The question doesn’t ask what your favorite song is. That is a major implication, but you’re also invited to consider whether a favorite song is the one you’d want the world to hear. And do you interpret the question to mean that, by extension, the world will remember the kind of person you were based on the song you chose?
Songs are like air molecules; they constantly float about me, and I keep sucking them in. But I have to write about them before I can understand what they mean to me. For me, writing is the process of figuring out what I think about things. So here we go . . .
I could pick something like “Act Naturally” by the Beatles, if I wanted my kiss-off to the world to be that human existence is a great cosmic joke.
If I want to send the message that life is about having a good time, it would probably be “Down on the Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. If I wanted that good time to play well among Europeans, I’d pick “Sexbomb” by Tom Jones.
There are specific songs that I think of when I’m in certain moods. When I’m having conflicts with people I care about, I always think of “We Can Work It Out” by the Beatles, which to me embodies a meta-level ballet/wrestling match between Lennon and McCartney. When I’m sad, I automatically think of Sarah McLachlan’s version of “Song for a Winter’s Night,” or “Lost Cause” by Beck, or . . . anything by Natalie Merchant.
If it’s the song I’ve sung the most times in Rock Band and Guitar Hero, it would be “Hungry Like the Wolf” by Duran Duran.
For a message of pure romance, nothing beats “The Way You Look Tonight,” written for and still best performed by Fred Astaire.
If I wanted to be a greedy scoundrel, I would choose “You Never Give Me Your Money” by the Beatles, which is really like three songs in one (a technique that reached its apotheosis in McCartney’s “Band on the Run”).
The song I loved best as a child: “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul. The song I love best with my sexy inner child: “2 Become 1” by the Spice Girls. The song I loved then and now with equal fervor: “Beat It” by Michael Jackson.
The two songs I most recently tried to mash up were Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and “Wish You Were Here,” but then I realized it wouldn’t work because I couldn’t remember which was which. Or maybe it worked too well . . .
If I wanted the perfect jukebox song, I’d pick Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night.”
“On Your Shore” by Charlotte Martin is the song that would play when Aeneas lands in Italy . . . in my film adaptation of The Aeneid. Someday . . .
If it’s a brilliant song that I never play for guests because they’ll never like it (because it takes as its subjects sharecropping and an orphaned child), it would be “Annabelle” by Gillian Welch. (Also “Names” by Cat Power – not safe for fragile souls.)
I shouldn’t neglect the influence of movies (and nostalgia), and it was Back to the Future that etched “Earth Angel” and “Johnny B. Goode” indelibly into my childhood. (Equally memorable was “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News. Don’t be a hater.)
If I’m going to express my ethical philosophy, then no song says it better than Queen’s “I Want It All.” (Except maybe “Fat Bottomed Girls,” but that’s more what you’d call a personal history. Kidding!)
If it’s the one song that will keep the aliens from enslaving humanity, which is probably the noblest ideal I’ve mentioned so far, it would probably be Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” because I honestly believe she sings the language of the aliens.
* * *
Gather all those songs, and it would make a pretty good mix tape, which kind of leads me to my final answer. I’ve always believed that music, and art in general, should be free. Despite the fact that every artist you’ve ever heard of (except Emily Dickinson) has made money off their art, there is nevertheless something vulgar about selling that which is supposed to express the height of human creativity, and thereby reacquaint you with your soul. So I think if I had to choose one goodbye song, it would be a song that realistically belongs to everyone. The problem is, any song like that (“Happy Birthday,” “We Will Rock You,” your national anthem) has lost its meaning or ability to move you. On the flip side, I could pick something hopelessly obscure, probably something I’d have to write myself, and that would express the world as I’ve absorbed it. I feel like everything in between these extremes is just another great song.
And so . . . I have to cheat. I choose not a “song,” but an aria, “Che gelida manina” from La Bohème, because . . .
Because it’s opera, it is meant to be performed over and over and in a variety of ways. You can hear it however you want, and you can probably play it better in your head than any orchestra or singer could perform it.
Because it predates recordings, there is no expectation of a definitive performance. So in theory, even I could sing it and make it my own. In theory!
Because it’s a love song, and love, especially new love, is universal.
Because it’s a song about art and being an artist, a writer of poems and songs. A song about song seems appropriate for this purpose.
Because it is as beautiful as anything else I could have chosen.
Finally, because I first heard La Bohème when someone shared it with me. Someone wanted me to hear it. So if there’s one song I’d pass on for others to hear, this would be it.