When it comes to truly universal pop songwriting, there are elements which separate the golden pop nuggets from the disposable, future residents of the discount bin. While the pop consciousness is always shifting and evolving, specific elements have remained important staples through the decades. These qualities stand out and create the memorable from amongst otherwise ephemeral pop wonders.
While there’s no formula to crafting a perfect pop hook, the presence of these elements can make or break a song’s impact.
Editor’s recommendation: Start playing each youtube video as you begin reading Jonathan’s description of why the song is a success.
5. Say it and get out.
There’s a reason why some of the more memorable pop songs of the fifties and sixties were short and to the point. Stripping away the padding and breaking a song down to its bare essentials can help make it ultimately more memorable. “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers was barely over two minutes in length, and it made enough of an impact to become one of the best-known pop hits of their era.
Del Amitri’s massive hit “Roll To Me” in 1995 took a page from that handbook, coupling an innately catchy melody with bare-bones lyrics, getting in and out in two minutes as well. The band has referred to the song as a “throwaway” pop song, but its minimalist nature helped it stick out from the crowd.
4. There’s nothing wrong with repetition.
If you only have a few seconds to get your audience’s attention, sometimes the best thing you can do is get right to what’s memorable and then repeat as necessary. Fastball may be better known for their hit “The Way,” but they reached the charts a second time with “Out of My Head,” a pop nugget which got right to the point with a verse and then three repeated choruses, making it one of the most concise, bare-bones pop hits. But it was impossible to forget the song because once you got sucked into the chorus you immediately repeated it. By the time you heard the song all the way through you were likely to be singing along.
The ultimate song in this vein would have to be the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie,” which also had the distinction of being both massively catchy, instantly singable, and also incredibly basic: only three chords make up the backdrop of the song, but it inspired legions of imitators and remains to this day a touchstone of perfect pop songwriting.
3. Be specific!
A great way to make a pop song memorable is to include enough specific details to draw your listener into your world. Would John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” be remembered as fondly by its fans if there weren’t specific references throughout the song? Any song can dig its way into the head with a catchy melody, but adding specificity to the lyrics can develop a song from “good” to “iconic.”
One of the standouts of the ’90s in this regard would have to be Ben Folds’ “Brick.” Piano and vocals are the entire backbone of this song, and the lyrics (which tell of Folds’ teenage trip with a girlfriend to get an abortion they both later regretted) are relatable because we know from the outset that Folds is telling us something he’s experienced. “Weeks went by, they showed that she was not fine,” he sings. “They told me, ‘Son, it’s time to tell the truth.’ She broke down, and I broke down – I was tired of lying.” Few would have predicted that a song about such a controversial subject would have given Folds his biggest hit, but his ability to relate truth to his fans in a way they could identify with was his touchstone. It also makes “Brick” an example of incredibly elemental songcraft.
2. Don’t be afraid to play with dynamics.
One problem with a great deal of today’s music is a result of the production phase. We tend to push our volume all the way to the top while at the same time compressing the recordings down to the point where there are neither highs nor lows. Some of the best songs of the ’70s gave bands a chance to build a pop song organically, featuring lows, highs, and everything in between.
“The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac is a perfect example; opening with Mick Fleetwood’s quarter-note bass drum thumps and Lindsey Buckingham’s bare guitar picking, the song builds through the first verse with layered vocals, hitting at the chorus with the song’s hook … only to then fade back to bare guitar and the steady backbeat. By the time you reach the end of the guitar solo and freeform jam to hear the band singing the mantra “Chain … keep us together!” the song has made its mark, paying dividends to listeners with patience. The song is all about the rises and falls, the building and the fade. In the end the band had a truly anthemic song which defined their aesthetic. It also helped to push Rumors to become the biggest-selling pop album of all time, for what it’s worth.
1. Strip it down to the essentials.
One of the hardest things about writing a great pop song is knowing what to strip away so the song stands on its own. Imogen Heap got help from a TV show giving her song “Hide and Seek” extra exposure, but the song’s bare acapella vocals, shifted through heavy use of AutoTune, make the vocals stand out right at the forefront; the song’s hook stands on its raw nakedness, sinking or swimming based solely on the quality of the hook itself. Whether the song would have stood out as much with a traditional full-band arrangement is a matter for debate. But in its stark vocals-only arrangement Heap is able to showcase how strong the melody is, a big reason why it’s become an indelible example of early 2000’s pop.
Our Lady Peace’s 1997 hit “4 AM” similarly relies on the strength of its vocal melody, with verses almost as compulsively singable as the hook of its chorus. It also plays with shifting dynamics, building from guitar and vocals in the first verse, adding power via drums and the rising tide of Raine Maida’s strained vocals, giving the song a tense feel which fit its subject matter.