While browsing the electronics department I overheard an employee telling a customer (an older man that was obviously shopping for one of his kids) that they were out of the Flyleaf album that he was looking for.
For those who don’t know, Flyleaf is a female fronted modern rock band. Singer Lacey Mosley has a unique, haunting singing voice and a scream that could rival Dave Grohl.
"I really don't know why anyone would want to listen to that stuff," she said. 'The girl screams and you can't even understand what she is saying."
I just laughed under my breath and thought, "tell that to the over 1,000,000 people that bought that album and turned them into one of the biggest new bands to come out in a while.
And that is when it hit me: the ears and mind of the listener are what defines a good song and it really is as simple as that. There really is no magic formula. Sure, a strong case can be made that there is a method to creating a "hit" song, but even some hits are considered to be bad in retrospect. "Ice, Ice Baby" anyone?
Songs can be good to individuals for many reasons at different times in their lives. When I was a kid, I didn’t like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin and my dad didn’t care for my music either. Now, I love the Beatles songs, and my dad suddenly thinks 90’s bands Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam are cool. With this rationale, he will think Fall Out Boy rocks in 10 years.
Man, I hope not.
So crank up your favorite Katy Perry song while there is still time. She could be sharing a bedroom soon with Vanilla Ice in the "We Actually Thought This Was Good?" apartment complex. She could also end up having as meaningful of a career as her top competitors Lennon/McCartney.
Either way, "if you heard a song and you liked it," that should be good enough for you.