What makes a great song, or even a really good one? I'm talking about popular music here, not art songs. Folk, rock and roll, whatever. This summer I fell in love with a song, as happens every now and then. I mean to the point where I listened to the song over and over for several weeks. Since the band members are all young, the age of my children, I wondered if I was just wishing I were young again, with that feeling of freedom and optimism that seems to fade away. But now I really thing that some songs are just "classics" and bound to last. (The song is "Wagon Wheel [Rock Me, Mama] by the Old Crow Medicine Show.)
Here are a few things that I think make a great song, whether it's Woody Guthrie's "Let's Go Riding in the Car, Car." Libba Cotten singing "Freight Train," or Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay," or any other classic. Melody, of course -- it's hard to define what makes a melody fine, but the really good ones are engaging and more inevitable than they are original -- by which I mean that the progression of the melody just flows naturally, like a stream, but not in a predictable or hackneyed way. You want to sing or hum along with it. The "sound devices" of poetry play in, too, things like assonance and alliteration, good (again neither predictable nor too oddly original, but inevitably right) rhyme and such.
And then the words. Listening for the umpteenth time to "Wagon Wheel" and then visiting the band's fansite and reading several comments by people who said things like "I can really relate to what they're saying about freedom, I feel that way too" and thinking about these comments, I realized that the best songs are just particular enough and just general enough that they touch almost everyone in a powerful way. A lot of singers write songs that are so full of particulars that the universal is lost and the song becomes boring, irrelevant or outdated after a few listenings. Too general, and it's like a typical teenage love poem, full of angst but no images. The best songs create just a few images (see the header for this post), enough to make the scene real, and touch universal themes -- of yearning, sorrow, desire, joy, or whatever, and they do it artfully. Maybe that's what it all comes down to, giving life to a universal theme through art.
Note: I think I'm talking about "lyric" songs here, as in lyric poetry -- not odes or memoriams, or ballads, or protest songs, though they all are created with artfulness or not. (And, of course, we DON'T all necessarily like the same songs. Some of us like Plovakian music, some prefer punk, some [shudder] barbershop singing....