Pop perfection: What makes a song a classic?
There is no such thing as the perfect pop song.
That’s not to say that perfect pop songs don’t exist. Of course they do; anyone who’s ever heard
ABBA’s “SOS” could tell you that. But perfection does not come in degrees. Something is either perfect or it is not. Because no perfect thing can be more or less than any other perfect thing, the thought of one standing alone above the rest is sheer nonsense.
But perfect pop songs as a class? Those are special. They can crystallize a moment, a thought, an emotion that we didn’t know we had and feed it back to us in a loop until it becomes transporting and transcendent. Nobody ever finds themselves in an impassioned debate with friends about the perfect folk song, or the perfect rock song, or the perfect hymn. Talk of the perfect country or blues song is almost exclusively delivered with a wink. Pop, we’ve come to accept, can achieve unironic perfection.
These are not idle hypotheticals. Years ago, on a private message board for the contributors to a fansite for a television show about a girl detective that shall go unnamed, this exact topic was raised as a song-sharing challenge. (Shockingly, not by me.) Nominations were proffered. Definitions were proposed. Counter-arguments were plentiful. Every member got involved. Every member got fired up. We may not have agreed on the answer to the question — which, at the time, was obviously The Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” — but we all agreed on the importance of the question itself. And we all shared songs that we loved, that rattled in our hearts and in our heads long after the final notes faded into silence.
I had thoughts then. I have thoughts now.
But before we proceed, a disclaimer: As with any attempt to define a genre, gripping too tightly to a specific set of criteria is bound to cause them to slip through our hands. Pop is about feeling, first and foremost; ultimately, we’re describing magic, and the only thing that truly explains magic is magic. Nevertheless, step back and some patterns begin to emerge.
The first, and second-most counterintuitive, is that a song doesn’t need to be popular to be a pop song. The second, and most counterintuitive, is that popularity alone doesn’t make something a pop song. If our definition of “pop song” is indistinguishable from “hit,” we might as well just mainline a stack of Billboard magazines and call it a day.
The third guideline, and some nebulous somewhere high up on the counterintuitivity spectrum, is that a pop song can come from any genre of music. Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” is a pop song. So is Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” One of the reasons Donna Summer has endured when so many of her chart-busting disco contemporaries can be conveniently dismissed as either nostalgia or dated novelty is that she was a great pop singer singing great pop songs.
So those are what a pop song isn’t: stylistically bound or contingent on commercial success. As for what a pop song is, I beg your indulgence, because here we must posit a theory. A framework. If not a formula then a semi-consistent set of three elements that characterize a pop song: structure, movement, and hooks.
Structure is less about fitting a specific form than about having a coherent one that shifts effortlessly from one section to the next, from start to finish. (Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” and “Creep” are both brilliant recordings. Only one is a pop song.) Movement has to do with how the song pushes forward instead of going in circles, even when sections like verses and choruses repeat; pop songs don’t have to be short, exactly, but they are concise and efficient. And hooks are . . . well, they’re hooks. They’re things designed to snare you and refuse to let go, whether you want them to or not. A pop song is ingratiating. It has to want you to like it.
If these are the ingredients that go into a pop song, it’s important to realize that we don’t eat ingredients; they have to be combined and cooked first. Perfection comes when all of those components come together to do what pop songs do best: generate empathy cleanly and efficiently. This is what makes a pop song a social artifact, what makes it tempting to simply equate popularity with pop. A song like Madonna’s “What It Feels Like for a Girl” feels like an almost unbearably personal conversation, even though a stranger is singing to millions of others besides you.
I know, I know: The above seems overly proscriptive, and you disagree with this small handful of hearty suggestions that look an awful lot like rules. (Lord knows that those message board denizens did.) But whatever your criteria for pop songs — however you define them — a perfect one like Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’ ” is like a sparkling diamond: self-contained, glistening no matter where you look at it, and damn-near indestructible.
Look at “I Want It That Way,” which is so classically perfect in shape and production that the fact that its literal meaning is vague and borderline nonsensical is essentially irrelevant; our hearts understand what it’s about. (Heck, you could say the exact same thing about “Black Hole Sun.”) “Love on the Brain,” “A Little Respect,” “Head Over Heels” (both the Go-Go’s and the Tears For Fears songs), “Billie Jean,” “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay,” “Georgia on my Mind,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Happy Days Are Here Again”: all of them pop songs, all of them achieving perfection in different ways, all of them with a such lift to them that they leave the ground and begin to float.
The same can even be said about deconstructions like “When Doves Cry” — so stripped down to the basics of a vocal, a beat, and a hook that Prince dispenses with something as seemingly vital to the dancefloor as a bass line — and the inside-out “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” all whirring gears and clacking mechanics. As visible as the bones of both may be, they’re impeccably constructed and ingratiating through and through. It doesn’t matter that they’re as minimal as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” is symphonically overstuffed; all three provide a dopamine rush in a tight, sharable package.
Somewhere in the middle is Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” Its structure and movement are inextricably linked; each section builds on the one previous, with Beyoncé’s solo bridge both generating tension against the post-chorus it follows and setting up the tension of a final verse that echoes where Gaga started the song but is now recontextualized. There are hooks aplenty, from the synthesized harp to vocal stutters both glitched-out and all too human.
More importantly, it captures a complex and contradictory emotional dynamic — involving immersion in a mass of strangers as a place to both lose and regain one’s sense of self, sensory overload for the purpose of both annihilation and clarity of thought, and the limitations of technology to serve social intimacy — and fits it cleanly into a compact bundle that takes longer to fully unpack than the 3:41 it takes to play. Gaga and Beyoncé could let the call ring through to voice mail, but instead they choose to pick it up and shout over the booming noise of a club because they want the person on the other end to hear them loud and clear. It’s so sharp that we hear them, too, even as we’re bobbing our own heads to the dancefloor pulse.
It’s a perfect pop song.
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