Searching for the Perfect Song
I spent much of the late winter and spring re-watching my favorite TV series Northern Exposure. It is, for me, the perfect show. I started watching it as a teenager in the mid 90s when the early seasons were already in syndication. We didn’t have cable, and it would come on between 11 and 12 and every weeknight. There’s a certain loveliness in the cocktail of characters in that show: the philosopher, the eccentric, the shaman-in-training, the bush-pilot, the astronaut, the bear-hunting barkeep. I go back again and again: Comfort food.
In a 5th season episode, the astronaut hires the shaman-in-training, Ed, to put together a film festival to attract tourists to the small Alaskan town. Ed (who’s also a film-buff) decides to make it an Orson Welles festival. At one point Ed is watching Citizen Kane and Leonard (the shaman) asks how he can stand repeated viewings. Here’s their conversation:
“You’ve seen this movie a number of times?”
“Of course”, Ed says.
“Yet you want to see it again. Why?”
Ed replies, “It’s a great story, it’s beautiful. It’s fearless. You know that quote in the beginning where Kane says it might be fun to run a newspaper? Well, I think that’s the way Orson Welles approached this. It might be fun to make a movie. He didn’t know what he was doing and yet he did something that was perfect. Makes you think about what’s possible.”
Welles did something that was perfect. And I’d agree. But what is that?
The episode got me thinking about perfection. It’s such a subjective assessment, yet when something is perfect — when it hits all the right notes — there is consensus.
Last week I posted about the Beach Boys song “God Only Knows” — widely acknowledged for its perfection. But why? What are the criteria?
I came up with five standards.
- Time-tested – the Perfect Song has to be at least a generation old, and the perfection exponent increases after every new generation passes in continued agreement about the song.
- Wide Popular Appeal – Nearly everyone has to agree that it’s a wonderful song. As we move away from the mono-culture that existed well into the 90s, popular appeal is becoming more difficult to parse. Since so-called perfection under the previous determinate needs to be at least a generation old, we’ll let critics 25 years from now decide if Bon Iver’s “Holocene” or Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” is closer. Tough call. Probably both.
- Emotion – Here’s where subjectivity reigns, but paradoxically, the ability to consistently draw emotion from the listener is also the Perfect Song’s most arguable (and provable) quality. The Perfect Song captures and represents its intended emotion without flaw.
- Repeatability – The Perfect Song, within reason (and as Ed points out as a moot point above), bears repeating.
- Sing-along-ability – You can’t help yourself.
Right now NPR is working on putting together a list of universally awesome albums or “Albums Everyone Can Love” — a noble pursuit — but I thought it would be fun to get a list of perfect songs together. I’d love for some help here.
Other than the Beach Boys tune, at the top of the list for me is Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”. It meets all of the above criteria which includes the fact that I cannot hear the song without smiling and singing along. It’s my go-to happy song.