Monday, November 29, 2004

The 500

What I've found most disappointing in the commentary so far on Rolling Stone's latest list issue, The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, is how predictable it has all been. One line of complaint runs, roughly, "How could this song be rated higher than that song, which any sane person knows is infinitely better?" Another moans that the list is too canonical, enshrining the greats of the '60s while ignoring the greats of today. Still another objects that the list is all too typical of Rolling Stone, and thus boring, pompous and out of it. A few writers even managed to stuff all three arguments into a single, eye-glazing rant.

Yawn.

It's as if they were concocted from formula, using a template that has been in place since Rolling Stone started publishing list issues over a decade ago. Moreover, the writers appear blissfully unaware that these list features are meant not as the final word on popular culture but as a means of selling magazines, and writing about the list -- even dismissively -- is effectively carrying the magazine's water. Yeah, give 'em free publicity. That'll show 'em.

Now, I probably should admit that I was one of the 172 voters whose input somehow generated the 500 (you'll find me right between Gail Colson and Elvis Costello). Unfortunately, I've since lost my list of what I voted for, so it would be difficult to compute my personal culpability, but suffice it to say that a number of my favorites -- "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Without You," "Heart Like a Wheel" among them -- are not counted among the 500. And so what?

That said, the 500 Greatest Songs list does suggest an obvious question, and seeing as no one else is asking it, allow me: Why do they bill it as the 500 greatest songs when in fact what they're celebrating are great singles?

It's not as if the editors aren't aware of the issue; indeed, the introduction tries to finesse the point by explaining that "the word song refers to both a composition and its definitive recorded performance." Which, as I understand English, pretty much means they're talking about singles. Hence "Respect," which a songwriting list would credit to Otis Redding, is celebrated as one of Aretha Franklin's best, while "Walk On By," which ought to stand as a monument to the genius of Bacharach and David, becomes a paean to Dionne Warwick.

This is shortsighted on two fronts. First, it ignores the fact that part of what makes a song great is its almost infinite immutability. Whether "I Got Rhythm" or "Norwegian Wood" or "Bizarre Love Triangle," a great song shines regardless of who interprets it or how -- and, in return, provides giant-sized shoulders for the interpreter to stand on. Unfortunately for magazine editors, honoring the song means paying homage to the songwriter, and most readers really would prefer pictures of Elvis Presley to shots of Lieber and Stoller ("Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock") or Mark James ("Suspicious Minds").

Secondly, the RS500 approach ignores the distinction between songwriting and arrangement, and as such muddies the whole notion of authorship. If, for you, the list-topping "Like a Rolling Stone" is defined by the whistling, five-note organ hook that punctuates the chorus, then fuck Bob Dylan -- the guy you want to thank is Al Kooper, who came up with the part. And who, for what it's worth, doesn't get a songwriting credit. I wouldn't go so far as to argue that "Like a Rolling Stone" wouldn't work without that hook, but neither would I suggest it's entirely incidental. Which is why, for me, "Masters of War" is a much stronger Dylan song.

Arrangements often make the difference between a hit and a miss, and are every bit as important as the performance itself. When Badfinger recorded "Without You," it was a terrific song about heartbreak, but it lacked the air of majestic tragedy Harry Nilsson's version delivered. Some of that is vocal -- Nilsson pushes his tenor almost to the breaking point, which registers in our ear as tragedy (a trick opera composers have exploited for centuries) -- but most of it derives from the swelling intensity of Richard Perry's arrangement and production, which exploits everything from the echo of a piano in a big room (conveying loneliness) to the surging power of cellos and horns (representing the melancholy power of love). And it's worth noting that those qualities aren't necessarily transferable. That's why Mariah Carey's rendition, which draws heavily on Nilsson, fails; her voice, at its upper limits, sounds chirpy, not heartworn.

Perhaps the ultimate irony in Rolling Stone's myopia on this point is that, for once, the Grammys get it right. Record of the Year and Song of the Year are not the same thing, and for good reason. Now if only the Grammy voters had better taste...

Comments:
Here, Here J.D.

Thanks for saying it.

By the way, I wonder if the Gail Colson who voted for the list is the same Gail Colson who used to be Peter Gabriel's manager?


SW
 
The very same.
 
I can't figure out which is worse, the predictability of the list or the predictability of the response, including my own. What a weird little kabuki dance RS seems to have engineered, intentionally or not. So here's my part of it: the greatest single of all time, inexplicably, is stuck down at no. 280.
 
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just out of curiosity, how many songs did they ask for in the poll? it sounds like ten but I'm not entirely sure. (sorry for the wonkiness of this question.)
 
Each voter was asked to provide a list of 50 songs, listed in order of priority. Those were then weighted, and out of the resulting stew came the list. I only mentioned my Top 10 because, well, it was shorter.
 
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