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February 5, 2014

Keep on the Sunny Side

More hooks than a pirate in a smokehouse

I was talking with one of my very smart friends the other night. The band was pretty loud, so, at first, I couldn’t quite follow what he was saying.

“What’s so hard about karaoke?”

We had been talking about the odd new direction my songwriting had taken. I recently decided (following the advice of another one of my smart friends) to try and write the kind of songs people actually like to hear! It seemed like a pretty good idea, but it was clearly going to require some research on my part.

“What’s so hard about karaoke?” my friend repeated his question.

“I don’t really know,” I said. Then I launched into a long, sad story about trying to sing “Rainy Days and Mondays” in a really grim Dallas Holiday Inn lounge. I couldn’t believe how many words that song had. The key modulates at least twice.

“It’s the verses. That’s what’s so hard,” my friend interrupted. “No one ever knows all the words to the verses! You can write whatever you want. It doesn’t matter. If you have to go off about your political agenda, do it during the verse. No one cares!”

He was right, of course. It’s all about the hook. That’s what makes “Barracuda” by Heart such a karaoke minefield. Dang, I thought I knew how that song went. Dum-duh-duh-dum-duh-duh-dum-duh-duh-duh-duh, Barracuda, right? Then the verse ‘Sell me, sell you,’ the porpoise said / Dive down deep to save my head flashed across the screen and I was totally lost. If I ever express any desire to do karaoke again, I should be sent home in a cab immediately.

The fact that no one really cares about a song’s verses was beautifully illustrated when John McCain chose John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” for his campaign song. The chorus seems cheerful enough and has the word “America” in it three times! Too bad about this verse: There’s a woman in the kitchen, cleanin’ up the evenin’ slop / and he looks at her and says, ‘Hey darlin’, I can remember when / you could stop a clock.’ Sorry about that, Cindy. Oh well, Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan both used “Born in the USA” for their campaigns. The second verse ends with this line: Sent me off to a foreign land / to go and kill the yellow man.

My research into the essence of the popular song was underway.

It’s all about the hook and the chorus. A hypnotic, repetitive chorus frequently repeated is a great idea. Dense, twisted poetry is fine on the verses, but it’s absolutely not necessary. Also, people really like A minor. It’s kind of dramatic. I set to work writing a hook-laden hit with lots of A minors and lots of awesome repetitive stuff.

I was at it all day. Then, suddenly, it all just fell into place. My new tune sounded amazing. I had managed to cram in all the essential popular elements I had isolated, plus copious use of the word “baby.” It sounded like a hit! But the subject matter was rather dark. The song was about someone being tortured and thrown down a well. That was probably a mistake.

I was playing my new song for half an hour before I realized it was actually a Beatles song — a Beatles song with new, terrible lyrics about someone being tortured and thrown down a well.

I don’t really like The Beatles much, so it kind of freaked me out. Then I remembered The Beatles are, in fact, wildly popular! They were known for consistently writing songs people actually like to hear! So, in a way, the experiment was a success. Back to the laboratory ...

Catherine Irwin is cranking out the morbid hits using her newly developed scientific method right here in Louisville. She struggled against writing about either Phil Everly or Pete Seeger, who, sadly, both died since her last column. She wouldn’t know where to begin or where to stop. They were giants. The world is a much sadder place because they are gone and a much happier place because they were here.