What Makes a Good Song?

Mike Knerr

I don’t pretend to be able to answer the question posed in the headline, nor do I think any one per­son truly can. We love music for different reasons, and different songs serve different purposes. A good jazz song is certainly good for different reasons than a good metal song or a good hip-hop song. In this, I’ve chosen to set aside for the moment music that is notable for technical virtuosity or popular for its functionality (as dance music, for example), and focused on pieces that succeed in their deftness of construction or the poignancy of their emotion.

“Lippy Kids” by Elbow (from Build a Rocket Boys!)

In popular music, we expect both music and lyrics, but rarely do the two reinforce each other to the extent they do in this song: to the point of being practically inseparable. The song is a hymn to youth, a bittersweet nostalgia for the days when anything was possible, yet a reflection on the superficial things that seemed all-important in those years (“Though I never affected that simian stroll/The cigarette senate was everything then”). Though the lyrics verge on the particular (reflecting the narrator’s experience), the emotion is so universal that it conjures the spirit of youth, in all of its potential and raw awkwardness. The pulsating yet free-flowing piano notes in the background, careless whistles and lazy humming conjure up the freedom of youth, while the lyr­ics crackle with wistfulness and a nostalgia that is neither happy nor sad. The chorus reflects with the wisdom of age, “Do they know those days are golden?/Build a rocket boys!”

“Grown Ocean” by Fleet Foxes (from Helplessness Blues)

Music should always be able to stand on its own, yet the video for this song dovetails with the spirit of the music in much the same way that the lyrics of “Lippy Kids” does. Like “Lippy Kids” as well, it carries a unique emotional resonance, but instead of looking to the past, it revels in the present and anticipates the future. In a way, the song harnesses the exuberance and potential that “Lippy Kids” longs for, but it’s a more mature energy this time. It’s the exuberance of having climbed a mountain and the potential that one feels when embarking on a new and uncharted, yet unmistakably liberating, chapter of one’s life.

“Say You’ll Go” by Janelle Monáe (from The Archandroid)

This song is, in many ways, a microcosm of what Monáe achieves so well through­out her album; exploring multiple musical idioms consecutively or even simultaneously, yet transcending the individual genres into something new that is utterly cohesive and natural. The song starts off in a relatively fa­miliar R&B/soul idiom, though Monáe-ified sufficiently to defy strict classification. As the song progresses, it imperceptibly becomes more cinematic and dramatic (the album is a concept album, after all). Finally, toward the end of the song, the lyrics are retained while the melody is slowed down to a lounge-like atmosphere, with only piano accompani­ment, which itself begins to morph slowly until it assumes first the chord structure, and eventually the full melody of “Clair de Lune.” The vocals now recede into the back­ground, but their integration into the tex­ture of the famous Debussy work renders it something uniquely Monáe as well, and not simply a borrowed fade-out. The emotional arc is completely achieved by borrowing well-known idioms or pieces and transforming them into something new and creative.

“Sonnet 43” by Rufus Wainwright (from All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu)

Rufus Wainwright is also well-known for his work across genres (he recently debuted a new opera in NYC, yet the songwriting style on his albums has been frequently compared to Billy Joel or Jeff Buckley), but rather than choosing an id­iom and transforming it, Wainwright here combines idioms. This song is one of three Shakespearean sonnets that he sets to mu­sic on the album, but it most successfully borrows from tradition and incorporates innovation. He sets the sonnet verbatim, but his piano accompaniment would fit far better in a modernist song cycle with its heavy chromaticism. Yet his vocal style and even the vocal melody come more from a contemporary singer-songwriter tradition. The result is an original piece of music that defies strict classification as popular, classical or modernist music.

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