What Makes a Great Hit Song part 4

Posted: August 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

And finally…

  1. Credibility/Authenticity
  2. you know how you can tell that the Glee version of a song is not the original? It’s not believable. It may be well performed and have very clean and precise production but it lacks authenticity. And, to be fair, that’s not what Glee is about.

    Two cover versions that I will mention later, ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash and ‘Your Song’ by Ellie Goulding could easily have been the original performances. Sometimes you need to add a bit of grit to a performance or recording. Add something that is less than perfect but has humanness. The current crop of megastar pop singers from Lady Gaga to Katy Perry to Miley Cyrus all have character in their voices that can’t be faked easily. Listen to the way Miley Cyrus goes into the chorus of ‘Wrecking Ball’. That is a great vocal performance and you believe her when she sings it. Same with Sia singing the chorus of ‘Chandelier’.

    As I may have said before, pop music should be treated with the same respect as any other underground, authentic, credible music genre. Good pop music isn’t twee or bland. It should have character and personality and it should be defiant (albeit with a great chorus and a high standard of production). So, if you are going to write a great pop song, look to what credible influences you can incorporate. What styles are emerging from the underground? How can you fuse the sounds from those genres into a pop framework?

        1. Good Lyrics – this is a bit of a subjective one in some ways and, I suppose, a bit obvious. If you have good music and good lyrics, you’ve got a good song. Fair enough. However, what makes a good lyric is a different matter and opinions will vary. Lemmy of Motorhead (amongst many others) believes that rock lyrics shouldn’t be analysed; they should just sound good. John Lennon, who was widely regarded as one of the great pop lyricists, was an admirer of lyrics like ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’. And I would agree with both of them to an extent. What a great phrase ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula’ is, just like ‘Betcha Golly Wow’ or even ‘zig-a-zig-ah!’ Also, some of the things Lemmy has written are absolutely fantastic, they just don’t necessarily make sense. Take this from ‘Eat the Rich’:

    Get a sweet thing on the side,
    Home cooking, homicide,
    Side order, could be your daughter,
    Finger licking good…

    Or, ‘If you squeeze my lizard, I’ll put my snake on you…’ from Killed By Death or ‘I don’t know what I did last night but I sure did it good…’ from ‘Do You Believe’.

    These lyrics may not mean a whole lot on the surface (or even way below the surface) but they are evocative and they’re not obvious clichés and they set up a mood.

    If this is a rallying call or an anthem, you may want to give fairly direct instructions with your lyrics and include words like ‘shout’, ‘fight’, ‘dance’, ‘sing’ or whatever. Making that kind of song overly wordy will not help it – especially in a chorus. However, if it’s a different type of song there are a few techniques you can use:

        • Use the senses – describe what you see, smell, taste, hear, touch and what you feel. The more specific you are, the better usually. Amy Winehouse could have said, ‘sniffed me out like I was booze’ but she said ‘Tanqueray’. It becomes a much more specific and vivid picture.
        • Give a sense of time and place – that could be time of life or time of the day; it could be a particular city or a room in the house
        • Add a sense of movement and action – it will make the song feel less static and give a sense of development. Also, if you use words like ‘sinking’ or ‘floating’, you can almost feel the sensation of that.
        • Alliteration – starting consecutive words with the same sound can make phrases more memorable
        • Use metaphors, similes and personification – can be interesting when describing abstract nouns. For example: if fear was a colour, what colour would it be; what would it drink; what would it whisper in your ear; what would it do with its hands; what would it taste like?
        • If you’re describing a character, ask the same sort of questions: what would they wear; what colour would the sky be when they were near; how would they dress; what would they do with their hands etc.?

    Take this verse from ‘Forget Myself’ by Elbow.

    Shop shutters rattle down and I’m cutting the crowd
    All scented and descending from the satellite towns
    The neon is graffiti singing make a new start
    So I look for a plot where I can bury my broken heart

    In just four lines, he uses alliteration (‘shop shutters’, ‘cutting the crowd’ etc.), hearing (‘singing’, ‘rattle down’), seeing (the neon signs, the crowd…), smelling (‘all scented’), a sense of movement and action (‘rattle’, ‘cutting’, ‘descending’, ‘bury’), personification and metaphor (‘the neon is graffiti singing’). This all makes this a very vivid verse (alliteration – go me).

    10. Sex – being sexy isn’t about getting your bits out in a music video or pouting or singing rude lyrics. It’s about being comfortable and natural in what you are trying to portray. It’s a kind of confidence but it may also be a kind of fragility. A gentle whisper can be as sexy as a funky groove but one is intimate and one is overt. Decide on what is right for the song and execute it as if it were the only way that song could be performed.

    So, if the song is about intimate things; if it is a conversation or a message to someone in particular, make it more intimate and draw the listener in. If the song is more of an outward expression of emotion to the world at large then you must project outwardly. And this isn’t necessarily just the job of the singer.

    A good example is ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder. The bass line hits beats one and three of every bar with the kick. It could have just as easily duplicated the main riff or played on every quaver (eighth note) but it is far more potent doing what it does. It adds to the groove and draws attention to the snare by not playing on beats two and four so each beat of the bar thrusts outward.

    ‘Hurt’ as performed by Johnny Cash is equally as sexy and he was 70 and dying but his voice was deep and rich, yet fragile and intimate and the simple arrangement drew the listener in close, like Ellie Goulding’s version of ‘Your Song’. You want the right sex for the song.


    Well, there it is. It took me hours to write and it’s probably all nonsense but there might be something there that inspires you. Let me know what you think. Or don’t. Whatever. Just leave me here in this windowless void not knowing whether anyone’s paying attention. In some ways, I hope you aren’t. Then when I grow up and read this again, I can delete it and no one will know it ever existed.


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