What Makes a Song Great

Last night, I had a conversation that was on it’s face about Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers. But really about music in general and what makes a song, or album good or even great. For me, I look for my immediate, visceral reaction to a song, for him, “there are no failures of content, only failures of form.” Yeah, T3’s “Motor Freaks” isn’t deep like BlackStar’s “Respiration” but it grabs me in an entirely different way and they exist on their own merits.

That brings me to Jay-Z’s essay over at Rolling Stone to kick off their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, which really RS stop with the damn lists. But I digress.  Jay starts the essay “A great song doesn’t attempt to be anything — it just is.” That to me is the essence of it, so many songs fail because the song is supposed to be one thing, but the artist is trying to make it something else entirely.

Jay-Z puts it this way,

I spend a lot of time fighting myself to stay out of the way of a great song. It’s hard for me to leave a song alone, in its natural state. I want it to have that mass appeal, but once I start trying to push it too far, you can feel that something isn’t right. When you can hear what a writer is trying to do, it’s like watching a dancer and seeing him counting his steps. Music is emotional — if you’re singing that you’re in love with somebody but it doesn’t really feel like you are, people can tell.

Some of my best songs aren’t the biggest ones. A song like “Can I Live” is so full of emotion to me — it was better than “Hard Knock Life” or “Empire State of Mind,” but it lacked that accessibility. ­Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album may not have been bigger than Thriller, but the songs had better melodies.

I’ve never written a song. I don’t know what creating a great song is like. But I know what good music feels like. There are songs I just want to lay down and bask in, songs that force me to if not stop, at least pause. Songs that make me feel in love when I’m not, songs that make me feel heartache when I have none. Give me the songs that take me to a place in time, even if I’ve never been there myself. They don’t have to be full of meaning, they can be completely vapid and force me to get up and dance. For me, great songs are the ones that burrow their way into your head and soul, grab hold, take root and refuse to let go.

Read the full Jay-Z essay here.

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