The Song Remains the Same

Is a band’s most popular song ever its best?

For some people, the question really is no question, as they suggest with more than a little heat that the answer is obvious: Yes. A friend is unwavering in his insistence that Led Zepplin’s best song from all aspects is “Stairway to Heaven,” which is undoubtedly its most popular. Even though that prom-schmaltz is derided and other examples of better Zepplin tunes are provided (e.g., a song that has much the same structure as “Stairway”: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”), he stands unmoved. Indeed, he digs in his heels.

While many of us come down on the negative side of the question—perhaps exhibiting a crypto-elitism that may be unbecoming—and could spend plenty of time citing better B-sides (now proverbial B-sides, as 45s are only in the bins of used record shops and so that notion is essentially behind us), perhaps the answer really is yes, but not for the reason that my Zep-loving friend thinks.

It might seem as though the most popular song would be the one that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Consequently, there is a bigger group on the top side to be appealed to. Because of the breadth of the possible appeal, we quickly assess that it must, perforce, be bland. However, as I am writing this, I am on an NWA airplane on which the video entertainment includes a documentary titled “Elvis Remembered.” Presley, certainly, appeals to a diverse group of people, social classes, levels of education, wealth, and even age notwithstanding. There are those who write for GloNo who think he is certainly the King. There are those for whom “Soap Opera Digest” is War and Peace who share the same belief.

The ability to cut across such a wide space is undoubtedly an indicator of an unusual degree of talent. Consider, for the sake of argument, that there was a performer named “Melvis.” Further, that his career had the identical time span of Elvis’s. Let’s assume that from the points of view of both talent and proficiency, Melvis was a better musician than Elvis. But Melvis was appreciated only by the cultural cognoscenti. They applauded his recorded and live performances in journals that have an annual circulation measured in three digits. Not only did Melvis not appear on “Sullivan,” because of the timing of his career, there weren’t even cable-access channels.

Who, then, is better: Elvis or Melvis? Elvis is (was) undoubtedly more popular. Even if Melvis actually existed, he would barely exist in the public consciousness and would therefore be essentially irrelevant.

Although it might seem easier to appeal to the masses than it is to collect the laurels from the learned few, the opposite is more likely the case. A subset of individuals (i.e., the few) is related by a common idea, notion, worldview, what have you. It is merely a matter of identifying what that something is, then fashioning a congruent object. It’s like Cinderella’s glass slipper: there are plenty of women with feet, but the Prince was only interested in one pair. Fitting narrow limits can be easier than dealing with wide boundaries.

Consider the inherent difficulty of creating not merely something that’s one-size-fits-all (which tends to be a situation wherein there is an inverse relation between breadth and suitability to any given individual) but something with mass and individual appeal. That is undoubtedly a sign that whatever it is that can do that must be able to rise above other objects in the same class: Elvis, unquestionably, trumps Melvis.

And “Stairway to Heaven” really must be Zepplin’s best song.

But I still don’t like it.

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