The question I'd like to discuss is, what is it that elevates a song to the status of being considered a "great" song? Is it the lyric? Is it a melody that burrows its way into your consciousness? Or is it the artistic result of finely tuned collaboration between music and the written word, both of which exist as art-forms in their own right?
Historically, the word "song" has been used to define a rich body of literary work. There is "The Song of Solomon" in the old testament and the songs that make up a large part of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Elements of both having been set to music, they exist nonetheless as songs in their original written form.
In medieval Europe, traveling minstrels wrote songs or "Ballades" using legends, heroic stories and folklore as their texts. Many of these melodies passed from generation to generation and found their way into early church music with the idea that the melodies would make attendance more attractive to the local peasantry familiar with these songs.
The "Art Song" or Lied became popular as a method of setting literary poems to music in the local language of the intended audience. This style reached it's peak with Schumann and Schubert and great care was taken to craft music which captured the intent and emotion of the poetry. The best composers had a strong understanding of the human voice and composed melodies which gave the singer every opportunity to deliver the lyric most effectively. Composers carefully considered which vowels were to be sung in which range in order to provide the best possible marriage between words and music. These songs were meant for performance in intimate settings and were usually accompanied only by piano so the voice could be not only heard but understood.
With the advent of the Musical Theater as an option to Grand Opera, we see the birth of the popular song. As recording and broadcast technologies became more sophisticated, these songs became the core of what we call "Standard Tunes" and were recorded in every conceivable style and whistled at every bus stop. Most of these songs were originally written by lyricists and set to music by composers. This, in large part, continued until the emergence of the "artist as songwriter" concept developed in country and rock music, Hank Williams and The Beatles being prominent examples.
Looking back over the history and development of the song as an independent form, the interconnectivity of words and music is profound. Instrumental music has its forms and the spoken word exists independent of musical accompaniment. Some listeners may be entranced by a gripping melody and others by the story or message of a meaningful lyric. But for a song to be a song, it seems that both elements must conspire to create art on a level neither can attain independently.
So now, enough with the history lesson. What is it that makes a song so compelling as to be considered great? The major property of great art in any medium is its ability to transcend. Great songs transcend time in that they remain relevant. The music and the message maintain a vitality regardless of styles, fads or current events. Great songs allow each listener their own personal interpretation. John Lennon's "Imagine" is the type of song that spells out a concept without being overly specific. Each listener is allowed to go on imagining his own personal idea of perfection long after the song has ended. Or, As Francis very aptly writes:
"Sometimes I just try to stress some "keywords" and basic human feelings and emotions. I remain vague on purpose, so that people can draw up their own conclusion of what the song means, which can be different for everybody, based on their own life experience."
The other area which a truly great song transcends is that of performance. It's been said about Motown songs that you could have had Bozo the Clown singing those songs, they would have been hits anyway. And as Dennis St. John liked to say, "A hit song is a hit song...period." I remember when "That's What Friends are For" was released. Because Stevie Wonder and Elton John sang on the 1985 release, it was widely thought that the song had been written by one or both of them. The record sung, by Stevie, Sir Elton, Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick went on to be a billboard #1 hit. Most people didn't know that the song was recorded in its original rock version by Rod Stewart three years earlier. And the punch-line is that the music was composed by Burt Bacharach and the lyrics written by Carole Bayer Sager. Small wonder that it was a hit.
Some years ago, I subbed for a friend and played bass on a couple of gigs with the great songwriter Paul Williams. Being the cocky bastard that I was at that time, I didn't crack the book open until the downbeat of the show. How hard could it be, right? As I played that show down, I was floored by how many great songs Paul had written. Songs for so many great artists. But the one thing that struck me the most was this. Paul is a great guy, but he's far from being a great singer. Sorry Paul, you know you're no Teddy Pendergrass, right? But in spite of his voice, every one of those songs touched that audience. They were great songs that transcended time and performance.
Francis Rodino asks a very pertinent question, "What's more important, music or lyrics?" I think that Francis already knows the answer. And I hope that in twenty years time he can look back at having pulled off a few great songs.