In one of his books Douglas Coupland suggests that 90% of people know the words to fewer than 10 songs. My wife doesn’t know the words to any song all the way through. She can sing along, to “Boy named Sue” or “Always on my mind” perhaps, but without Johnny Cash, Elvis or Willie Nelson accompanying her she wouldn’t get through the whole song.
I discussed this with my brother a few years ago, asked him how many songs he knew all the words to, how many he could sing or recite all the way through. We figured we were both well into the hundreds, easily 500 or more, maybe more than 1000. If you learn a song a week for 20 years you’ll get to 1000 songs. This doesn’t seem too daunting to me. We’ve both lived long enough to learn 2000 or more.
For me a great song needs great lyrics. There are some really good songs with so-so lyrics, but all great songs have great lyrics. I think about them all the time, have done for decades. Even so, over the years, when discussing lyrics, and when asked to name a great lyric I have often paused, unable to pick out anything specific from the tens of thousands of lines that are somewhere in my head, unable to come up with an instant answer. I have thought about it often and would offer the following three songs, they stand up lyrically with any other pop song created in the last 60 years: “Bennie and the Jets”, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (both of these were US #1s) and “Do you know the way to San Jose?”
And the astronaut Chris Hadfield recently quoted one of my favourite lines from any pop song when choosing “America” by Simon & Garfunkel as one of his Desert Island Discs: “Cathy I’m lost I said / though I knew she was sleeping / I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why / Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all gone to look for America …”