In his current New Yorker article on the Clash, Sasha Frere-Jones perfectly pinpoints a sensation that I often search for in music. To describe London Calling, SFJ writes, "Each of us is invincible when it's playing," and in describing the title track he writes, "If you can listen to it without getting a chilly burst of immortality, there is a layer between you and the world."
When I've tried to vocalize that very specific feeling, I've found myself either using the word "timeless" or referring to "songs that are bigger than songs."* These poor attempts at exposition always fail; Frere-Jones succeeds in explaining the feeling because he removes the ownership from the song and the listener, as if the reaction wasn't exactly created by the piece of music or a person's response, but exists somewhere in the ether between eight-inch woofers and a set of perked ears.
The most recent song to hit me this way is the Strokes' "Under Control." It sounds like something Dan Penn could have written, a country-blues song reconfigured for Scotty Moore's echoing hollow-body licks, where death and loneliness victimize suits, 9-to-5ers and the unhip, but not our fearless performers, who sing into cans and metal boxes to preserve their immortality. It is timeless not only in its era-spanning sound, but in its refusal to belong to any era at all. Says Revelations 22:13, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." Says Julian Casablancas, "The end has no end the end has no end."
The last few days I've been listening obsessively to songs that create this same sort of feeling for me, and I've found that, for the most part, they are ballads played as rockers or rockers sung as ballads, and that they are almost always led by a worn male vocal. I suspect that every listener will have a different set of parameters based on his or her taste, but I also suspect that there are universal qualities to these songs that will find at least the slightest resonance in every listener.
So what is it that we hear? Why has Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" made me instantly nostalgic, even during the very first time I heard it? Why does New Order's "Ceremony" make me feel like the best dancer in the world? Why does Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" make the world stand still? Why does the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia" bring me so close to tears? There are personal associations and storylines and knots of signifiers that build a web impossible to escape (19 and drunk on New Year's Eve, sitting on my best friend's front porch bellowing "Sweet Virginia" with six other country boys to the hickory wind), but some songs come with them intrinsically, like hearing a bass line and knowing it will find its way into Dr. Dre's library by next summer.
Putting together a list of invincible/immortal/timeless songs would be an enormous project, but it's one that piques my curiosity, primarily because I'm curious to hear what other listeners respond to, and whether I will react similarly. If you have a moment, please let me know of any songs that make you feel instantly cool and unfuckwithable via email or the comment box, and if you care to explain why, I'll post your description in this space. Thanks.
Note: This didn't quite flow in the main body of text, but let me explain what I mean by "songs that are bigger than songs." Some songs seem way bigger than the three-minute pop format. Some songs feel so full of emotion and story and character that they need accompanying books, movies, interviews and even other songs about them to properly sum up the power held within that three-minute barrier. All of the songs I mention in this post fall into that category. The songs turn me into an information completist: I find myself wanting to know studio dates, intimate details of what the recording sessions were like, what they ate, what sort of paper the lyrics were written on, etc. Some songs just need more documentation, or else I sometimes fear that those intangible qualities will one day float away onto some other track and we will be left with only a chord progression, a voice and a beat.