What is a list song? It’s a song that, well, lists things. In some cases, a list song will present a sequence of events. We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel, or American Pie by Don McLean. In some cases, these songs list a group of nouns, such as Madonna’s Vogue or Yakko’s World from Animaniacs. In any case, list songs give an interesting structure to a song. And yes, said structure doesn’t always work. So, when does a list song work? Join me as I examine five successful list songs and examine what makes these songs great.
American Pie – Don McLean
American Pie gives the listener a cynical and melancholy look at the history of rock from 1959 to 1971. Starting with the death of Buddy Holly (as well as the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens), we get an array of events through the 60s. American Pie mentions (sometimes in code) such events as the rise of folk music, the Vietnam War, The stabbing of Meridith Hunter at a Rolling Stones concert, and even Charles Manson. The song shows how important rock and roll was in the 60s, and shows the progression from the sock hops of the Elvis era to the social justice anthems of Pete Seager.
American Pie is packed with history and meaning. But in a song full of coded meanings, the most haunting line is fairly literal. The line in question, “I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died.” While in the song, Satan had previously referred to Hell’s Angels. In this instance though, we get the impression that McLean means Satan himself in this specific line. We get the impression that the Biblical Lucifer laughed and celebrated the day the music died. The devil is in the details, and these details are why American Pie is one of the best list songs ever written.
Creeque Alley – The Mamas and Papas.
Creeque Alley shows the listener the early years of The Mamas and Papas. We hear of John and Michelle’s ventures into folk music with The New Journeymen. We hear about the early association with John Sebastian, who would go on to form The Lovin’ Spoonful. They give us details such as most of the band (save for Cass Elliot) couldn’t make any money in their early efforts. We even hear about the crush Cass Elliot had on fellow band member, Denny Doherty. These juicy tidbits, and the narrative they provide, are what makes Creeque Alley such an amazing song.
Perhaps the most interesting line from Creeque Alley is “Mitchie wants to go to the sea, Cass can’t make it, she said we’ll have to fake it, we knew she’d make it eventually.” This line has a double meaning. On the surface, this line talks about Michelle convincing the rest of the band to move to the Virgin Islands. Cass Elliot didn’t initially move with the rest of the bandmates but rather she moved a few months later. However, this line also talks about Cass Elliot’s inability to sing higher notes (such as a high C / sea – see what they did there?). While in the Virgin Islands, Elliot hit her head on a pipe, and almost magically she was able to sing the higher notes. They knew she’d make it eventually.
We Didn’t Start the Fire – Billy Joel
What can I say about We Didn’t Start the Fire that hasn’t been said? A laundry list of events from the 1950s through the 1980s. Joel himself calls it a novelty song and even says he hates We Didn’t Start the Fire. Regardless, We Didn’t Start the Fire reminds us how much can happen in such a short amount of time. The good, the bad, and everything in between. Since the song was published, so much more has happened. Off the top of my head: Grunge rock, 911, three impeachments, COVID, five presidents, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turn of the millennium, the internet, the war on terror, social media, streaming services, the death of two North Korean dictators. But I digress.
We Didn’t Start the Fire might be one of the most hated songs ever written, but having that flyby of 40 years gives us an interesting perspective. It almost makes me wish Joel would write part two.
Vogue – Madonna
Most of Vogue is about the joys of dancing and avoids lists. However, we do get a spoken/rap list in the bridge. We hear names of famous dancers throughout the golden age of Hollywood. We hear names such as (Marylin) Monroe, Jimmy Dean, Grace Kelly, Fred Astaire, Betty Davis, and others. In the case of Vogue, we look at great dancers as a source of inspiration. However, these names inspire us to look to the greats of history for inspiration in other art forms. We can easily apply Vogue’s formula to other endeavors. A writer of fiction could make a similar list with names such as Earnest Hemmingway, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Virginia Wolf, Kafka, you get the point. An Artist might list Picasso, DaVinci, Monet, Van Gough, O’Keeffe.
Vogue starts by showing a place one can escape, or at least how to deal with the pain of this world. That’s the heart of creativity – finding an outlet for heartbreak. Then Vogue encourages us to use our imagination and find inspiration, and to look at those who have gone before us. By listing these famous dancers, Vogue inspires us to greatness.
Yakko’s World – Animaniacs
What’s really important about Yakko’s World – it’s a lot of fun. Mistakes be damned, Yakko’s world is fun AF.
There’s no deep meaning for Yakko’s World. It’s a gag done to edutain kids. Going beyond that though, there’s something almost zen about the song, Yakko namers all the countries in the world in such a fashion that promotes equality and serenity. And yes, he makes some mistakes. For example, Puerto Rico and Greenland are both territories, not countries. Also, he puts most of the Caribbean under one umbrella. Czechoslovakia is actually two countries (The Czech Republic and Slovakia). Oh, and Asia is an entire continent. But I digress.
What makes a good list song?
Wikipedia has a list of nearly 200 list songs. This list of list songs includes every song I mention, as well as a few surprises. What a Wonderful World comes to mind, as does 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. I never thought about those two specific songs as list songs, and yet, yeah – I guess they are. What a Wonderful World lists all the things that make it such a wonderful world. 50 ways to leave your lover may not list 50 ways, but the chorus does give us a few ways one can leave their lover. These two songs are examples of good list songs because the list is so flawlessly integrated into the song, we forget it’s there.
Some list songs make us reflect. We Didn’t Start the Fire and American Pie make us think about the past, and how said past has shaped our world today. Vogue makes us reflect in a different manner – Vogue makes us think about who has come before us, and who we can look for inspiration.
What about Creeque Alley and Yakko’s World? The former makes a good list song mainly because it tells a compelling story. We see the formation of The Mamas and Papas through the listing of several events. We’re entertained. Likewise, Yakko’s World also entertains us, albeit in a comedic way.
Again, there are hundreds of list songs that I didn’t list. Come Together by the Beatles uses a list to shape the song’s protagonist. California Girls by the Beach Boys – again, pure entertainment. My point being, what I’ve mentioned is certainly not an exhausted (ahem) list by any means. However, maybe this analysis might inspire you to dig deeper. When you hear a list, what is it trying to say? Is it simple entertainment? Is it telling us something more? Maybe it’s like Vogue, disguised as a simple dance song, but so much deeper? Just listen closely, and you might be surprised what you find.