What is the difference between a good song and a great song? What are the intangibles that take a piece of music and put into another stratosphere? It’s a tricky inquiry. One of the greatest things about music and taste in music is that it is a completely subjective experience. Each listener interprets lyrics differently. Everyone has their own set of triggers that elicit different emotions and reactions to a piece of music. Some prefer heavy, aggressive thrashing. Others prefer a soft, subtle piece of reflection. Maybe it’s the lyrics. Maybe it’s the music itself. There really isn’t a wrong answer. But at the end of the day, what makes a song a great song? From my perspective, it’s three attributes: Tension, Dynamics and Momentum. One band excels at all three of these. Foo Fighters.
Foo Fighters are no strangers to the art of creating beautifully fantastic anthems of a generation. They have crafted an insane amount of hit songs throughout their nearly twenty-five-year existence. “Everlong”, “All My Life”, “Best of You” and “Learn To Fly” barely scratch the surface. The rare band that consistently produces high-quality material. And with each subsequent album, one brand new anthem (at least).
1. For all their massive hits, and there are a ton, “The Pretender” stands proud above the rest. Not only is it the Foo Fighters greatest moment, it’s one of the greatest rock songs ever written. The lead single from the band’s sixth album, 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, isn’t just maximum Foo Fighters; it’s maximum rock. Four minutes and twenty-seven seconds of absolute domination. But why? Why above the rest of their countless hits does The Pretender get the prestigious title of being their greatest musical achievement? Let’s take a closer look.
2. A song should be something of a minor journey. It’s hard to compare one individual song to something from another medium such as a film. Generally speaking, a song has a much shorter expiration date. Whereas a film can run for two hours, most songs fall in the realm of two-eight minutes. But just because the time is limited, a good songwriter knows how to maximize every second of the song. They can piece in an introduction, a conflict and a resolution. It just needs to be on a much tighter scale.
With “The Pretender”, the Foo Fighters brought this approach to full fruition. When the song begins, a subtle arpeggiated guitar plays softly, shortly followed by frontman Dave Grohl almost whispering. “Keep you in the dark you know they all…pretend. Keep you in the dark and so it all…began.” And does it ever begin.
3. The stage has been set; and so has the tension. Tension is an attribute any great song should have. There’s nothing wrong with the song that comes crashing in right from the four-count. It has its place. And it’s wonderful. But when listening, there is something very exciting about being on the edge of your seat, not knowing what’s coming around the next corner. The almost eeriness of Grohl’s voice is misleading. It presents the listener with the idea that they know what kind of song they have begun listening to. But they’re wrong.
4. Immediately from the end of the intro, here comes that all important second attribute; Momentum. Drummer Taylor Hawkins leads the charge into the verse with a steady onslaught of sixteenth notes on his snare drum. Followed up quickly by a single-string guitar lick by guitarist Chris Shiflett. It’s on!
5. Grohl’s vocal melody then takes hold. Simultaneously his rhythm guitar and Nate Mendel’s bass line begin to fill in some of the space. Pouncing in unison with 1-2-1-2-3-4-5 bursts that fill in some of the open space. But that space doesn’t stay open for long. Here is where the Foo Fighters are excelling.
6. Momentum and now the third attribute, dynamics join forces. But what are these two forces creating? Tension! At the halfway point of the first verse, drummer Taylor Hawkins abandons his straight up sixteenth note snare assault and opens the drums wide up. The drums are now driving with the lead guitar. Grohl and Mendell continue their bursts to offset the straight forward movement of the drums. But that isn’t good enough. They take it a step further.
At the three-quarter mark of the first verse, Grohl and Mendel take their bursts into straight up chugging, playing unison with the drums. Piece by piece, the dynamics of the verse kept building on one another. All the while gaining steam, or momentum, to absolutely erupt. Erupt into a monster of a chorus. That chorus alone is enough to have a stadium of fans singing along. But the build into it makes its impact even more powerful. These individual building blocks drive the tension until the song and the listener cannot take anymore and are forced to deliver the goods on one of the band’s best chorus’.
7. When the verse picks back up, it skips over the first part of the build of the first verse. But it’s not necessary not. The legwork is done. The tension is still there though as they shift from the bursts to the chugging and get us right back to that chorus. Tom Petty once famously said the mission statement of The Heartbreakers was, “Don’t bore us. Get to the chorus.” The Foo Fighters can write a chorus. And did they ever here. But they made us as listeners work for it.
8. Following the second chorus, the band take another left turn and go into a wildly dirty bluesy bridge. In a lesser song, the bridge could be the chorus. Grohl’s repetition, “Who are you” demands to be sang by thousands of concert-goers. It’s a brilliant move on their part. The bridge kept the momentum going before briefly reprising the songs subtle into. It works almost better this time as a launch into the final chorus.
9. All bets are off and the song blasts its way to its conclusion. For good measure, the ridiculously catchy bridge that could be a chorus makes one last appearance. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant songwriting.
10. “The Pretender” has remained a setlist staple in the years since its release. The song was a huge critical and commercial success for the band also. Achieving the number one spot on both Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs and Alternative Songs chart, the single was also certified gold in America. But all those accolades aside, “The Pretender” is the Foo Fighters greatest song.