Is “I’m a Believer” a Perfect Song?

In which I pose a rhetorical question

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, patron of musicians (also poets, less relevant to the forthcoming discussion). On an unrelated-yet-related note, I listen to a podcast called Punch Up the Jam wherein the hosts and guests end each episode by offering an “unpunchable jam”—a song they feel is so good that it leaves little to no room for improvement. In comparing songs I might bring to the table were I to someday be a guest, I regularly return to the Monkees’ 1966 hit “I’m a Believer.” I bet it reminded the aforementioned saint why she got into the business in the first place.

Disclaimer 1: the Monkees actually have several potentially “unpunchable” songs, owing in my opinion to the confluence of organic and inorganic factors which went into the group. Disclaimer 2: you will not be able to accuse me of allowing my crush on Mike Nesmith to cloud my judgment, as he neither wrote nor produced nor sang lead on this track. So there.

No, the songwriter’s laurels go to Neil Diamond, as probably the jewel in the crown of his Brill Building days. Here’s the thing: I’m no great fan of Neil Diamond—“Sweet Caroline” and all that has never been my cup of tea—but his songwriting-factory output places him second only to the Goffin-King machine as far as I’m concerned. To contrast their contributions to the Monkees’ catalogue, put Neil’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” up against Carole’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Not too shabby.

Anyway, old Neil hit the jackpot with this song. It‘s gotten so much cultural saturation by now that it would be almost beside the point to parse out its every component. A while back I wrote about what makes an ideal chorus, and this chorus crossed my mind for obvious reasons: major chords, sunny triads, starting and stopping, the melody rising away from the verse and then falling to get us in place for the next verse. All ingredients in a recipe for success.

Except that the chorus can’t exactly be the highlight when the whole is so strong. The verse melody is heavy on the tonic—G, because we‘re in G major—and strikes that balance of being simple enough to easily get the hang of and interesting enough to have fun singing along to. You’ve got the combination of straight and bluesy chords; you’ve got the flattened F, which then turns into F#, the leading tone to bring us back to G. For me, the call-and-response bits (the “doo-doo-doo, doo-doo’s”) seal the deal. When you’re singing along, there’s a part for everyone. You feel included; you feel you belong to something bigger than yourself. And it clocks in at just under three minutes. That’s good pop sensibility.

You could also take more than enough enjoyment from just listening to Micky Dolenz. Because he’s enjoying it a whole lot.

After all, it’s largely thanks to the Monkees for being excellent interpreters of the song, as they were of pretty much every song they recorded. In fact, it was released in late 1966 and then stayed Billboard’s number-one single for all of 1967 (and that was kind of a big year for music). Even so, it’s a sturdy composition in its own right. A well-built ship. Which explains why probably the first time I heard it was at the end of Shrek, as covered by Smash Mouth.

But you didn‘t really need me to explain any of this. You’re singing it right now, aren’t you?

Image: look at them pondering my question

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti is a freelance writer and editor living in Berlin, Germany, with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. Her free time goes toward singing, dancing, drawing cartoons, trying to finish her Netflix queue, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her artist-heroes. Follow her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato), Instagram (@c_m_giglio), and YouTube (Lia Lio).

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