Here’s the random topic that’s on my mind today: What is a great hook?
What raised this question in my blogger mind? It first came up when I read Jim Malec’s review of Heidi Newfield’s “Stay Up Late” on American Noise a few months ago, in which he cited Heidi’s hit “Johnny and June” as an example of a song that has a great hook:
““And when you go, I wanna go too/Like Johnny and June” is an enormously simple hook, but Newfield belts it with devastating conviction…. That’s a desire that transcends a piece-by-piece analyses of the lyrics and what they say. That’s what great hooks do—they communicate something beyond just what they mean. “Johnny and June” communicates an essential, fundamental desire—and that makes us want to blast it from our radios for the world to hear. We all want a love like Johnny and June, and when we hear that hook we say, “Yes! That’s me!” It’s not a cerebral thought, but a feeling that comes from a much deeper place.”
Just out of curiosity, I looked up the word “hook” in the dictionary. Besides the obvious literal meaning, the word was defined as “something intended to attract and ensnare,” which is most often how we use the word when discussing popular music. In that sense, a great hook could come in the form of something as simple as a few catchy instrumental chords. But a hook in its most meaningful form is often a simple line in a song that manages to channel thoughts and emotions beyond what the words themselves mean, thus connecting with listeners on a deep level.
The song “Anywhere” from Sara Evans new album Stronger is a foremost example of a song that desperately needs a better hook. The song has its share of weaknesses, suffering from a few cliche lyrics, but I found it was the lack of a great hook that mainly proved to be the song’s downfall, such that even a great voice like Sara’s is unable to save it. The lyrics attempt to convey the joy and excitement of a carefree romance, but the hook “We can go anywhere” means exactly what it says on paper – nothing more and nothing less. Such a hook can only create a black-and-white picture of its theme, without being able to supply color.
An ideal contrasting example is Jo Dee Messina’s beloved hit “Heads Caroline, Tails California,” which deals with the same theme as “Anywhere,” but with a much better title hook. Those ten syllables of the song’s title are enough to say “We can toss a coin to decide where we will travel to. That’s how little I care about our destination, as long as I get to go there with you.” Just like that, the listener is caught up in the scenario. How many country fans would love to have a romance so reckless and carefree that the two lovers would determine their travel destination with a simple flip of a coin? This is a great example of how a strong hook can connect with audiences.
Here are a few more examples of my favorite hooks, with links to the accompanying songs:
Basically, this is my long-winded way of posing a few simple questions: What would you say makes for a great hook? What are some examples of songs with great hooks? What is an example of a weak hook?
Leave a comment below with your answers to any of the above questions. While we’re thinking about this, what say we watch Jo Dee’s “Heads Carolina, Tails California” video? It’s awesome!