Saturday, June 18, 2011

What makes for a compelling song?

On Thursday I blipped a live (sort of) performance of Michael Jackson's "Stranger in Moscow," offering the following comment:

Very paranoid song. Very good song.

Chris Willman, who reviews music for a living, put it this way:

And the album's best track, "Stranger in Moscow," is a step removed from the focused paranoia of much of the rest of the album, more akin to the deeper, fuzzier dread of a past perennial like "Billie Jean." Jackson imagines himself alone and adrift in a psychic Russia, pre- glasnost , hunted by an unseen KGB: "Fear abandonin' my faith / Armageddon of the brain," he sings in the somber, constricted verses, before a sweeping coda kicks up four minutes in and the stalkee suddenly breaks his cool to wail about a desolate, inconsolable loneliness. Here, in this song, is the real genius--and probably real personhood--of Michael Jackson, missing from so many of the rest of these Angry Young Man anthems.

Several have argued that this is Jackson's best ballad. Some have argued that this is Jackson's best song, period.

Why this one? Why not a happy one?

Why, when you consider the greatest hits of the Carpenters, does "Top of the World" not reside at the top of the list? Sure it's a good song, but when you think of the Carpenters, or perhaps more specifically of Karen, you think of "Rainy Days and Mondays" or something like that.

Then look at the Beatles. While some will argue that "She Loves You" is their greatest work, there are those who instead turn to "A Day in the Life" - a song that was primarily inspired by the death of Tara Browne.

While we can be emotionally uplifted by a positive song, the emotions that truly move us are the negative ones. As Elton John once said, Sasson says so much - whoops, you know what I mean. After persusing Spinner's list of 25 very sad songs, you can definitely see some moving ones in the list. Here are my favorites:

"Nothing Compares 2 U." Start with the work that Prince put into the song, both musically and lyrically, and then add Sinead O'Connor's performance to it. Very downlifting.

"Space Oddity." Perhaps it's debatable whether this is a sad song or not. Yes, Major Tom dies - or at least we think he dies - but the song almost sounds celebratory regarding Tom's union with the universe, except for the repeated "Can you hear me, Major Tom?" questions.

"Eleanor Rigby." Perhaps "A Day in the Life" hinted about death, but this earlier song explicitly discussed it. McCartney made one major alteration in the lyric, at the suggestion of Pete Shotton, renaming the minister from "Father McCartney" to "Father McKenzie." Shotton undoubtedly realized the deeper meaning of the line, because Paul McCartney's real father was a widower - an underlying current which helped to shape the Beatle's musical output, most notably "Let It Be" and its references to a "mother Mary." (At the same time you have Lennon's "Julia," which refer to HIS deceased mother.)

"He Stopped Loving Her Today." If you were to devote a hall of fame to sad songs alone, country music would take up an entire wing. The genius of the lyrics is that you have to listen to a good chunk of the song before you realize what's going on. Imagine for the moment that you've never heard this song - and perhaps some of you haven't. You might not realize what's going to happen when the song begins:

He said I'll love you 'til I die
She told him you'll forget in time
As the years went slowly by
She still preyed upon his mind

The song continues, as George Jones' voice recounts the sad life of this man, and then a positive note appears:

I went to see him just today
Oh but I didn't see no tears
All dressed up to go away
First time I'd seen him smile in years

This is when we get to the chorus, which begins "He stopped loving her today":

He stopped loving her today
They placed a wreath upon his door
And soon they'll carry him away
He stopped loving her today

Now let's face it - do you want to hear George Jones singing about Brussels sprouts, or do you want to hear George Jones singing about this?

I thought so.
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