Pop Questions

What makes a pop song a hit? David Samuels talked to music exec Mike Caren, who maintains there are nine rules:

“First, it starts with an expression of ‘Hey,’ ‘Oops,’ ‘Excuse me,’” he begins. “Second is a personal statement: ‘I’m a hustler, baby,’ ‘I wanna love you,’ ‘I need you tonight.’ Third is telling you what to do: ‘Put your hands up,’ ‘Give me all your love,’ ‘Jump.’ Fourth is asking a question: ‘Will you love me tomorrow,’ ‘Where have you been all my life,’ ‘Will the real Slim Shady please stand up.’” He takes a deep breath, and rattles off another four rules. “Five is logic,” he says, “which could be counting, or could be spelling or phonetics: ‘1-2-3-4, let the bodies hit the floor,’ or ‘Ca-li-fornia is comp-li-cated,’ those kind of things. Six would be catchphrases that roll off the tip of your tongue because you know them: ‘Never say never,’ ‘Rain on my parade.’ Seven would be what we call stutter, like, ‘D-d-don’t stop the beat,’ but it could also be repetition: ‘Will the real Slim Shady please stand up, please stand up, please stand up.’ Eight is going back to logic again, like hot or cold, heaven or hell, head to toe, all those kind of things.”

The ninth rule of hit songwriting is silence. Why?

Because most people who are listening to music are actually doing something else, he explains. They are driving a car, or working out, or dancing, or flirting. Silence gives you time to catch up with the lyrics if you are drunk or stoned. If you are singing along, silence gives you time to breathe. “Michael Jackson, his quote was ‘Silence is the greatest thing an entertainer has,’” Caren continues. “‘I got a feeling,’ space-space-space, ‘Do you believe in life after love,’ space-space-space-space-space.”

Meanwhile, Gillian Turnbull, a music professor, worries that young music fans grow disenchanted when they can find any song they like on YouTube:

For older listeners, we reached a pinnacle in genre fragmentation in the form of satellite radio: if you like rock n’ roll—but not Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, or Little Richard—you can tune in to a station that only features Elvis. Perhaps you’re especially into 1970s proto-metal? There’s a station for that. In many ways, satellite radio is the ultimate expression of the increasingly narrow, and genre-defined, markets that new radio stations had to create through the 1980s and 1990s. By contrast, younger listeners mostly go to YouTube, at least to test out any music they might actually buy. They can go on an unexpected journey through related acts and styles, opening their minds to genre diversity far more than any radio station would allow.

Still, while exploration can’t be a bad thing, I’d argue that being unable to zero in on one style of music and dig into it deeply means that music is being treated too superficially. Maybe we’re obsessed with categorization, but I think categorization matters. Genre exists for a reason: we privilege difference; it is the means for personal and collective expression. My students come to class with a catalogue of Bee Gees and The Police swirling in their brains. They have encyclopaedic knowledge of Grateful Dead bootlegs. I hope they start digging more, learning what made genres sound like they did and their practitioners and listeners act like they did. I hope these kids create new genres and music subcultures, encouraging their peers to not treat music like it’s a throwaway product waiting to be replaced, but that it tells us everything about who we are and what matters.