The greatest ever pop song. It’s something I’m asked about all the time; on the street, down the pub, when glancing into the mirror and some grey-faced loser with bloodshot eyes starts staring back. Yeah, especially the latter – that happens all the time.
“Excuse me, young squire,” they say. “But I’ve been wondering for a while; what is the greatest ever pop song?” And I’ll smile, perhaps a little ruefully, enlightenment rattling around with the loose change in my pocket. Because I know the answer, of course – but it’s a slightly more complex affair than simply proclaiming ‘X’ by Y before skulking off into the gloom.
For example; I could turn around, pulling this new, would-be accomplice close, and whisper ‘Living on the Ceiling’ by Blancmange into their ears. Never mind that ‘Living on the Ceiling’ by Blancmange is not the greatest ever pop song – that’s just something from the top of my head (even if said track does have its merits); the very act of mouthing ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’ creates a platform for other, more pertinent questions to start appearing. “What’s so special about ‘Dancing on the Ceiling’? How does it channel the essence of pop so neatly? In what way does function over and above ‘Nathan Jones’ by The Supremes? ‘Metal Guru’ by T Rex? ‘You Came’ by Kim Wilde? ‘Sound of the Underground’ by Girls Aloud?”
Perhaps a better question would be: what is great pop? I know the answer to this one, too – the only problem being I don’t necessarily possess the vocabulary to explain; not without a hefty advance and the time to write 300,000 words on the subject (publishers take note). It’s because great pop is a nest of contradictions. Great pop is immediacy, disposability, existing in the time it takes to journey from intro to outro (or sudden stop), and staying not a single second longer. Yet great pop also needs to resonate. To cling to the listener’s psyche via immutable embrace, binding itself to your DNA because its sentiment happens to also represent who you are.
Great pop is snappy, catchy, offering hooks in ebullient order. But it needs craft and guile with it; any old chutzpah merchant can summon a track with the semblance of flavour (see anything ever played on commercial radio for further information), but without understanding of (and allegiance to) the principals of pop, it’s nothing more than synthetic. Unwholesome. The sonic equivalent of mono-sodium glutamate, or advertising jingle in long form.
Great pop is lithe, unpretentious, upholding of universality. It doesn’t need to bend to musical convention – everything about ‘Tears of a Clown’ screams minor key; its genius is that it’s in the major – and neither is it dependent upon production desk trickery to uphold the narrative (Gwen Stefani’s ‘What You Waiting For?’ had the potential to be great… but Nellee Hooper’s production is so rich and creamy, the meal is well and truly spoiled even before Gwen starts pouting).
In fact, under-produced has a habit of assisting here; great pop celebrates the anything, the everywhere – not session muso chops or vocal dexterity (Auto-Tune – what were they thinking?). Great pop craves sincerity (which conversely does not mean that it can’t be delivered with an arched eyebrow). And even more than that, great pop celebrates life this very instant – and fuck the consequences; consequences are for prog rock. For middle age, for responsibility, for tomorrow (the latter– incidentally – being the title of an early Blur single. Blur never, ever got pop, despite regularly professing to do so; Silly Blur).
Great pop is liberating – I think that’s the crux of the matter (and however much of a horrid, horrid human Phil Spector obviously is, that’s one truth he’s always understood). It’s the way in which Lowe’s strident (if occasionally blousy) synth chords buttress Tennant’s mascara and kitchen sink lyrics. The way that each “sha-la-la-la-push-push” the backing singers coo across Mott the Hoople’s ‘Roll Away the Stone’ gift float and punctuation. Scritti Politti, Prefab Sprout, Cornershop’s ‘Brimful of Asha’ (the original version, not Fatboy Slim’s ham-fisted remix). You can also unearth great pop in the unlikeliest of settings; Marilyn Manson may be a snigger-inducing, fifth-rate Alice Cooper with the musical nous of a dead pigeon, but ‘The Beautiful People’ is a glam-rock stomp of epic proportions, nuzzling at the purity of pop (despite half the chorus concerning the size of his schlong). And, of course, there’s Serge Gainsbourg, who had more great pop in his little finger than you or I will ever be able to harvest, even if we were given an oversized combine harvester and provided with a police escort towards pop’s Elysian Fields – this much we know.
We could continue in this vein for many an hour, proclaiming great pop after great pop (and we probably should; some boozy brunch that spills out long into the evening; bonus points are available for each song featuring Lawrence, be it Felt, Denim or Go-Kart Mozart – although I’m not carrying you home at the end of the night). The point being that great pop is iridescent…
… which doesn’t necessarily help us in identifying the greatest of great pop. “Excuse me, young squire. I’ve been wondering for a while; what is the greatest ever pop song?”
And I’ll smile, perhaps a little ruefully. “How long have you got?” Because I’m not going to give away the answer just like that. In fact, give me the time to pen a thousand or so words on this particular track’s monumental dimensions, and I’ll be back with you. Shall we reconvene in a few days?
(to be continued…)