Written By Patrick Davitt
So Ron Shandler wants us to offer our ideas about what makes a song great. As it happens, I’ve been thinking about that very topic.
In my house, we talk about music, the conversation usually being me telling my two daughters that most of the music they listen to is rubbish, them telling me I’m an old fogie who needs to get with the times “who thinks The Beatles are good” (well, uh, yeah) and, and my wife telling all of us to pipe down so she can hear her Patti Griffin album.
The other day, though, the tables were turned. I happened to have heard a fantastic pop song on the Songza streaming music service, but I didn’t know who sang it. I told the girls that I thought from the lyrics the title was “Tattooed Heart.”
This caused an eruption of disdainful hooting and eye-rolling so violent I feared for the girls’ future sight (mostly because I’d be on the hook for the glasses). “Oh, Daddy!” they said, practically in unison. “You’ve gotta be kidding! That’s Ariana Grande!”
Ariana Grande, if you’re as dark on the topic as I was, is a teen TV starlet on Nickelodeon who also has a burgeoning music career—a Selena Gomez who can really sing. And if you’re a teenage girl just a year or two beyond Grande’s tween audience, you are apparently obliged by cultural imperative to dismiss her out of hand.
For the most part, dismissal isn’t unwarranted. Grande sings mostly catchy but uninteresting, redundant formula crapola. She does a lot of electronic dance music, and soft pop-rap “collaborations” with second-rate hip-hop wannabes. Needless to add, the accompanying videos seem designed primarily to take advantage of her slightly sultry, mostly innocent prettiness.
But “Tattooed Heart” is just terrific.
My girls pressed me to explain why I thought this song is so fine, and that brings me to this discussion.
Ron addressed his query to a bunch of baseball analysts. When we are asked to describe or explain the greatness (or lack thereof) of a pitcher, we look at “metrics” like fastball velocity, strikeout rate, walk rate and groundball rate. For hitters, we look at hard contact rate, strikeout rate, line-drive and flyball percentages and so on.
So I thought I’d try to explain the power of “Tattooed Heart” using categories:
Melody: Basically, a terrific tune has to be catchy tune, with a solid “hook” that you find yourself humming or whistling later on. This song has a great hook when the title words resolve the tension in the structure. Speaking of which…
Structure: We are sort of culturally wired to like songs that follow certain musical rules—we want the song to finish in its key, with particular types of conflict and resolution along the way. “Tattooed Heart” uses a well-established four-chord doo-wop progression I-vi-IV-V (think “Stand By Me” or “Earth Angel”), which is itself a common variation on the highly reliable pop progression I-V-vi-IV (think, well, about half the pop hits ever written).
It isn’t that listeners should depend on or require such obvious and rigid structures. The Beatles, the Beach Boys and other bands started expanding on them in the mid-60s and in so doing laid a foundation for the vast universe of song structures that have been part of rock music ever since. I think every song on Dark Side of the Moon is great, and none of them is especially standard in structure. Or in any other way, come to think of it. Not a lot of 7/8 time in most pop music nowadays.
Style: Style matters, because there are some styles we like and others we don’t. Among many other styles, I happen to really like the highly manufactured Tin Pan Alley studio pop of the late ’50s and early ’60s. “Tattooed Heart” is a hybrid of doo-wop and girl-groups from that earlier era. Lots of people don’t like that style nearly as much, and as a result won’t think as much of this song as I do.
Performance: Often what makes a song a favorite or “great” is the performance. Grande’s vocal is a sweet powerhouse, soaring through multiple octaves under perfect control. And although she is often compared to Mariah Carey, Grande’s particular singing performance is mercifully free of the overwrought melisma that has marked (or disfigured) so much female pop singing since Carey first thundered onto the scene. In this song, Grande hits the notes and holds them.
The value or effect of performance is noticeable in songs that are widely covered. Staying power and the ability to survive the indignities of repeated covering might be a good indication that the song itself is something special. But even so, some performances are better than others, by orders of magnitude in many instances. Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” a great, great song, gets pretty cool coverage from Graham Parker, and Dar Williams (with Ani DiFranco), but there’s also a popular but ghastly dance/disco version by Scissor Sisters.
On another note, although it doesn’t apply to “Tattooed Heart,” which is a solo spotlight number all the way, I’m also a sucker for harmony singing (I even like barbershop). One of my favorite harmony performances ever was on Saturday Night Live during the Pleistocene Era, a thrilling performance of the George Harrison classic “Here Comes the Sun,” with Harrison and Paul Simon.
Arrangement and Production: “Tattooed Heart,” like everything on the album, is as highly polished as an apples in a grocery-store flyer. Early on, the arrangement is spare and spacious—underneath the very lightly vocal, we finger-snaps, light doo-wop “la-la-la-la” backing vocals from female background singers, and a lightly chording piano. Later in the song, from the first time into the chorus, the production adds increasingly dense orchestration—the backing singers start singing the title in the background, and lush strings (not samples but actual musicians, to judge by the extensive list of violinists, violists, cellists and string arrangers in the album credits). No performer credits for the tympanis, so they might be sampled, but, hey, tympanis!
There are five or six producers credited for the track, most of them also credited as writers, and the album further credits maybe three dozen arrangers, synth programmers and engineers. In all, it’s about as spontaneous as a rocket launch. But I think rocket launches are pretty great.
Again, I’m a sucker for elaborate, rich productions and arrangements. I loved the prog-rock era, and still listen to Floyd, Supertramp, and their ilk all the time.
Lyrics: I don’t count lyrics as a huge part of song greatness—I guess the best way to put it is that a tremendous lyric can add a few points but even the most banal lyric doesn’t matter that much. My favorite songs ever, the second movement of Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto and the Fraser McPherson version of the jazz standard “Tangerine,” don’t have words at all. And one of my favorite great pop songs the last few years is Crazy Sunshine” by The Pillows—they’re Japanese and they sing the whole song in that language except for the title.
Of course there’s no way to apportion points for each of these categories or otherwise to apply arithmetic to the assessment.
In all, I suppose “what makes a song good” makes me think of the 1964 Supremes—not the Motown girl group, but the Supreme Court of the United States. The court ruled in an obscenity case (Jacobellis vs. Ohio, if you’re keeping score at home) that the Louis Malle film Les Amants (The Lovers) was not “obscene.”
The most famous concurring opinion was written by Justice Potter Stewart, who said the First Amendment protected all obscenity short of “hard-core pornography,” and while he couldn’t “intelligibly define” what that is, “I know it when I see it.”
Ditto for assessing what makes a song great: We probably can’t intelligibly define it, even after we talk about it for a thousand words, but we know it when we hear it.