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Friday, April 22, 2005

New Friday feature

I’m putting off my followup post on Sam Harris’s The End of Faith until next week, so that I can inaugurate a new Friday feature:  arbitrary but fun value judgments!

We’ll kick this off with an easy one.  Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind” is the most perfect pop song ever written.  Agreed?

I suppose that some of you will want to know the parameters of this here value judgment before chiming in.  Reasonable enough.  First and foremost, this blog does not recognize any firm distinction between “rock” and “pop.” We do not think that the former category is inhabited by edgy artists and assorted Culture Heroes whereas the latter is inhabited by Tommy James and the Shondells.  In fact, our eyes roll back in our heads (yes, we have plural heads) at the mere mention of “rockism.” Still, it remains true that if a song has too much fire and/or grit and/or passion in it, it exceeds the “Cruel to Be Kind” standard in obvious ways.  “Cruel to Be Kind” is airtight: there are no hidden emotional depths, no sudden bursts of instrumental virtuosity, no startling production quirks, no compositional seams.  Just a simple C-E minor-F-G chord progression (up to A minor in the choruses), a preternaturally catchy melody, and a clever little (but not too clever! – this is crucial) rhyme on “bona fide/ coincide” in the first verse (and no, of course Nick doesn’t pronounce it “bona feeday.” That wouldn’t work).

So, for instance, applying these standards to some of the Beatles’ finest, “Nowhere Man” is clearly in this league (and Paul’s bass line is brilliant without being distractingly brilliant), but those mildly supercilious lyrics give it just a hint of Social Content, and you lose points for Social Content.  “And Your Bird Can Sing” would work too, except for its semi-opaque, almost Steely Danian lyrics.  “She Loves You” is just about right.  And “I Should Have Known Better” is nearly indistinguishable from “Cruel to Be Kind,” when you think about it.  C-G7-A minor-F, though what’s that cute E7 doing in the bridge?  That’s extra.

Or, back to the New Wave/ pure pop for now people genre, Elvis Costello’s “Lip Service” is a nearly perfect pop song.  “Lipstick Vogue,” by contrast, is way too intense.  The Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang” is a great pop song with a fabulous bridge on “making us part.” But X-Ray Spex’ “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo” is way too intense.  Blondie’s “11:59” works, the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” . . . yep, you got it, too intense (though we’ll take “Pulled Up,” from Talking Heads 77).  The surface of the perfect pop song is clear and untroubled; and below the surface . . . there is no below the surface.  See “no emotional depths,” above.

Other possibilities, from random decades: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Goin’ to a Go-Go”; the Replacements, “I Will Dare”; Shocking Blue, “Venus”; Londonbeat, “I’ve Been Thinking about You.” Sugar’s “Believe What You’re Saying” and Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” are two of my favorite songs in the world – don’t hum them, now, or you won’t be able to stop for hours – but for some reason Bob Mould and Prince decided to write about a painful breakup and a woman who’s been abandoned “with a baby and another one on the way,” respectively.  Songwriters.  Go figure.  See also, under this heading, the Lemonheads’ “It’s a Shame About Ray” and Ted Leo, “Me and Mia.”

As always, suggestions welcome.  Keep ‘em arbitrary – and fun!

Posted by Michael on 04/22 at 09:38 AM
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