A FEW PEOPLE who know a thing or two about pop were asked to cite some classics and explain what makes them great.
The New Pornographers
I’m fascinated by the way the definition of a pop song has changed through the years. You know, all of a sudden, in the early ’90s, what Pearl Jam did was considered a pop song. Or like Twenty One Pilots is a pop song. As culture evolves, pop music evolves. Or if not evolves, changes, and so a different decade has a different definition of a classic pop song. So as for me, I think of the late ’60s and I think of [The Turtles’] “Happy Together,” [The Monkees’] “Daydream Believer.” They follow the same formula. It’s sort of a mellower verse leads into a really big chorus. Which, it’s such an obvious trick, but I guess that’s what pop music does well. It does obvious tricks that it’s really good at and pulls them off.
Podcaster, “Switched on Pop”
I would say that “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen is pretty close to a perfect pop song. There is a sense of immediacy that’s rare in a lot of pop music, where you’re thrown from this narrative perspective in the verse, where she’s sort of narrating her history and her emotions in her love life, and then all of a sudden in the chorus, you’re plunged into dialogue and you hear her enact this conversation, essentially picking someone up. And musically it creates this feeling of suspense, because she sings, “Hey, I just met you,” and then there’s an interruption. There’s these synthesized strings that do these syncopated hits. “Hey, I just met you.” “BUM, BUM BUM.” And that interrupts the dialogue, but it also maybe serves as musicalizing the other person’s expression. And throughout those eight measures, you’re just on the edge of your seat, because you’ve suddenly been plunged into her brain, in a way, and you are feeling with her the suspense and palpitation of this moment.
Tegan & Sara
The thing that makes [Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend”] so profound and very unique is how, first of all, to me the closest link to that song is like a Prince song. Because he had this way of being empathetic about other people that was one of the things that drew me to Prince well before I ever even really liked his music. And to me, “Call Your Girlfriend” is so empathetic. I mean, you’ve essentially poached someone’s partner but you’re concerned about how that other person is going to feel. You want this new person to tell their ex to buzz off, but you want them to do it in a kind way and not to tell them all the things that are amazing about you. And I think that is the opposite of most popular songs on the radio. It’s mostly about “I stole your boyfriend, [expletive] off.”
Songwriter, former “American Idol” judge
I think that there are songs like [Christina Aguilera’s] “Beautiful,” where [songwriter and producer] Linda Perry has this fragility of, “I’ve gone through things in my life but I’m still beautiful, no one’s gonna take me down,” that dialogue you have with yourself when you’re going through a rough time. Or even [Paul McCartney’s] “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which is this amazing sentiment of rediscovering love on a whole other level and then him going to this sort of more wild place emotionally when he’s singing it out and traveling through his journey of love. I think the Chainsmokers song [“Closer”] was really great. A lot of these songs, they don’t follow a certain structure all the time, but what they do is they put you in that moment, and in that moment you know it’s a great song because everyone’s experienced it to some degree.
I think that [Arcade Fire’s] “Tunnels” is . . . No. I guess the first thing that comes to mind as a perfect pop song in the modern-ish era would be [Outkast’s] “Hey Ya!” It’s a love song. It’s got hand claps. It’s got a catchy beat. It’s got a deep melancholy to it. You can shed one single tear to it, but you mostly just dance to it.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com.