What Makes For The Perfect Song? (v3.0)


Obviously, there’s no objective measure of perfection in a pop song. 

There is, I think, an informal set of guidelines and structures that can be applied to determine if a song qualifies as “pop.”

But as with any artistic pursuit, sometimes a deviation from the formula is what really catches the ear and elevates a song. Predictability rarely equates to perfection. To be considered perfect, a song must captivate the attention. 

Jewel’s Who Will Save Your Soul does this in several subtle, surprising ways. 

Right off the bat, the vocals provide an interesting contrast. Jewel’s tone sounds childish and withdrawn, but the lyrics feel like a stroke from a cold knife:

“People living their lives for you on TV,
They say they’re better than you, and you agree…”

The tonal dissonance of those provocative lyrics being sung by what sounds like a little girl is amplified at the end of the first chorus when she sings:

“Who will save your soul,
If you won’t save your own…”

…and follows with a line of sing-songy la-di-da’s. There’s a sense of danger, which becomes more visceral at 01:08 when she wraps up a stanza with:

“The cops want someone to bust,
down on Orleans Avenue…”

…and draws the last word out to a fevered groan that’s equal parts desire and frustration. That one word reeks of sex, which clashes hard with the overall tone of the song.  There’s little arousing about lines like:

“Who will save your soul,
after those lies that you told?”

…or this one:

“Another day, another dollar,
another war, another tower
went up where the homeless had their homes…”

Other lyrics bring up addiction and the underside of religion. 

Sister was not pulling any punches! 

Jewel 1996.

In a sense, it’s amazing that this was released on a major label. 

Not only that, but the song got enough of a push that it was heard widely. It seemed almost like a subversive accident, as if someone important had signed off on the song without really listening to the lyrics.

On the other hand, one of the most gripping moments is when the voice drops out entirely. After the second chorus (02:01) is a short instrumental interlude, only two measures long: just the bass and some light percussion, with a tasty organ flourish at the end. 

The idea may have been to give the listener a chance to catch breath or process the lyrics, which are not only confrontational but somewhat oblique and impressionistic as well – far out of the ordinary for pop hits. 

Grouped by intention, Who Will Save Your Soul can be considered alongside other well-known songs like Bruce Hornsby’s That’s Just the Way It Is and Phil Collins’ Another Day in Paradise, but there’s very little mystery or stream-of-consciousness to those songs. Jewel, on the other hand, packs these lines with supraliminal intensity. The listener would be justified in needing a couple of measures to take a breath. 

But there’s little relief to be found. The spareness of those two measures and their contrast with the rest of the song are captivating in their own right.

So, ready or not, the listener faces the rush of lyrics that follows in the third verse. And the climax of the third verse is the crowning moment of this song. A few things happen in quick succession that help turn this song into a full-on dopamine cascade.

In my personal cosmology, humor ranks very highly. Any given song is more likely to be ranked as perfect if it has an element of humor. Who Will Save Your Soul hits it just right at 02:30, the end of the third verse.

Maybe you’ve encountered this type of gag before. The cadence and the rhythm suggest that a rhyme is coming up, and the context suggests a rhyme that’s (at least) slightly inappropriate or scandalous. The joke is that the couplet lands on a word that’s completely unexpected because it doesn’t rhyme. At all. It’s a great example of subverted expectations.

Jewel does that here, setting the listener up to expect the last line:

“…Get out on the streets, girls, and bust your…”

…to end with a word that rhymes with “calls.” And she displays perfect comic timing, drawing out the “…your…” instead of flowing smoothly through the line. Then she ends the line with “…butts.”

It’s so hammy that it gets its own cymbal crash. (There are exactly three cymbal crashes in the song; the placement of the cymbal crashes alone is worthy of some analysis…) Not only that, but you can even hear Jewel crack up – just a little bit – as she heads into the last chorus at 02:41. It’s easy to miss because it’s so subtle. It sounds spontaneous, and I wonder if it’s not her delighted surprise that the gag and the cymbal crash landed on the same beat.

It’s a wonderfully jarring little moment, one that, in the blink of an eye, pulls the rug out from under the listener.  Nothing piques interest like the unexpected. And here, sharply piqued interest presents an opportunity to completely floor the listener with something powerful.

Jewel seizes that opportunity in the third chorus, fully leaning in to a husky yet full-throated wail that was only hinted at in the earlier chori.  She sings:

“Who will save, save your…”

…and the way she holds and projects “…your…” is a thing of jaw-dropping intensity. Up until 02:45 it’s unclear whether or not Jewel has a big, powerful voice. After, there’s no doubt. And the combination of small elements – the joke, the stifled laughter, and the big note, all within a few seconds – creates an alchemical reaction, the result of which is like the gates of Valhalla opening wide. It’s a great example of how music can well and truly shake the foundations of a listener.

Who Will Save Your Soul was Jewel’s first single (and reportedly the first song she ever wrote), the very beginning of a long, respectable career. I’m not convinced that she’s ever equaled it. 

It’s almost too perfect.


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Famed Member
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July 8, 2022 9:52 am
Reply to  Both Grouse

Thanks for the kind words, Both Grouse, and for a tip-top article for our What Makes For The Perfect Song series!

Happy Birthday, and Good On You!

JJ Live At Leeds
Famed Member
July 8, 2022 12:46 pm

Great write up. Jewel didn’t have much of an impact over here, a few minor hits and although her name is familiar I couldn’t name any of her songs. This one is totally new to me. Listening with the benefit of your notes made for an interactive experience and really brought extra depth to it. Nicely done.

Both Grouse
both grouse
July 9, 2022 9:04 pm

Thanks JJ, that’s exactly what I was hoping to accomplish!

Pauly Steyreen
Famed Member
July 8, 2022 7:11 pm

I had the Pieces of You album and really liked what Jewel was doing. Like the Alaska upbringing lent her some wisdom or poignancy that was absent from nearly all music at that time.

Her radio songs (this one and You Were Meant for Me) were nice, but the one that stuck with me was very earnest, barely a song, more of a poem or a statement of defiance: the title track.


Famed Member
July 8, 2022 9:31 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Jewel Kilcher spent a year in Hawaii. She went to a middle school on the rural side of Oahu. Kilcher writes about being bullied. Some local girls would take her to the woods and force her to yodel. Success is the ultimate revenge.

Both Grouse
both grouse
July 9, 2022 9:25 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

Girls are so weird… My subconscious alarm bells were going off reading “…local girls would take her to the woods and force her…” but thankfully the story zigged when I was afraid it would zag.

It’s sort of parallel with the subverted rhyme idea I mentioned. MT’s wikipedia link gives some great examples, hopefully it’s not gauche to post it again here:

Both Grouse
both grouse
July 9, 2022 9:01 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Agreed, “Pieces of You” is quite striking. Defiant is a good desciptor. She’s doing something interesting with the chord changes in the chori, something I’m not musically astute enough to lay out. But the chord change and her delivery give the line “…they’re pieces of you…” a real power.

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