Riffs, Beats, & Codas regularly features interviews with experts, fans, and scholars of popular focused on a single prompt: Please discuss a piece of music that helped you "learn to listen"?
When you posed this question I first thought of the songs I had on “repeat play” in preparation for my book on Dusty Springfield. One of them, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” (1966), is now permanently intertwined with every part of my brain’s wiring. YDHTSYLM is such an emotionally moving song; I listened really closely to it to try to find out what it was that gave it that incredible power. It goes without saying that the “answer” was very complex; there’s no single element that makes a song so cathartic for large numbers of listeners. Rather, it’s a combination of elements in just the right proportion that gives a song an almost magical power to move us.
I almost wanted to say “power over us” in that last sentence because it seems very hard to resist a beautifully crafted and expertly delivered song like this. In YDHTSYLM the rich character of Dusty’s voice is audible in her first few notes. She is a storyteller whose voice makes you want to listen to the whole tale. But even before you hear her voice, there’s that incredible blast of horns followed by a big, fat dramatic pause telling us: fasten your seatbelts! So, in the first ten seconds the singer, composer, and instrumentalists have set us up for an amazing ride. It’s like a roller coaster at an amusement park: thrills and chills! As we move past the opening, the songs climbs higher and descends ever more steeply—the upward modulations achieve this sensation—and Dusty Springfield was pretty much the only singer who was able to successfully execute these modulations.
Incredible as Dusty’s instrument and musicality were, the lyrics of Wickham and Napier-Bell and the compositional devices of Donaggio and Pallavicini also share credit for the lasting power of this particular recording. Listening carefully to other versions of YDHTSYLM (Elvis and Cher not to mention numerous contestants on “X Factor” or “The Voice”) will make this point even clearer. Hearing these other versions, it’s apparent that the song is a well-constructed melodrama, indeed, a “pop aria,”—but it’s also true that Dusty elevates it to the level of a singular experience through her musicality and ability to connect with audiences. She owns it, as the saying goes.
In listening closely to YDHTSYLM I learned that the most effective pop songs are those that observe some fairly basic rules of lyric writing and composition and have a talented group of musicians to interpret it and sell it to an audience. With all the basics in place, ultimately, it’s the quality of the performance that transforms a song into an emotional event that continues to resonate long after the experience itself has faded.
Annie Randall, Ph.D., is professor of musicology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. Educated at Univ. of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, DePaul School of Music (Chicago), and Univ. of Kent at Canterbury (England), she holds degrees in musicology, composition, and early modern European history. Her publications include books on music and social justice (Music Power, and Politics), opera (Puccini and The Girl), and 60s Britpop (Dusty! Queen of the Postmods).