Let’s make a list: Greensboro College class pours over great pop

by Ryan Snyder

Neill Clegg, Aaron Wiebe, and David Fox perform for students at the conclusion of the 10 Greatest Pop Songs course. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

‘­That defines a great pop song? Is it the number of units sold? What about mainstream airplay? Surely critical approval must factor in somewhere. Who is the final arbiter of what makes a great pop song anyway? It’s undoubtedly a difficult question to ponder, though an even greater challenge comes in the form of what constitutes the greatest pop songs. This question was the basis for “The 10 Greatest Pop Songs of the Past 50 Years,” the pedagogical pursuits of two Greensboro College music professors and the undertaking of a class of Greensboro College students whose efforts conclude this week.

The idea was that of Neill Clegg and David Fox, who both taught the course officially titled MUS 4500 Special Topics in Music: The Ten Greatest Pop Songs of the Past 50 Years. Their goal was to open up dialogue to discuss popular music in a thoughtful and introspective manner, while at the same time engendering the class to examine their own perceptions about what constitutes a great song. As far as the level of discourse is concerned, Fox said he was pleased with it from the outset.

“The discussion was at a high level from the first week. It really kind of took off and we barely had to say anything that first class,” Fox said. “After that, the sense of community in the classroom only grew as we got deeper into it.”

Concerns were expressed in the greater community about the timing of the class, given the financial difficulties that Greensboro College has faced in the past year. Commenters on the News & Record’s online story criticized it as a waste of time, offering that higher education should stick to the basics, despite the fact that colleges and universities all over the country offer similar curricular components. Harvard University, for example, offered a course dedicated entirely to examining the recent HBO series The Wire.

“I didn’t get any friction when we introduced the idea, but as far as the school’s financial trouble’s go, I was told that we were kind of on our own with the course,” said Fox.

Fox added that more members of the community at large participated in the class than actual students of the college taking it for credit, but non-students paid a fee to the college to participate. The professors made sure their time was worth it, inviting several notable Greensboro residents to perform, including Daughtry drummer Joey Barnes, folk singer Sam Frazier and former pupil Aaron Weibe, who currently serves in the Air Force’s popular music band and performed alongside his former teachers in that final class.

The class met for their final formal meeting in Greensboro College’s Lea Place, a baroque venue that looks more likely to host an afternoon tea for the well to-do than serve as a place to debate the merits of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, but in a way it was also the perfect spot to wax academic. Students came with their final lists prepared, though as a testament to the impossibly difficult nature of the premise, most were littered with honorable mentions and 1-A and 1-B listings. It’s simply too hard to decide on what the best might be.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was, of course, the most obvious choice on the lists of many. While the underlying reasons for its inclusion in the canon have been harangued upon ad nauseum in print — i.e., bringing an end to the most crassly commercial epoch of rock — this seemed to be the first opportunity that many of the classroom’s dozen or so students have had to formally engage the topic. By this time the class had settled on hard criteria for inclusion. The songs had to be released after 1960; they had to have lyrics, despite a number of worthy pop songs lacking them (Herbie Hancock’s genre-bending “Rockit,” for example); and many ascribed their own boundaries. One student excluded all country songs from her list.

Great pop, by these standards it seems, is limited to music with some degree of commercial success. Never mind those who didn’t make it far enough along commercially to ingratiate themselves into the public conscious. Seeing lists with names narrowed to the likes of Bruce Springsteen, ABBA and Foreigner only serves to remind the power and influence that for-profit media holds over their audience’s imagination. Largely ignored were influential pop acts who didn’t quite make the same splash commercially, the Modern Lovers and the Box Tops for instance. Even greater an influence, however, was the period in which many experienced their musically formative years. One student’s list was comprised only of songs recorded more than 25 years ago, lending the notion of irrelevancy to anything in the period since. Another list was grunge and metal heavy, with a concentration around the years 1992-95, despite a handful of outliers.

The ultimate goal of the class, however, was accomplished in the eyes of Clegg and Fox. The class was hefty with conversation about the inner workings of our listening tastes and compelled the participants to think outside of their preconceived notions. Moreover, it was simply a good time. Was it conclusive? Probably not, but it’s a good start.