Sunday, May 30, 2004

The Mysteries Of Musical Taste or Why Stairway To Heaven?

Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, millions perhaps, believe Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" to be the greatest rock song ever recorded. Maybe even the greatest song ever.

I don't find it so, but that's really beside the point here. What I am more interested in is what is it about that particular song that is so universally appealing. I first heard it myself when I was 16, on the original album shortly after its release, and I really liked it then for two very clear reasons. First was the dynamic build-up over the repeated verse structure from an acoustic folk melody to a very well-recorded and loud rock climax. And secondly the melody itself, although a simple folk-derived chord sequence, was attractive. But even then I thought the lyrics seemed clumsy and unimaginative, an impression that has radically deepened as I learned more about literature and poetry. Nonetheless, they are no more embarassing than much popular doggerel, so it is not hard to see their appeal.

But clearly this combination - and one cannot deny that it is aided by a powerful and impressive performance by the band - resonated very deeply with many people. In a way, I wish it still did with me, but I cannot listen to it today without cringing at the words. Certainly overplaying destroyed much of any residual magic the tune held for me - even today the song is ubiquitous on radio stations. Other people must be immune to this form of innoculation - and I envy them for it.

But I suspect the real reason for its popularity is that it is one of a small subset of rock recordings that have become part of the bedrock of knowledge for most people. My own interest in music expanded vastly from when I first heard 'Stairway To Heaven', and a lot of more of obscure and interesting music came my way. This led to comparisons that did not cast the song in a favorable light in my ears, and my path moved away. Not so for many others, and the fact that almost everyone is going to hear 'Stairway To Heaven' sooner or later will guarantee its continued dominance.

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