Roger Ebert, the famed film critic, has always based his reviews on how the film made him feel and whether or not it succeeded at making him feel a certain way. Basically, his question was always “did this film manipulate my emotions”. In layman’s terms, Ebert based his reviews on whether or not the film had ‘heart’.
Much like Mr. Ebert, I too rely on whether or not the piece has ‘heart’ in my criticism of songs. It’s the proverbial X factor that makes a good song great. It’s all about the emotion.
It’s really something to me when a good musician places all of his or her creative energies into a single strum of the guitar for a perfect chord that resonates deep within, or a passionate solo on the drum kit that defines his/her existence, or pounds out a rhythmic bassline that mimics a beautiful heartbeat.
The other day, Vincent posted A Formal Introduction to Mashups. Don’t get me wrong, I like mashups–“The Jackson Pit” is particularly pleasing to listen to–but the heart is missing. They are a product of technical wizardry. Impressive, sure, but existing in a realm devoid of any pesky emotion. The same goes for most synth-pop Top 40 tunes; the emotion has been almost completely removed with slick mastering, auto-tune, and production that renders an emotional vocal track almost irrelevant.
However, there are exceptions to this rule.
In the same post about mashups that introduced many a soulless technical feat, Vincent mentioned a great piece by The Reborn Identity entitled “American Days Are Over”, a mashup which breaks the rule. First, the choice of songs is impressive–they flow almost as well together as “Sleepyhead” and ” in “Jackson Pit”–but on a deeper level, the songs represent two distinct eras of popular music, blending them together to show both how much and how little we have evolved musically, plus distinguishing how “American Pie”–one of my father’s favorite songs, just FYI ’cause, y’know…–and its message is still relevant to our culture. Opening the song with the piano and Don McLean’s rugged vocal sets the tone for a rough-around-the-edges song, something most mashups are not. Then, by adding the percussive backbeat, McLean’s vocal abilities and lyricism are allowed to take on a slightly more aggressive tone, reinforcing the old message with a new edge. Emphasis is placed on the ‘jester’ stealing the ‘thorny crown’ and the courtroom in which ‘no verdict was returned’, which then emphasizes McLean’s depiction of chaos and fear on The Day The Music Died, and the loss of innocence which resulted. The dynamics build MORE than they do in the original song, and the outro, which introduces the powerful voice of Florence Welch, wails preachily that the ‘dog days’, which McLean emphasized, ‘are over’, and the final line, delivered by McLean–‘this’ll be the day that I die’–adds a soothing moment, a calm, that softly reinforces Welch’s assertion. It has heart. It says something new. But that’s just my opinion.
Another exception to this rule is The Limousines–another band that Vincent posted on–who I had the pleasure of seeing live (with Vincent, as a matter of fact). Their song “Internet Killed The Video Star” is a meditation on this lack of emotion, from the other side. The lyrics indicate a respect for rock-‘n-roll–the singer jokes that “rock is like a zombie, it’ll dig its way up again”–but at the same time acknowledge that “the kids are disco dancing / they’re tired of rock and roll / don’t bother telling them the drum machine ain’t got no soul”. One interpretation of this phrase could be that they acknowledge the soullessness of their music, and don’t care, simply because it’s the trend and kids do like to disco dance, a sly self-awareness which could indicate that the emotional vocal line contrasts with the synth-based techie beat (which are not performed by instrumentalists live). Another interpretation could be that they believe that the ‘drum machine’ does indeed have a soul (albeit an untraditional one), and as such is worth the listen. Either way, it signifies that there is some kind of soul within their music, and their lyricism outside of this phrase advocates for love of both types of music; the lyrics indicate that ‘we’ll be fine’, because we still “have the sex and drugs just like the good old days”. It’s all about sex and drugs. And as we all know, sex is all about heart and soul; it’s about emotions and the pursuit of happiness, as drugs are. It all goes back to heart.
There are other examples, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
The next level in music, I believe, is not about light shows and stage presence or effects and slickness, but rather, in my humble opinion, it’s about heart, and that’s what makes a good song great.
What do you think? Hit the comments.