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Wednesday, February 14, 2001

What makes a favorite song? Joyful sorrow

The realization that I could predict that a song would be a hit led me to pay attention to what ingredients produce a hit. "A good beat and you can dance to it" were, of course, the standard answers members of his audience gave Dick Clark when he asked them to rate new songs, in explaining liking the ones they did. But there's more than that. The two most-surefire indicators that a song will be a favorite are these:

1. If a song, both musically and lyrically, communicates joyful sadness, it will resonate in the listeners' hearts. The example that immediately comes to mind is "What A Feeling," from Flash Dance, a second-rate movie (even if it is set in Western Pennsylvania) with a first-rate theme. The song starts slow and low, then builds exhilaration until it bursts into joy. Guaranteed to please the soul; I knew the first time I heard it that I would hear it again, and again and again. I wanted to hear it much more!

2. The second indicator is a feeling of familiarity. That was the main factor in the success of the Beatles, I submit. "I Want to Hold Your Hand," for example, felt like an "old" song from the first time you heard it. I'm betting that this approach to writing hits was the insight of Paul McCarney, as his solo hit, "A Long and Winding Road," strikes me as the epitomy of this familiarity principle. Some of Elvis Presley's biggest hits fit this description ("Fools Rush In" is not only familiar-sounding, it's joyful-sad).

Of course there are many many other factors. In my teens, the theme of just about any well-liked movie would be a hit, just because it elicited memories of favorite scenes or made you feel again as you did when you saw those scenes. One of my earliest favorites, "Tammy," from Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), also communicated a joyful sadness, so it was a surefire hit on several points. The scene in which Debbie Reynolds sings it is unforgettable, as she pines for the love she expects will be unrequited, and then observing, just after singing it, "just think, the same moon that's shining down on me is shining down on Pete's tomatoes."

This being Valentine's Day, it's appropriate to observe that romantic love or loving longing is invariably a mixture of joy and sorrow. "Joyful sadness" (which, incidentally, is a major factor discussed in Orthodox theology), is sorrow that romance can never fulfill our highest hopes for it. Sorrow that no human being is perfect as we'd like to think. Sorrow that even though this is "forever," it won't be and we'll all be dead a century from now.

I think the reason Jack Kerouac became one of my favorite authors is because he occasionally drops this bon mot into his narrations. The moments of greatest youthful joy and aspiration among his characters are edged by sadness, just a mention that in the laughter there was realization of more. Theologically, there are innumerable applications, led by the fact that our greatest joy, resurrection, passes first through our greatest sorrow, death. All of life is anticipation of that fearful transition.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

Joyful sadness II

Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine.

—Robert C. Gallagher

Sent by Miriam Plack

Beautiful and ancient love

Late it was that I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late I loved you! And, look, you were within me and I was outside, and there I sought for you and in my ugliness I plunged into the beauties you had made. You were with me, and I was not with you. Those outer beauties kept me far from you, yet if they had not been in you they would not have existed at all.

You called, you cried out, you shattered my deafness, you flashed, you shone, you scattered my blindness; you breathed perfume, and I drew in my breath and I pant for you; I tasted, and I am hungry and thirsty; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

—St. Augustine

Quoted by Frederica Mathewes-Greene
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