Musical criticism and commentary

Song Rating – 5 Intersecting Points in Time and Space.

Song Rating - like traveling through time and folded space.....

A few weeks ago, in my post, “It’s ok to like bad music,” I explore a theory for song rating. I stated that rating a song can be done with a three axis cube, ie a three dimensional box. As I explored this theory a bit in my own mind, as well as looking at the research of others, I discovered this theory is wrong. The cube is actually a fourth or fifth dimensional object (depends on how you view time – but we’ll get to that later). Song rating has five specific areas that makes it “good” or “bad.”

I put good and bad in quotation marks because there’s a certain amount of subjectiveness obviously (though some would argue the amount of objectivity). Regardless, I am not here to spell out what makes a song good or bad. Rather, I am here to give you the tools to rate on your own merit. So picture if you will, a four dimensional cube (aka a tesseract) traveling through time. This is our song rating system. Five axis – composition, performance, lyrics, emotional attachment, and time. Seems complex? Well – let me simplify this a little.

Song Rating Axis One: Composition.

Composition serves as the “skeleton” of the music. Without a good melody, rhythm, and what not you will probably not have a good song. A good composition will frame the rest of the song. Some examples of a good composition might be any given song that has a “catchy” chorus. Let’s take the song “My Heart Will Go On” made famous by Celine Dione. I chose this particular song, because the lyrics of the chorus aren’t especially memorable – maybe you remember them, maybe you don’t. Still, you remember the tune of the chorus (especially if you saw Titanic). Why? Because the actual composition of the tune is catchy. It’s memorable. In fact, there’s an Italian version of this song by Sarah Brightman which is just as beautiful as Dione’s. I don’t speak Italian, but I do know that I love the way this song sounds.

Granted – a good composition in a song goes so much further than “a catchy tune.” This is just an example. I could dive deep into music theory, different rhythms, and how and why they work – but that’s not the point. The point being, a good composition serves as the structure of a good song. While you can have a good song without a decent structure, it’s a bloody rare thing.

Song Rating Axis Two: Performance

Ever hear a really bad song done really good? Or a really good song done bad? A performance can make or break a song, no matter how well composed the song might be. Let’s take this version of “Memphis Tennessee” done by Chuck Berry with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The song starts out ok. Lennon needed his own microphone, instead of sharing, and thus overpowering Berry’s vocals. The song itself is pretty catchy and the composition is pretty solid. I’d give it about a 6.5 maybe. Alright to listen to until…yes, Yoko starts “singing.” Yoko Ono and her yodeling (or whatever that noise is called) ruins the song! She takes the song down to a 4! And I’m being generous because the rest of the performance wasn’t all that bad!

Let’s step back a moment. Some people prefer the performance part above all. Take fans of Mariah Carey or Beyonce. While composition plays some part in this (again, composition will almost always make or break a song), the vocals are the most important thing in a song showcasing a  pop diva. If Mariah can’t hit the notes in “Love Takes Time” (yes, I’m old), the song just wouldn’t be the same. Composition wise, I rate the song a solid  7 – pretty decent, though it could be better. Decent enough to carry the song though. However, Mariah’s vocals rate a solid 10. This song give me chills, even twenty five years later!

Song Rating Axis Three: The Lyrics

If composition is the bones of a song, the lyrics are the blood and guts of the song. What makes a good lyric? So many things. Let’s revisit catchy tunes. Catchy tunes often times work not only because of the melody, but also because of the lyrics. A great example: “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League. If you know the song – you know the bridge and the chorus:

Don’t, don’t you want me?
You know I can’t believe it when I hear that you won’t see me
Don’t, don’t you want me?
You know I don’t believe you when you say that you don’t need me

It’s much too late to find
You think you’ve changed your mind
You’d better change it back or we will both be sorry

Don’t you want me, baby?
Don’t you want me, ohh?

https://genius.com/The-human-league-dont-you-want-me-lyrics

These lyrics are catchy – that’s what makes them so great. You remember them – they drill themselves into your head. Once more, they’re not annoying (at least that’s my opinion  yours might differ).  You want to sing along with the radio.

Still – there’s more to great lyrics than just a catchy tune you want to sing. Song rating in terms of lyrics also has to do with depth of lyrics. Lyrics after all share a common lyrical ancestor with poetry. I am not saying one should just put all sonnets to music and you’ll have great lyrics – sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t.

However, using some of the same principles that make good poetry, one can also write great lyrics. Alliteration, consonance,  and assonance for instance. Still – to quote the Magnetic Fields, “You can’t go around just saying stuff /Because it’s pretty” What makes amazing song lyrics – when a song paints a picture or tells a story. Perhaps the song serves as a metaphor. Perhaps the song lyrics just reach your heart or your mind in just the right way. Let’s look at the second verse of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”

“It’s on America’s tortured brow / That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow / Now the workers have struck for fame / ‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again.”

There’s some debate what the song means, but I like Bowie’s interpretation: A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media. This verse especially paints that picture – the girl might be watching TV. She’s seeing things that made her childhood become so commercial and so about money – Mickey Mouse, The Beatles. The lyrics paint a picture and you can emphasize with that picture! There’s depth beyond measure in this song, and I’ve only described one verse. These are are good lyrics people! These lyrics rate a solid 9.8.

What about Instrumentals, Traditional Standards, and Covers?

Before I go on, I want to address a few anomalies. Instrumentals have no lyrics, therefore there’s no way to rate said lyrics. So – obviously my theory of the four dimensional cube does not apply here. Instead – instrumentals must rely even more on composition and performance. Instruments, and how they intertwine, must really grab the listener. They must also be mindful of what they’re presenting. (This is actually why I recently published an instrumentals playlist).

As far as covers and traditional standards go – can we really judge these on the lyrics and the composition? Maybe. In most cases, the performance is the most important of the three axis I’ve explored. For instance, Bowling for Soup’s cover of …Baby One More Time.  This version takes a pretty boring pop song, and breathes life into it.

Still – there are times when one can judge a cover or a traditional standard by the lyrics and the composition. For instance, “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals. The original song, written in the 1920s (based on ballads from the 17th century), shows the point of view of a woman forced into prostitution. The Animals version, however, sing from the perspective of a patron of the “House of the Rising Sun.” The Animals totally change the lyrics. Thus when judging their version of the song, one certainly should judge said lyrics.

Song Rating Axis Four: External Factors

The fourth axis can take a song with the worse lyrics, composition, and performance – and make it the best song ever. Likewise, axis four can make the best song ever into the worse song ever. That axis has to do with what that song represents to you, the listener. This will change for every single person. Maybe a song played on the radio during the first date you had with your spouse. Or maybe during a bad break up. Maybe the song was popular at a good time in your life, or a bad time in your life. Maybe you just like the song because someone you care about likes the song. You get the picture.

A great example of this – the song “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye. Personally, I find the song to be outstanding, but several people I know hate the song. Why? Because “Somebody That I Used to Know” was played so much that they got sick of the song. I also had a friend who loved “Milkshake” by Kellis. I hate the song, but to her, the song represented more than a crappy, repetitive, headache inducing pile of… “Milkshake” was popular during a time in her life when she was in a school play and had a lot of fun. So the song thus gives her a sense of nostalgia.

Song Rating The Non Axis: Time

The final variable  to explore in song rating is time. Mind you, this variable is very closely related to axis four (originally I lumped the two together), however – I feel like time deserves it’s own section. Simply put, a song can be great in 1984 but really suck in 2018. Maybe the song sounds dated and old, or maybe the listener is just in a different space. Think of all the music you listened to in high school. Do you love it now? Chances are you don’t love every single song that used to be “your jam.” Your tastes have probably changed and matured over time. In middle school, I hated INXS, but now I love their music. While “Need You Tonight” might get a 3 from 1987 Aaron, 2018 Aaron gives the song an 8.5.

Let’s talk about songs that sound dated. Last week I explored the song “Next Time I Fall.” In the opening segment I mention the synthesizer sounds dated. However, when I first heard the song, I thought the synthesizers were really cool. Let’s face facts – mid 80s keys just don’t sound as cool now as they did in 1986. A nostalgic sound can add to a song mind you (think that “warm” sound you get from 1970s music), but often times it just leaves a sour taste in your mouth. A dated song can feel like a cheese with just a little too much mold on the rind.

Song Rating – making sense of the chaos.

I apologize if this article was a bit heady and dry. I do feel like writing about my song rating process really feels esoteric. This will not relate to 90 percent of you. Still – for those that might find this interesting, I hope you enjoyed this little excursion into my song rating process.

I’m still working on the shorthand of my song rating system. I typed out a couple hundred words trying to explain it and realized – yeah, that’s dry and boring and confusing as hell. For now, just remember that my scale for song rating is 0 to 10. Yeah, I know – a true geometric cube would be -10 to 10. I started to adopt that, but rating a middle of the road song with a 0 or 1 just seems confusing to the reader. The important thing – laying out the tools for song rating gives you, the reader a better understanding of my process.

As a reward for those you who read this entire 2000 word essay – here’s some fun videos of animals acting funny and goofy. Enjoy!

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