As a musician and songwriter I understand the hard work, the agonizing over detail and second-guessing that goes into creating music. I respect anyone that rises to the challenge of wrestling with songs. But a third of the way into my workday as a music analyst, after closely listening to hours of music, my ears and brain can get tired. Songs can start to blend into each other. It’s amazing that my job involves spending the day with the thing I love most – music – but like a mid-afternoon cup of coffee, it can really help to have a pick-me-up, a surprise, something that perks up my ears.
I prefer to have as few pre-associations with new music as possible. Promotional photos, Facebook pages, album art, can color my perception of a band – actually affect how I hear the music – so I try to listen as “blind” as possible. I’ve already piled on enough baggage just from the band name alone. I’ll bet you have some general idea of what you’d imagine Sküll Krüshr might sound like, or Lil’ Ca$h.
I select a new album from the queue. Something I’ve never heard of before with a non-descript name. It enters my weary, perhaps jaded (I’ll admit) ears, and BLAM. It grabs me by my collar and demands my attention. I’m enthralled – no longer an analyst, but a listener, a fan. I close my eyes, my hands slide away from the computer keyboard, I lean back and take it in.
I love this feeling. A song will come along, shut down my analytic brain and awaken another part of me altogether. Maybe it will pluck my heart strings, or shake my body, or stimulate my creative lobes and get me thinking about composing, arranging, writing lyrics of my own. It forces me to ask the question, what makes a song special?
There’s not a universal answer to this question. It’s not a riddle that, once solved, will yield The Perfect Song to make the whole world laugh, dance, cry and fall in love with one another. But, while I hear many different genres during my workday, and I love extremely different types of music, it still seems worth trying to articulate the shared ingredient among all the music that really hits me.
The music that moves me most is both original and meaningful. Yes, all music has influences, but music that sounds original to me blends enough ideas, styles and sounds so I can’t immediately pick out its one and only direct influence. For me, great songs have their own distinct identity and perspective in their mix of influences. Combine that with meaning – an urgent message, a distilled vision, the results of deep self-exploration – and you’ve got a recipe for the sublime.
I think about when I first heard Manu Chao’s blend of European pop, American punk, Brazillian jazz, Central American slang and other less identifiable influences. It wasn’t the uniqueness of the combination that moved me, but the revelation of the political implications and the unifying message communicated by the convincing marriage of these diverse sensibilities. Or in the case of the electro-pop extremism of Cornelius, his agile use of incredibly complex compositional structures in the 3-minute confines of the radio hit format creates a dizzying friction between what a pop song is “supposed” to do and what it can do.
There are, of course, many significant factors which I haven’t mentioned that make songs special: magical moments of recording, textural and sonic diversity, depth and subtlety of insight in lyric writing, defying the expected tropes and gestures of genre, instrumental or vocal expressiveness, sharp economy of material without a single wasted note, perfectly pairing the message and the medium. But uniqueness combined with something important or “true” to communicate will make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time. It’s these kinds of musical surprises that inspire and energize me, reminding me why I love music.