January 5, 2023
TikTok. Spotify. YouTube. Pandora. Playlists. Sirius XM. Amazon Alexa. How is a newly-minted senior citizen supposed to know where to find today’s biggest hits? Long ago, before pop music was diced into as many slices and sub-genres as possible, a new hit record was embraced on commercial radio by whole neighborhoods and entire towns, engendering a sort of communal joy. KJR and KZOK in Seattle; WMMR and WYSP in Philadelphia; Capitol Radio in London – those were some of the stations we all listened to in my day, collectively elevating songs like Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” to what felt like immortality. When I was in grad school at the University of Pennsylvania, The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” topped the charts for an entire year. People didn’t so much walk to class as dance across campus. They couldn’t help it because “Stayin’ Alive” seeped out of every open window and every portable transistor radio. Then came Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” and one of my all-time faves, Rick James’ “Give It To Me Baby.” I am nostalgic for that time, when a vacation or an entire summer could be evoked by a single song forever vibrating in one’s memory.
No matter the season, the best hits sneak up on you. Invariably, they first enter your consciousness as a low-volume, incoherent background buzz to some casual meeting or social gathering. But when you leave the event, a snippet of melody or rhythm unexpectedly stays with you, hanging in the air or dimly resonating in the back of your brain. If this happens in June, then by a week into July you have heard the song three or four times at a slightly higher volume. By now you are vaguely aware of its structure or chorus, and the pleasant feeling it conjures. Even so, you think nothing of it. Then, after a few more days, you begin to crave that feeling, the fragment of melody or beat you remember hearing, and for the first time you actively wish to hear the song again. Who sang it? What is it called and who did it? You’re curious, but you can only hope that you’ll hear it again by chance, because even in those days, the FM disk jockeys were notoriously lax about announcing the name of the song they were spinning.
Three weeks later, you go back to where you first heard the song, only this time, your hosts have turned up the volume. At last, you have the opportunity to listen to it actively for the first time. A week after that, it is blasting from the door of every bar and the window of every apartment, and everyone is dancing to it, at home or in the streets. You can’t get enough of it – you have to hear that song again, louder this time. Repetition is the key to its success: we all want it repeated over and over until at long last we tire of it for… a week…until it rises again. In the end, that one hit song becomes forever embedded in those sunlit days and that romance–or hope for romance– that etched the summer in your mind.
Fortunately, this can still happen, as it did for me in the spring and summer of 2022, when Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” burst onto the scene. I couldn’t get enough of it – still can’t. Thank you so much, “Movin’ 92.5” Seattle, in spite of all the other lame songs you play! But it was only a fluke that I heard it the first time and then the second. It received none of the communal radio embrace we could expect in the 1970s or 80s, when all the stations were playing the same stuff and it was good stuff.
I have a keen ear for great melodies and beats, but I can never quite capture the lyrics of a hit. The words always sound garbled to me, making it even more difficult to identify what song to ask Alexa to play. Singing along in the car, who but I would recite the nonsensical syllables, “A Man From Ungar,” when Men at Work released “A Land Down Under?” In my defense, though, whatever happened to the great diction of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Camen McRae? They were arguably the last singers to enunciate precisely.
My inability to distinguish lyrics makes it all the more surprising that I took to Lizzo’s earlier hit, “Good as Hell,” which is more memorable for three spoken lines than for its melody:
“I do my hair toss
Check my nails
Baby how you feelin’?”
So, what is the anatomy of a great hit, the bones they all have in common? I would say that the beat must, must have a strong bass line, and the record has to throb and pulse with every revolution. Rule Number One: If a song does not pulse and spin, it cannot be a hit. This thesis was turned into a manifesto by the band Dead or Alive on their 1985 hit, “You Spin Me Round,” with its Euro-trash chorus,
“You spin me right ’round, baby
Right ’round like a record, baby
Right ’round, ’round, ’round…”
A repeating chorus is another necessary ingredient for hit-making. Of course, repetition was abused in the late ‘70s, when so many records got stuck in the same groove for the entire second half of their air time. It was as if the tunes were waiting for an attentive DJ to come along and give them the proverbial cane, blending them into the next song. In fact, that is exactly what they were designed for: the perfect DJ blend. A good early example of this is Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” in which Diana “got the sweetest hangover” that she didn’t “wanna get over” so many times that the rest of us couldn’t help but catch her headache.
But “Love Hangover” has another useful, though not necessary hit-making ingredient: the unexpected change of tempo from slow to fast. Used all too seldom, this auditory trick, the pop music equivalent of a plot twist, lends “Love Hangover” its excitement. When Diana sings, “If there’s a cure for this/I don’t want it,” she is preparing us for the unexpected frisson of a dramatic tempo change. Kudos to Paul McCartney for using this device so effectively, as he did in two of my favorite songs, “Band on the Run” and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.”
What besides a strong base line, a pulsing groove, repeating chorus, unexpected tempo change, and clever (albeit inaudible) lyric makes a great hit? Only one thing: a hit must excite us. Regardless of the genre, whether it’s hip-hop, rock, R & B, or even country, what we all look for in a hit is excitement. That is the one essential ingredient, without which it is a mere B-track. The more exciting the sound of a song, the greater its hit value. Therefore, I will wrap this up with a shout-out to the song that, for me at least, is the greatest hit of the last decade: Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.” Its massed trumpet fanfares, contrasting with its baritone or base scat vocals, are among the most thrilling sounds I have ever heard. Too bad I only happened on “Uptown Funk” when I was listening to a random Pandora station in my car. It should have been blasting from every doorway on every block at the same moment, accompanied by massing dancing in the streets. “Uptown Funk” was released way back in 2014, but nine years later it still thrills me to the core.