Pop music is a perennial source of frustration for serious musicians. No amount of formal training can grant you the instinct for crafting a mega-hit. There are, however, patterns I have noticed that may predict a track’s future in the charts.
There are popular songs, and then there are songs that only come along once every year or so, that send people flocking to the iTunes store while we serious musicians pull our hair out in fits of rabid jealousy. For a single to traverse beyond mere fame into the realm of outright phenomena, it helps to belong to one of these classic archetypes:
1. The Ultimate Anthem
Of these archetypes, the Ultimate Anthem is probably the one containing the most critically praise-worthy music. Rock Anthems are most effective when placed within some extramusical context. “Don’t Stop Believin’” enjoyed a recent surge of popularity thanks to its inclusion in Glee. “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Home Sweet Home” would undoubtedly have not become the classics that they are had they not been released during the height of the music video age. There are exceptions to this rule (“We Will Rock You/We are the Champions,” “Paradise City,” “Kashmir”), but they need to be damned good without crutches.
Notable Examples: “Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor), “Don’t Stop Believin’” (Journey), “Home Sweet Home” (Mötley Crüe), “Freebird” (Lynyrd Skynyrd), “We Will Rock You / We are the Champions” (Queen), “One Vision” (Queen), “Firework” (Katy Perry), “Defying Gravity” (from Wicked), “Circle of Life” (Elton John), “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2″ (Pink Floyd), “Live and Let Die” (Paul McCartney and Wings)
2. The “Love Equals Pain” Ballad
Here’s the cash cow. One of the most lucrative target demographics is teenage girls; and if they enjoy anything, they enjoy melodrama. Twilight, for example, is an everygirl’s fantasy: A plain jane misanthrope finds herself at the center of a battle for her affection, between two chilvalrous boys who are themselves outsiders in spite of their stunning good looks. The message in Twilight and so many great teenage love songs is that it hurts to love.
Twice while I was in high school, a girlfriend suggested that something “be our song.” In one instance, it was Atlantic Starr’s “Secret Lovers,” and in another it was Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting.” Both share a theme of love in the face of obstacles. I find this telling. Can we conclude that young women have a sort of complex, which compels them to seek out the dark side of their romances, thus acting out a sort of dramatic fantasy?
Among the greatest examples of painful love in song is Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” in which the subject not only mourns her dead lover, she consigns herself to a lifetime of devoted loneliness. Couple this with the film tie-in (see “Ultimate Anthem,” above), and we have an all-time winner.
Notable Examples: “Right Here Waiting” (Richard Marx), “Secret Lovers” (Atlantic Starr), “My Heart Will Go On” (Celine Dion), “Love Hurts” (Nazareth), “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Sinead O’Connor), “I Will Survive” (Gloria Gaynor)
3. The Dance Floor Staple
Music belonging to this category is mind-numblingly simple — so much that is pains those of us who are more accustomed to active listening experiences to hear it. But the point isn’t to engage active listeners. It’s to put casual listeners in a trance. Extra points if you make up a special dance for it.
The key is simplicity. Keep the words to a minimum, don’t modulate, use a generous amount of repetition, and hell — why not just include instructions for the dance right in the lyrics?
Notable Examples: “Macarena” (Los del Rio), “Cha Cha Slide” (Mr C and the Slide Man), “Chicken Dance” (Werner Thomas), “Single Ladies” (Beyonce), “Electric Boogie” (Marcia Griffiths)
4. Something Naughty
Never underestimate the power of titillation. Dance floors, bars, and parties are where the squares congregate to express their wild side, so give them something a little dirty. Not too dirty — just some lyrical heavy petting.
Everyone knows rock stars are fiends. Rock audiences want in on the action without the horrid consequences. They want to entertain perverse thought, but will quickly fasten their psychic bra straps if you take things too far. Innuendo or a single mildly dirty word may do just fine.
Songs from this category tend to cross over into others: The Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” is both naughty and danceable. It also uses comedy words, so bonus points. You could paint a sleazy picture, as in “Superfreak,” or simply utter a grown-up word, as is repeatedly done in “Crazy Bitch.”
Groups like Cannibal Corpse go way over the top with vulgarity, and I believe this to be an effective means of protecting the integrity of one’s fan base by staving off mainstream listeners. But if you want to go platinum, create the next catch phrase that will send an eight year-old to the principal’s office.
Notable Examples: “You Shook Me All Night Long” (AC/DC), “Crazy Bitch” (Buckcherry), “Stacy’s Mom” (Fountains of Wayne), “My Humps” (Black Eyed Peas), “I Want Your Sex” (George Michael), “Add It Up” (Violent Femmes), “Family Tradition” (Hank Williams, Jr.), “Superfreak” (Rick James)
Would you call these archetypes predictors of pop success or symptoms of formulaic songwriting? Perhaps a bit of both? I suppose every song needs to be judged on its own merit, but at least I’ll have a starting point should I ever take a stab at writing the next frat party blockbuster.