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.]