In Quisterflaang’s Canon, longtime professional rock critic, journalist, and author Peter Quisterflaang reviews the most critically celebrated songs of all time as compiled by aggregator acclaimedmusic.net. Quisterflaang does not make himself open to contact through conventional means but will appear in the comments below to discuss his invaluable contributions to the discourse.
#026: David Bowie – “Heroes” (D. Bowie/B. Eno, 1977)
No, eagle-eyed copy editors, that’s not a formatting error: for you see, the song “‘Heroes’” is intentionally styled with quotation marks around its title. This song has been celebrated by professional rock critics for decades as a testament to the human spirit and the indomitable drive of mankind against impossible odds. While Bowie originally said he wrote it after seeing the inspiring sight of lovers meeting at the Berlin Wall, he later admitted he actually got the idea after seeing producer Tony Visconti sneaking out to meet his mistress. A song about a man cheating on his wife in Germany is perhaps less uplifting than Cold War defiance, hence the ironic quotes. (As punishment for writing a song about him, Visconti moved the microphone further and further away from Bowie with each verse while they recorded this track, causing him to have to yell by the end.)
I should repeat that this song was produced by Tony Visconti, not by Brian Eno, as it is commonly misattributed, although Eno was certainly a collaborator on Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” of albums.1 We tend to overlook Visconti’s contribution to these albums partly because of Eno’s mystique, but mostly because Visconti produced the Moody Blues’ 1986 synth rock album The Other Side of Life, and we have never forgiven him for it.
#027: Outkast – Hey Ya! (A. 3000, 2003)
This song, commissioned by Polaroid following the rousing success of Kodak Film’s collaboration with Paul Simon some thirty years earlier, is the first appearance on our list of a track released in the 21st century. It is a very uncomfortable thing for professional rock critics to talk about the 21st century. The accessibility of the internet has made it increasingly difficult for us to gatekeep popular music, and rock itself has accordingly become increasingly irrelevant in our culture. Our periodicals feature increasingly weathered or saggy faces on the covers, and each passing year robs us of another batch of said faces. Rock is becoming increasingly niche. You know the sort of old-timer who’s really into collecting old calypso records or vintage soda bottles, and he seems friendly on the surface, but the inscrutability of his passion for worthless junk hints at something vaguely unseemly and loathsome about his entire existence? I fear waking up one morning to find such a man staring back at me in the bathroom mirror. Perhaps I already have and just don’t realize it.
But rock’s stylistic slipperiness, the way it resists attempts to define itself, means that rock is a big tent, and it’s a tent that can incorporate a lot of different sounds. So let’s take this track, “Hey Ya!” It’s got an acoustic guitar; I can understand that. Synth bass, I learned to accept in the 1980s. Its lyrics are about the uncertainty of relationships, which is familiar enough to me. There is sort of a soul sound to the vocals. Guys, I think this is a rock song. This is a great rock song, the best of the 21st century. SO FAR.
#028: The Kinks – You Really Got Me (R. Davies, 1964)
The Kinks are an undoubtedly influential rock band, and Ray Davies2 blazed a trail for heavy-riff-based rock with this jerky, energetic masterpiece. There is no dispute: great band, great song.
But have you ever met some guy who is really really into the Kinks, and talks about them a lot? I guarantee you: that man is a creep. I don’t know what it is. They’re convinced that they’re smarter than you and have access to a better class of public restroom or something.
#029: Prince and the Revolution – When Doves Cry (P., 1984)
When George Harrison was posthumously inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, the big finale was a rendition of his celebrated composition3 “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” performed by Tom Petty, my close personal friend Jeff Lynne, and other musicians. When it came time for the climactic guitar solo (played on the original 1968 recording by noted Enoch Powell stan Eric Clapton), who should step forward but Prince? He proceeded to launch into a three-minute orgy of virtuosity that ended with the possible spontaneous disintegration of his guitar.
Now, any other musician, had they performed that solo, would have been criticized for it. How gauche, how disrespectful to upstage the song with his own playing, to take this performance honoring the fallen Best Beatle and utterly make it about himself. But here’s the thing: no one said this, because Prince could do whatever he wanted to and back it up.
When you talk to rock musicians, which I as a professional rock critic do for a living,4 you frequently discover that they veer between extreme self-confidence and extreme self-doubt. It makes sense, in a way. You need a self-confidence bordering on narcissism to go on stage and command an audience of thousands, to walk into a recording studio and presume that your thoughts and your work are important enough to deserve to be heard by millions of listeners. Yet self-doubt can be a healthy counterbalance, ensuring that you as an artist do not rest on your laurels, that “good enough” is never good enough.
Prince did not have this self-doubt component, nor did he need it. There was an absolute surety of purpose and intent in everything he did. There was no pose to Prince, which is why you can watch the music video to this song in which he stares into the camera from a bathtub, and from any other artist this would seem the height of ‘80s music video ridiculousness and vanity today, but Prince does not look absurd today. When he wears those purple suits and cravats, he is not wearing a costume, the way David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust makeup is wearing a costume; he is merely wearing clothes that he wants, and deserves, to wear in that moment. People sneer at rockstar self-indulgences, from smashing amps on stage to demanding certain colors of M&Ms back stage, but while people might occasionally snicker at an element or two of Prince’s whole deal, nobody resented him for them, for they were clearly genuine.5
This is what makes “When Doves Cry” such an incredible song, because amid the utter confidence of the music and the arrangement—releasing a dance song without a bass line is an incredible risk, yet here he’s pulled it off—the word he keeps returning to in the lyric is “maybe.” Who would think Prince capable of the uncertainty necessary to not be sure whether or not he’s just like his father, or he’s too demanding, or you’re just like his mother? It’s a mystery vulnerability that comes from nowhere; how can this man be utterly assured of every note, every movement he makes in the video, and still be capable of questioning? It’s entrancing; it makes the professional rock critic curious to ponder. It would almost be humanizing for any other artist, but it further distances us from Prince. He is on another level from us because the most confident man on Earth is posing a series of self-searching questions, but there is no contradiction, no push and pull: merely an integrated self, presented as-is, with no apologies.
#030: Little Richard – Tutti Fruitti (D. LaBostrie/R. Penniman, 1955)
Oh hell, guys, can I be honest? I’m a little tapped out from my ode to Prince and have little energy left to expend on “Tutti Fruitti.” You know what the deal with this song is: Little Richard was a pioneer, “Tutti Fruitti” helped nail down the sound of rock ‘n’ roll, the nonsense lyric showed that the poetry in this new art form would be in the rhythm and not necessarily the words. Maybe this was at one point a song about men having anal sex and maybe it wasn’t! Now who wants to drink a lot of sangria with me and watch Purple Rain?
Peter Quisterflaang is the author of several books of professional rock criticism, including Cringe and Shout: The Well Meaning But Highly Regrettable “Message” Songs of XTC’s Andy Partridge (1993, Ventricle Publishing).