Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tuesday Tunes

It's been pointed out to me that the last five entries in a row on this blog were about animals, more or less. While I am slightly obsessed with my cats, and love giraffes and my parents' new dog very much, I am actually a musicologist, and do spend most of my time thinking about music. So, in what I hope will be a regular Tuesday feature of this blog, I want to take a moment to discuss a favorite song. This week, that song is an obvious choice for those who know me. In fact, when I was teaching History of Rock and Roll this summer, I had an extra credit question on the final exam which read, "What is the greatest song of all time?" This was not a subjective, or defend-in-an-essay question. There was only one right answer, and I had warned my students earlier in the quarter that they needed to write down in their notes that this song was the greatest song of all time, and be ready to regurgitate this answer for the final. So, what is, objectively and empirically,* the greatest song of all time?

The Shirelles, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" (1960

I'm not, of course, the only person to love this song so much. In our classes here, we usually teach this song in conjunction with Susan Douglas's lovely essay "Why the Shirelles Matter." Jacqueline Warwick's forthcoming book on sixties girl groups will no doubt discuss it excellently as well. The basic point that these authors make is that although the usual annoying rockist scholars of popular music studies tend to view the period 1959-1964--after Elvis joins the army, before the Beatles invade--as a fallow time in popular music, it's actually the period when we get unusually rich and complex music aimed at teenage girls. This song is a great example--rather than being sentimental about love and boys and things, it is quite frankly discussing sexuality and teenage romance as a meaningful experience:
Tonight you're mine completely
You give your love so sweetly
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow?

Is this a lasting treasure?
Or just a moment's pleasure?
Can I believe the magic of your sigh
Will you still love me tomorrow

Tonight with words unspoken
You said that I'm the only one
But will my heart be broken
When the night meets the morning sun?

Compare this with Patti Page's marriage advice for girls, published the same year, and you can see how unusual it is to treat this subject so forthrightly and frankly. And not only is it frank, but it is subtle and emotionally rich--the song's only two and a half minutes, but it feels like this microscopic moment of decision is stretched out for symphonic ages.

But it's not really about the lyrics, of course. And although the songwriters, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, knew how to craft a fancy-pants chord progression very well, it's not even really about that either. I agree with one of Douglas's points that actually it's all about the timbre: the heavy reverb on the lead vocal, mixed all the way front. No saxophone or distorted lead guitar, just those lovely strings, that shimmery quiet guitar, and above all, Shirley Owens's throaty, heartfelt vocals. The violins represent hopefulness, and when they break off for their solo moment, you really believe that it's going to work. But every time Shirley sings, it's heartbreaking. You hear that voice, and you know what is really going to happen in the morning, no matter what she is saying. But then there is the ineffable: it makes me really happy to listen to this song. It's sad, it's heartbreaking, but...the pain feels good, in an endorphin-rush-after-a-tattoo kind of way. I just wish I could put my finger on how the music does this, technically speaking.

It's a sad song, and it's a lovely song, and it is the Greatest Song of All Time. If you haven't listened to it recently, go get a copy, find a quiet place, close your eyes, and enjoy.

*Objective and empirical because I am a musicologist, and I say so.


sushipjs said...

Thank you. I was so sad when we didn't cover that song in history of Rock n' Roll. When I mentioned this omition to the rock professor, he said, "you're right. That's a great tune. It should have been on the syllabus."

Kelsey said...

All I have to say is, "Seconded."