Recently I was asked by a friend to name my top 10 favorite pop songs of all time. I compiled a quick list. After reading it, my friend asked me why I had not included Nickelback’s song “How You Remind Me”, which had just been named the top selling song of the 2000’s by Rolling Stone Magazine. That got me wondering - what exactly does it take for a song to become one of the best of all time? My answer: legs.
For a song to be recognized as one of the greatest of all time, it must first become hugely popular, and then remain so for an extended period. In other words, it must have legs. I’m not talking about gigantic, muscular sprinter’s legs. I’m talking about tawny, skinny marathoner’s legs. Most songs on the radio these days have sprinter’s legs. They are designed to go really fast for a short amount of time. To become one of the greatest songs of all time, however, a song has to be in it for the long haul.
When qualifying songs for a “best of all time” list, I like to run them through the “200 Year Test”. In other words, I ask “will people still be performing this song in 200 years?” Very few songs make that cut. Those that do always seem to have a few things in common.
Know How to Use Them
Not everything required to give a song legs falls within a songwriter’s control. On the other hand, many things do. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind while trying to write your greatest song of all time:
Keep it simple. That is, simple enough for the average person to sing. Have you ever wondered why so many people can still sing really old songs like "Silent Night" or "Three Blind Mice"? It’s because their melodies are simple. In the days when those songs were written there were no recording devices, and sheet music was not widely available. Simple melodies where necessary so that people could remember them. How ironic then, that they have lived longer lives than untold hours of modern recorded music.
Make it memorable. See above; simple equals memorable. Making a song memorable also means filling it with emotional content - it must move people. Emotional content is invoked when a powerful lyric is paired with a perfectly complimentary melody. A memorable song must have that unquantifiable characteristic commonly known as “it”. When a song has “it”, people remember it. Having “it” also gives a song license to ignore conventional songwriting wisdom, and still work.
Make it widely accessible. People must be able to relate to the song. Not just musicians, or other songwriters, but people. Unusually complex songs with dense chord changes or odd time signatures are not accessible to most people. Neither are lyrics that focus on things that are too personal, arcane, or unpleasant. In order to be compelling, lyrics must approach a ubiquitous, widely-experienced subject from an angle that is unique enough to be interesting.
Make it adaptable. Songs that are too genre-specific limit their opportunities for wide exposure. You know you have a winner when country, pop, R&B, and heavy metal acts can all cover the same song with equal legitimacy. All songwriters are eager to write a “crossover hit”. For a song to become one of the greatest of all time, it must have this quality in spades.
Make it timeless. Songs about transient things like events, dates, or technology have a limited shelf-life. For example, when was the last time you heard someone perform the Buckner and Garcia hit "Pac-Man Fever"? (It reached #9 on the Billboard charts and was certified Gold in 1982.) For a song to have legs, it must be as relevant in fifty or two-hundred years as it is today.
Get really lucky. There are scores of incredible songs written every day that the world at large will never hear; beautifully written gems that won't happen to be in the right place at the right time. Becoming one of the greatest songs of all time definitely requires a healthy helping of good fortune, unlikely coincidence, and serendipity. Despite this fact, it is important to remember that luck is only partially out of your control. Luck is the bus that sits at the intersection of Opportunity and Preparation…but that’s a topic for another post.
2. Somewhere Over the Rainbow
3. Stairway to Heaven
4. What a Wonderful World
5. Bohemian Rhapsody
6. Every Breath You Take
8. Hotel California
9. Billie Jean
10. Don’t Stop Believin’
*photo by sergis blog