This Is Not the Best Song in the World
My Last Rant of 2004, I Promise

December already. We have mild snow here in the Chicago area – enough to remind you that snow is pretty, but not enough to annoy the piss out of you. U2 landed at number one on the album chart this week, and Gwen Stefani stalled at number seven. And two of my very good friends are getting married this weekend. All seems right with the world.

So what could screw up my good mood? Well, Rolling Stone magazine.

I’m glad that Rolling Stone exists, if for no other reason than to give me example after example of how I don’t want to run this column. RS bills itself as a music magazine, but to my mind, it isn’t one, and hasn’t been one for a long, long time. It’s a culture rag, all about a certain marketing demographic and how they live. Which is fine – there’s nothing wrong with abandoning your original focus in favor of something else, but at least be honest about it. Musicians and music fans still turn to Rolling Stone as if their coverage had any purely artistic motivation, and their opinions held merit. The days of Cameron Crowe’s William Miller writing about the transformative power of rock ‘n’ roll are long gone.

But they’re not honest about it. They continue to do music magazine features like their latest, a list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Let’s just stop for one second and marvel at that concept. The 500 best songs OF ALL TIME. Now, let’s note that by “all time” they mean “1950 or so to the present,” excluding songs like Beethoven’s Fifth and “Stardust” and “Giant Steps” and “Ave Maria,” which is still one of the greatest melodies I have ever heard. If they had just said that these are the 500 greatest songs you can still hear on corporate radio, then fine.

But that isn’t even my gripe. I find myself disagreeing with Rolling Stone’s reviews and proclamations more often than not, and I think it comes down to a fundamental difference in the way I see the job of a music reviewer. I like to discuss the music, and the artistic evolution of artists, whereas the RS review section is all about the cultural impact and importance of that music. Neither one is inherently right, but one is the purview of a music publication, and the other the focus of a pop culture mag. To put it another way, the music reviewer tells you what the music sounds like and means to him, letting you experience it and make up your own mind, whereas the culture reporter tells you what it means to you and your generation.

A culture paper can do music features, but I think those features should be held apart from serious criticism of the art. You can take Rolling Stone’s list and call it The 500 Most Influential Songs or The 500 Songs People Seem to Love Best, and that’s fine, but to put it out there as a definitive list of the greatest songs implies some measure of artistic examination. A favorites list is not a best-of list, because a best-of list would have to include criteria like the most effective use of a particular harmonic technique, or the most musically surprising bridge section, or the most genre-expanding mix of influences.

And that’s boring. People don’t like to read artistic criticism, they like to read lists of favorites and contrast them with their own. All well and good, and this is certainly a list of favorites masquerading as a critical ranking, because if one were to examine this list from any kind of musical standard, it would be one big 97-page joke. I have a lot of problems with this list, but one sticks out, and it’s a familiar one. (And it’s one for which my cousin Carol is going to repeatedly smack me.)

It is, of course, goddamn Nirvana.

I understand that this list only covers about 55 years – calling “Like a Rolling Stone” the best song OF ALL TIME is screamingly funny anyway, and it’s a little less absurd to call it the best song since about 1950. Still absurd, mind you, but a bit less so. Even with those limited parameters, though, landing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at number nine is just insulting to all the brilliant songwriters represented (and unrepresented) on this list. The song is made up of four repetitive chords, played sloppily, with Kurt Cobain’s amelodic yolwing atop it. A fifth grader could have written it. Hell, I saw a kid on 60 Minutes last week who is composing fully orchestrated symphonies at age 12. He blew by Cobain in the talent department before he could even read.

But because this is a culture magazine, there are two reasons why “Teen Spirit” is this high on the list, or in fact on the list at all. First, it sold millions of copies when nothing else like it was on the radio. And second, its author killed himself a couple of years later. There is no doubting that Nirvana tapped into the zeitgeist, and provided a media representation of a generation, or some such crap. But – and here is the crux of my disagreement with Rolling Stone – that has no bearing on the actual music. If Nevermind had flopped and Cobain had gone on to live a happy, average life, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would still be the same song, recorded the same way. And it wouldn’t be anywhere near this list.

It’s human nature to form associations. People hear a certain song they haven’t heard in years, and it takes them right back to their younger days. For a lot of people, “Teen Spirit” means something, and Cobain’s suicide means even more – a glorious dream deferred, the death of innocence, etc. People connect with huge events en masse, and often associate those events with a song or a film or a picture. And then all of a sudden, it’s more than a song – it’s a symbol, an unassailable monolith to some grand ideal.

And I think the job of the music critic is to break those associations and talk about the work.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like Nirvana, as modestly talented garage bands go, and I quite like In Utero, which I think is their best – it’s almost a halfway acceptable Pixies album. But come on. In purely musical terms, they were among the worst of their Seattle brethren. Their finished recordings sound like demos, which begs the question of why a three-CD box set of demos is necessary. But of course, it exists, and it’s selling. Having heard a good chunk of With the Lights Out, I can’t imagine anyone really wanting to listen to these hissy, sloppy artifacts more than once.

When you set yourself up as a critical examiner of music, and then rate “Teen Spirit” as the ninth-best song OF ALL TIME, your credibility is in serious jeopardy. Even on a list of American cultural favorites, though, its high rating makes no sense. Just for fun, here is a partial list of songs Rolling Stone considers lesser works than “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:

“My Generation”

“Yesterday” (and in fact every Beatles song except “Hey Jude”)

“Purple Haze”

“God Only Knows” (I mean, holy shit. Nirvana at nine, Brian Wilson at 25. On a songwriting list! They only saved themselves in this case by ranking “Good Vibrations” at number six.)


“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

“I Walk the Line”

“Stairway to Heaven”

“Georgia on My Mind”

“Hotel California”

“Let’s Stay Together”

“Tangled Up in Blue”

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

“Fortunate Son”

And that’s just from the top 100. Now, did anyone need me to list the artists’ names with any of those songs? Is there a single one there that people don’t know, or wouldn’t recognize within seconds if they heard it? I daresay that all of the above songs (and just about every Beatles song not listed) outdo “Teen Spirit” as musical works, and as cultural touchstones. Even “Every Breath You Take,” down there at number 84, would seem to outshine Nirvana on both levels. But Sting is still alive, and his later work has suffered, and he no longer symbolizes anything. So he’s out of luck.

I don’t even want to get into the bottom four-fifths of this list, and the insanely low rankings for Randy Newman and Neil Young and Elvis Costello and Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell and countless others. I will just add my own opinion that the worst song Elvis Costello ever wrote is still leagues better, and draws on a much more considered knowledge of music, than the best thing Cobain ever did. (And one more thing, because I can’t believe it – does anybody seriously think that R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” (#406) is a better song than Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” (#433) or the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” (#449)? Seriously?)

There will probably come a time when this sort of thing doesn’t piss me off. For now, though, it just illuminates the ways in which I want to build my approach. The longer I do this reviewing thing, the more I define my own attitudes by carving away what they are not. At the risk of delivering a pompous, pontificating manifesto, here is the latest swing at a Tuesday Morning mission statement:

Music itself is more important than its effect on the culture, or even than the very culture it affects. It’s bigger and broader and more vital, and it doesn’t need our trends to change the world, one listener at a time. As long as I am doing this column, it will celebrate great music for its own merits, wherever it may be found. It will revel in the idea that the best song in the world may very well be on someone’s demo tape in someone’s closet, and only three or four people may ever get to hear it, but those people will be the luckiest on earth, and the song will still be the best song in the world.

This is, after all, just a tribute. Music is beyond us, and capturing the muse is far more important and praiseworthy than capturing the public attention. The best stuff is just waiting to be found.

Wow, that is pompous. And I believe every word.

As for Rolling Stone and its ilk, well, idolization of Cobain will continue in the same way that deification of Sid Vicious has. But even Cobain didn’t like “Teen Spirit” as much as Rolling Stone does, and he’s quoted in that very issue as saying so: “There are many other songs that I have written that are as good, if not better.” I agree with him – “About a Girl,” “Drain You,” “Aneurysm,” “Milk It,” “Something in the Way” and even “All Apologies” are more accomplished songs. He seemed to understand his place in the musical canon, covering David Bowie and Leadbelly with respect, even if his disciples didn’t, and still don’t. Culturally speaking, his impact was huge. Musically speaking, he was a blip, dragged into godhood at the expense of more deserving songwriters.

And there’s nothing wrong with celebrating his cultural influence. Just be honest about it.

End of rant.

Only two more columns before the Top 10 List hits on December 22. It is my favorite Top 10 List, by the way, since I have been keeping record of them. Dare I say it’s the best Top 10 List OF ALL TIME?

See you in line Tuesday morning.