Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Ever-Elusive "Hook"

Ever since Michael Jackson died last week, I've been listening to his music almost non-stop. I had forgotten just how many mega-hits he had in his arsenal, and I've been shocked and awed all over again by their timelessness. The music of the 80's and early-90's had a very disctint sound that, in my humble opinion, "aged" very quickly. (Lots of synthesizer, fake-drum tracks, guitars plugged into too many pedals played by guys who probably still lived with their moms, and overly-complicated anthems that went on forever.) Most of those songs didn't age well-- by which I don't mean that they're not still enjoyable when you hear them on the radio, but only that as soon as they start playing, you can't help but imaginatively transport yourself back to the roller-skating rink. (Couples only. All skate slowly, please.) On the other hand, much of MJ's music still sounds like it could have been just written, and if it was, it would still be a chart-topper. Why is that? Because he mastered the ever-elusive pop "hook"...

As all songwriters know, the perfect "hook" is the most wily and most sought-after of artistic prey. Wikipedia defines it as "a musical or lyrical phrase that stands out and is easily remembered"-- though that sort of vague, pointing-in-its-general-direction definition is exactly what has frustrated many a songwriter over the years. Pop music is full of great hooks (that might be what makes pop music "pop"), and the true demigods of pop music are all its master. You can find these masters of the hook in every genre, too: disco (ABBA), country (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson), pop-rock (Paul McCartney, Neil Diamond), hip-hop (Kanye West, Black-Eyed Peas), R&B (Smokey Robinson, Alicia Keyes), alternative (Pearl Jam, R.E.M.), alt-country (Ryan Adams, Steve Earle), heavy metal (Metallica, Led Zeppelin), reggae (well, pretty much ALL reggae is a "hook"), etc., etc., etc.. If you really want to get the sound of a hook, you need to listen to oldies, like 1950's and 60's-ish, music-- the true beginnings of rock-n'-roll, where the alchemy of blues, country, gospel and folk music worked its magic. There's just no denying the irresistability of hooks like the one in The Crystals classic hit. Da doo run, run, run. Da doo run, run. So very simple, and yet so maddeningly difficult to reproduce.

The thing about a great hook is that it must be simple and familiar enough to be memorable, but not so simple and familiar that it's forgettable. They say that Beethoven's music had this effect on his contemporaries, that people would leave his concerts whistling the key bars of his compositions after having only heard them for the first time. And this is why, even if you truly hate it, you can't get well-written pop song out of your head. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four? It's like some kind of weird stimulant, like aural crack. Anyway, Michael Jackson's music had a lot of these hooks, and it's a large part of what makes his music so timeless.

I've always said the following of the "hook": Harder to define than Being. Harder to achieve than virtue. As someone who has bloodied her fingers many, many times trying to capture one, I think that's the best effort I can make at explaining it. Anyway, I'm opening the comments section to your examples of great hooks. (Please provide song title and artist, since we may not all know the same music.) Maybe if we collect enough samples, we can nail down something more definitive about it.

[Apologies in advance if you now have The Beatles "When I'm Sixty-Four" repeating in your noggin.]


Mark Wadley said...

In my opinion, nothing reinforces and elevates a great hook more than an excellent horn section. This is especially true for a lot of the Stax soul I've been listening to lately (Otis Redding's original version of "Respect" drive me crazy—in the best way possible), but also for white-boy indie rock, too. Some of the Elephant 6 bands like Beulah and Neutral Milk Hotel really got it right. See the intro to Beulah's "Score from Augusta" and the chorus to NMH's "Holland, 1945."

DOCTOR J said...

I totally agree about the horns, Mark. My favorite horns of ALL TIME are on Otis Redding's "Security." If you haven't heard it, listen here. It's like the horn section itself is it's own hook.

Amit Sen said...

Apropos your "The thing about a great hook is that it must be simple and familiar enough to be memorable, but not so simple and familiar that it's forgettable.":

from Paul Simon's "Song About the Moon,"

Hey Songwriter
If you want to write a song about
A face
Think about a photograph
That you really can't remember
But you can't erase...

And, too, what about this proposition--that not all great songs have great hooks, and, vice versa, not all great hooks make (or 'have') great songs?

DOCTOR J said...

Interesting proposition, Amit. I think I would agree with the former (not all great songs have great hooks), but I would probably disagree with the latter (not all great hooks make great songs). I think an otherwise mediocre (or even crappy) song is made great by a great hook.

Right now, by way of example, I'm thinking of Styx's "Come Sail Away."

Amit Sen said...

Hmm...I think I may be a picky eater then...

Melanie said...

At one point this year, I found myself so hooked by Gretchen Wilson's lines: "I keep my Christmas lights on on my front porch all year long, and I know all the words to every Charlie Daniels song" that I really started to believe that I was exactly the Redneck Woman she was describing.

The initial hook happened on my drive to work, and when I got out of the car, it turned out (to my great surprise) that I was actually a philosophy professor with a distaste for Christmas decorations past January 2 and a very poor command of the works of Charlie Daniels.

It's quite a hook. I'm not sure if it's a good song.

DOCTOR J said...

@Amit: I think I may have overstated my case a bit. I don't really think that a great hook makes a great song, but it at the very least makes a song good (in the "pop" sense of good, by which I mean something like memorable, danceable, hum-able, catchy, etc.). I think the trick would be to find a BAD song with a great hook... I'm not sure you can.

@Melanie: Of course, you know already that I love Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman." I was so pissed when Sarah Palin's campaign hijacked it.

emma b said...

Well, there is a saying among certain of my friends that "Electric Avenue" is the perfect solution for a naggy earworm. It's hooky enough to hook you and erase what came before, but ugly enough to forget easily in turn. It is a pretty good cure in my experience. I have another friend who believes "little drummer boy" is the universal solution that will trump all other hooks but it doesn't fade nearly as neatly as E. A. Take that as you will... :)

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