When I was a kid way back in the dim, dark 1960s, I collected radio Top 40 charts obsessively. What struck me then – and still strikes me now (yes, I kept the charts) – was the sheer diversity of songs and artists that made up the Top 40.
My mum was relieved to hear Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Des O'Connor – yep, Des O’Connor – wafting along the airwaves. Meanwhile, that such positively old artists and their crusty songs were allowed to prosper alongside The Beatles, Hendrix and The Doors induced in me the kind of righteous indignation that is the sole preserve of adolescents.
Never mind that I owned a copy of Leapy Lee’s Little Arrows (what was I thinking?), how was it that O’Connor’s One, Two, Three O’Leary shared the charts with Cream’s Crossroads? Tiny Tim’s Great Balls of Fire I could understand, but Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man?
But even I, in my youthful arrogance, recognised there was no sonic or stylistic template that had to be adhered to if a song was to succeed. Of course there are the “that’s right folks, don’t touch that dial” machinations of the broadcasting industry. But overall, the popular music chart featured music that appealed to a wide demographic. It listed music that was, well, popular.
This is dependent on a host of factors – only some of these pertain to the music itself. More important is the way that a song and its performers are managed and marketed. And that in turn depends on aligning the aesthetic preferences of the performers with those of their target audience, and vice versa. To think otherwise is to fail miserably at explaining Joe Dolce’s Shaddap You Face!
Of course, one cannot ignore the power of the music video. What was in the 1960s grainy, in black and white and seldom seen is now in high-definition colour, ubiquitous and an artform in itself – perfected by Beyoncé among countless others. When all of the planets align, one can trace a trajectory from the Monkees through to One Direction.
But serendipity also plays its part in determining hits. The longevity afforded Men At Work’s Down Under by the Australian America’s Cup victory in 1983 was happy coincidence. The global penetration of Elton John’s remake of Candle in the Wind for Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 unhappy circumstance.
The winning formula
The internet is bursting with sites supposedly detailing the secrets to a successful pop song.
Lyrically, use as few words as possible. Always have a memorable/annoying hook. Create interest but don’t confuse. Build to a climax. Keep it below four minutes – two, if you are the Ramones; seven if, like me, you still can’t explain away Hey Jude; four seconds, if you bought Napalm Death’s You Suffer.
Most talk about adhering to the verse-chorus strophic structure, with the bridge approximately two-thirds through the song (the “Golden Section”).
But this fails to account for the more recent phenomenon of “the drop”: that point of efflorescence, about a quarter way into the song, at which all of the sonic elements of the song emerge fully formed – like a massive full stop at the end of the intro.
But someone seems to have failed to alert Skrillex and his imitators to Tchaikovsky’s news.
Lyrics? Something about love, obviously. Song tempo? Well, how long is a piece of string? (Twice the distance from the middle to the end …) While there might be a grain of truth in the supposed appeal of BPMs that resemble pulse rate or walking pace, much depends on the style of the given song.
When all is said and done, the bones of the song have to be strong, ideally strong enough not to rely on the finessing of a George Martin or Quincy Jones. Ten years ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, Richard Jinman wrote of subjecting all 2003 APRA Song of the Year entrants to the “Truly Talentless Singer” test: if a song can survive being mangled by a musical no-hoper then it must be good.
Perhaps. My belief is that a genuinely good hit song retains its appeal when stripped backed to its basic elements and transposed stylistically.
I felt vindicated in this by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s performance of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Outta My Head.
But, really, this is all much ado about nothing when we bear in mind the following, from the authors of the “popular music” entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music (who really should know to express themselves more carefully):
[Popular music is] a term used widely in everyday discourse, generally to refer to types of music that are considered to be of lower value and complexity than art music, and to be readily accessible to large numbers of musically uneducated listeners rather than to an élite.
I get it! So if lower value + ready accessibility + musical ignorance = pop music, then all I have to do to succeed at it and milk the ignoramuses who are apparently my target demographic is to ignore (deep breath) Irving Berlin, The Gershwins, Leiber and Stoller, Bacharach and David, The Beatles, The Stones, Michael Jackson, The Smiths, Radiohead, Björk, PJ Harvey, Gurrumul Yunupingu, Jessica Mauboy, Lorde et al, and create dumb, worthless music. Hey, I can do that!
That reminds me, what ever did happen to my copy of Little Arrows?