Everyone who knows me knows I’m a big fan of “hooks.” No, I’m not talking about women with hooks for hands, although they’re pretty nifty too. What I’m actually talking about are “hooks” in popular music. That is, short, usually recurring, motifs/riffs/patterns which draw the listener in with “catchiness,” memorability, novelty, and/or simplicity. (I refuse to call songs with a lot of hooks “ear candy,” by the way. It sounds too much like empty calories, and a song doesn’t have to be “empty” just because it has hooks.)
Beneath the hooks, I like there to be hidden layers of depth. Not heavy-handed depth, mind you, but something of substance (musically or lyrically) that brings me back to the song for more than one or two listens. It’s rather easy for a band with a mild degree of competence and craft to front-load their songs with potent hooks, but creating a catchy song that’s rich enough and layered enough to reward hundreds of replays is much harder to do.
I guess you can think of a good song like a good date: The fun and excitement (the hooks) get you interested in the first place, and the substance keeps you coming back for more.
When I write my own songs, I think the same way. After all, who the hell gives a crap what I have to say? Ninety percent of you probably already stopped reading this article when my hook joke in the first paragraph bombed. There’s gotta be something in it for people. People don’t “owe” me their undivided attention. So, I try to include hooks in my songs so they’ll care enough to investigate the “meaning” underneath. That way, everybody wins. I’ve communicated something I care about, and the listener (hopefully) gets their ears AND mind aroused.
As a result of this philosophy, I have very little tolerance for songwriters who don’t bother to try and entice the listener. Or worse, don’t know how to, so they obfuscate matters by throwing in any one or more of the following: unwieldy lyrics, overly slick production, overly stripped-down production, meandering melodies, pointless solos, crazy sound effects, and/or pretentious, “progressive” chords.
I don’t care how “avant-garde” you’re supposed to be. Unless you’re talking about free form jazz, I shouldn’t be listening to a song for 3 minutes and then asking, “Where the hell is this thing GOING?” which unfortunately happens with alarming frequency. The answer to “where it’s going” is simple: It’s going straight into the used-bin at the local pretentious indie record store. You know, the one that told me how great this song and album were two years ago, but strangely can't move any of the 587 used copies they're selling for a buck a pop this week.
A lot of songwriters think their “message” or their “depth” or their “innovation” will carry the day. Look, if your “message” is that powerful on its own, go write a book or something. Otherwise, put a damn hook in the song.
I’m also NOT saying every song has to be 3:20 long, packed with hooks like stuffing in a Christmas turkey, and arranged in a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. Some of my favorite songs of all time build gradually and reveal their mysteries over an extended period of time. I also demand a good deal of originality in presentation. But Krist, you need to give me something to grab onto, something to pique my interest, SOMETHING that makes me want to keep listening. 8 minutes of some overly-pale “alt rocker” plinking away at random notes on his new Steinway as a metaphor for his ambivalence about a post-modern universe ain’t cutting it anymore. It was nice at one time, but not anymore.
The bottom line is, I don’t want to hear some guy who sounds like he can barely be bothered waking up to sing his own song trotting out whiny, ponderous lyrics about old cars or weather-beaten barns or shadows that stretch like bony fingers or some such horseradish. Wow, man, you're so "real" and "human" and "rootsy" and "daring."
Screw that; just give me a hook, damn it!