We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the periodic reminders that our next two months will be spent ignoring loved ones in favor of South by Southwest preparation is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, how and why songs last.
Rachel Freeman writes via Facebook: "Is there a difference between a song 'obsession' and a song 'eternal love'? To put it metaphorically, how do you tell the difference between a song you just met, think is super-cute and want to get to know, take home to Mom and spend the rest of your life with, versus a song you met in a bar, spend a wild weekend with and then break up with a couple weeks later because the affair was too passionate to last?"
I think anyone who loves songs would agree that, yes, there's a difference in how we appreciate songs — that some inspire intense infatuation, while others stick with us for our whole lives. The thornier question is why, and the answers will vary from person to person.
The most tempting answer is to suggest that the lighter and sugarier the song is — the more it flashes onto our radar with a ubiquity that can't be maintained for more than a few months — the more likely we are to burn out and move on to the next shiny object. I'm on the record as a proponent of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," for example, but I never questioned the notion that I'd burn out on it. I doubt many people heard "Call Me Maybe" and thought, "This song will echo through the ages."
But I could also name similarly over-the-top pop songs — off the top of my head, let's go with Rihanna's "We Found Love" and JoJo's "Too Little Too Late" — that I absolutely still love, and still listen to with some regularity, even though many would consider them lightweight pop confections. I still have a CD in my car marked "JoJo Megamixx," and it contains only the song "Too Little Too Late" — and I still listen to it. God, I love that song. Let's hear it now!
Talking about diagnosing when a metaphorical weekend fling might turn into a lifetime love offers more than a few opportunities to belabor that relationship metaphor. With songs, as in relationships, it's wise to tamp down your irrational exuberance; to give your feelings time to settle and breathe. It's not always possible to escape a "Call Me Maybe" during even the best of circumstances, but be sure to spend time with other songs in order to cleanse your palate and test your feelings.
For example, with the examples of "We Found Love" and "Too Little Too Late," it helped that I encountered them naturally, during times when I wasn't inundated with contemporary pop songs on the radio. But what's really made both songs last, for me, is that I find them genuinely beautiful; both songs embody sublime pop craftsmanship that centers on momentum. Each builds and builds in a way that moves the blood every time — at least for me — and each tucks little surprises and flourishes into the mix along the way. In songs, as in love, sometimes your feelings sneak up on you when you least expect it.