Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go: greatest single ever?

Digital music revived the single format, dead since the compact disc’s arrival in the late 1980s. Despite formidable sales, singles have been generally regarded as critically inferior to LPs since EPs fell out of fashion in the early 1970s.

As such, one might get into hot water by trying to figure out what was the greatest single ever. Nowadays, many “singles” are actually just promotional bits a record company uses to lure a potential buyer to a thirteen dollar album. It’s a rather ineffective strategy, especially with the advent of the 99 cent legal download, but it is an effective distribution of a sample of what is to be released. Very few singles today are “singles” in the traditional packaged sense, so probably shouldn’t be regarded as such.

With that said, I nominate Soft Cell‘s “Tainted Love/Where Did Our Love Go” as the greatest packaged single ever. It is a rather popular choice (just look at the YouTube comments), especially for people birthed via flower children, but its recognition has been steadily decreasing by a generation increasingly apathetic about the strides made by 1980s electro pioneers. The apathy is warranted, by the way, since the onset of a revolutionary form of music making generally appeals to the senses a lot less than it does with actual innovation, but there are some artists that bucked the trend (Brian Eno, Talking Heads, David Bowie, et al).

Soft Cell was one of them, before disappearing too soon for our enjoyment. “Tainted Love” was one of the biggest hits of the 1980s, and it had a Velvet Underground effect for anyone with the slightest curiosity towards synthesized sounds. While true its delving into the artificial went no further than a two-note hook, the hook itself became arguably the most important moment during the early years of electronic music. Thousands of artists have tried and failed to match that hook’s magnitude and pure pleasure, and many have made a living taking Soft Cell’s organic synthesis and blowing it up to unfathomable heights. Those songs however play like disposable dixie cups to “Tainted Love’s” relic flask.

Calling Soft Cell’s nine minutes of fame the greatest single of all time can be problematic. The first half of the song is a cover of a 1965 Gloria Jones B-side, and the second half a cover of The Supreme’s first hit single from 1964. Both original versions are stellar, adding to Soft Cell’s best ever case since their covers are superior. Lead singer Marc Almond finds a yearning neither Jones nor Donna Summers reached, providing a cathartic power to two bubblegum pop singles with hardly anything to do with each other. Almond doesn’t earn classic status until the third verse when he pours every bit of energy into his classic “Don’t touch me…” breakthrough. It also doesn’t hurt the song’s cause that the greatest hook ever spans both renditions.

A fundamental problem exists in naming a cover the greatest single ever, but if one listens to modern music, one can hear Soft Cell everywhere. Soft Cell took modern rock and made it quieter, something we’re seeing with even the most popular artists. Thirty years ago, many artists wouldn’t be caught with a keyboard; now it’s rare for a top 40 hit to be playable on instruments from the 1960s. But maybe most importantly, Almond gave white kids with feeling but without vocal talent permission to sing their hearts out. That itself merits enshrinement.

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