For example, "Why do baking soda and vinegar volcanos work?" can be met with "The acetic acid in the vinegar engages the sodium bicarbonate in the baking soda in a double replacement reaction, and what little baking soda isn't broken down overflows as the produced carbon dioxide expands within the confines of the volcano." But ask me why those final, mighty chords in Beethoven's Fifth always send chills down my spine, and you'll likely get no more than a shrug.
This is, of course, one of the appeals of the arts. Munch's The Scream is a strangely captivating painting, and you can't really, for all the art history and composition and color theory classes in the world, tell me why. You can explain the parts forever, but they will never equal the whole.
Yesterday, for example, I spent about fifteen or twenty minutes listening to The La's' "There She Goes?" over and over again. It is a good song: The lyrics are generally about love without being inane (the pop equivalent of being an instrumental, really), Lee Mavers' voice has a nice combination of the sweet and the gritty (It occurred to me yesterday that I would love to hear Spoon take a crack at this song, actually), and all the guitar parts are hypnotically simple. But I can name about 1,000 other songs with the same qualities. So what is it that makes this one song so compelling? You can't tell me, and I can't tell you. It is the simple magic of the pop song.
This is what we are accustomed to with music. We cannot explain what separates the very good from the transcendental. Same goes for individual lyrics. It's been well over a year since I heard "Conversation 16" by The National for the first time, and I'm still reeling from "I tell you miserable things after you are asleep." This is a poor example, because that lyric is so brilliant in how it encapsulated the situation that it speaks for itself. So how about this: In the Robyn song "Get Myself Together," she drops the line "I can't tell what's right or wrong, and I wish that something could be done, but I'm not that clever." Every time she sings "I'm not that clever," I can feel it in my heart. And I have no idea why. Again, though, this is within a good song.
I'm significantly more interested in when this happens with music we may not normally give much credence. On "You & I", the otherwise unremarkable new album by The Pierces (a conventionally attractive sister duo who somehow managed to become friends with the bassist for Coldplay), there is one song, "We Are Stars," that seems touched by this magic. "I could think of nothing worse than to sail this universe without you," either the blonde one or the Burnett one opines. And I find it genuinely moving. In the middle of a soppy song in the middle of a soppy record. Yet I keep returning, time and time again, to experience that moment. If only they could figure out how to make that magic last the length of a song, or even an album.
But, of course, if they do that, they'll have found the pop equivalent of the Holy Grail.