Skip the Cho­rus

In the age of stream­ing and shar­ing, old for­mu­las for what makes a hit are fad­ing away

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Tariq Hus­sain

Old for­mu­las for what makes a pop hit are fad­ing away

One fall af­ter­noon, my friend Jus­tice and I met up in a park near my apart­ment in East Van­cou­ver for a song­writ­ing ses­sion. We’d both been lis­ten­ing to Bon Iver’s al­bum 22, A Mil­lion, a col­lec­tion of songs with ab­stract, of­ten dis­torted, lyrics and fre­quently with­out tra­di­tional verse/cho­rus struc­tures. Here’s the verse, now the cho­rus, maybe a bridge — so much pop­u­lar music of the last cen­tury has had these fa­mil­iar sign­posts. On this al­bum, it’s the lay­ers of sonic tex­tures — syn­the­siz­ers, sax­o­phones, af­fected vo­cals — that draw you in. Bon Iver is not alone in this; off the top of my head, I could name a num­ber of cho­rus­less songs by other in­flu­en­tial artists, such as Fa­ther John Misty’s “I’m Writ­ing a Novel,” or Suf­jan Stevens’s “Death with Dig­nity.” My friend and I were so fired up about the con­ver­sa­tion that day that I got to think­ing, Is the cho­rus dead?

On main­stream ra­dio, for as long as I’ve been alive, the cho­rus has reigned supreme. My in­tro­duc­tion to Western pop music was via a pocket-sized ra­dio I had in the 1970s and 1980s that churned out three-and-half-minute songs with sim­ple, catchy cho­ruses I could learn in a sin­gle play. Later, when I started writ­ing my own music, I ad­hered to the fa­mil­iar for­mula. Cho­ruses are ra­diofriendly—a sonic marker in an era where some lis­ten­ers flip “ev­ery fif­teen sec­onds,” ac­cord­ing to an ex­ec­u­tive I talked to — so it makes sense that mu­si­cians would try to write for that for­mat. If you’re a song­writer, you’ve prob­a­bly heard the ex­pres­sion “don’t bore us, get to the cho­rus” (also the name of a 1995 great­est-hits col­lec­tion by Rox­ette), and I agree that it’s an ef­fec­tive ap­proach to song­writ­ing.

Take one of the last cen­tury’s most in­stantly rec­og­niz­able songs, “She Loves You” by the Bea­tles. It ac­tu­ally starts with its cho­rus (“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah”). So do a host of other hits, lead­ing right up to Drake’s Grammy-win­ning 2015 sin­gle “Hot­line Bling.” While it’s more com­mon to build to the pay­off than to give it away off the top, the door-to-door jour­ney from verse to cho­rus is pretty short in main­stream music. Scroll through the top played pop songs on Spo­tify and you’ll find plenty of ex­am­ples that mimic the verse/ cho­rus for­mat, and usu­ally, the cho­rus comes be­fore the one-minute mark. Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” for in­stance, ar­guably has three cho­rus el­e­ments: the first comes in at twenty-nine sec­onds with the line, “Girl, you know I want your love,” the sec­ond soon af­ter with “I’m in love with the shape of you,” and the third when he sings, “I’m in love with your body.” Clearly, you can’t have too much of a good thing when it comes to the year’s most pop­u­lar song.

For all their im­por­tance, good cho­ruses can be hard to write. I usu­ally find that verse ideas come to me more eas­ily, so it of­ten takes a few weeks, and a lot of trial and er­ror, to fin­ish a song. Get­ting the cho­rus down means first ask­ing your­self a num­ber of im­por­tant ques­tions: Should the cho­rus be one word or a sin­gle line? Two lines or four? Should it be a ques­tion (Tina Turner: “What’s love got to do, got to do with it?”) or a state­ment (Katy Perry: “You’re gonna hear me roar”)? In the lyric-writ­ing classes I teach in the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia’s cre­ative-writ­ing pro­gram, I start stu­dents off by break­ing down the com­po­nents of a song. The cho­rus, I’ll sug­gest, is where you can ex­press the main idea. At this point, I usu­ally play them Queen’s “We Are the Cham­pi­ons” as an ex­am­ple of an an­themic cho­rus. It’s no­table for the way the melody rises, the way Freddy Mer­cury lingers on the words as he sings, “We are the cham­pi­ons, my friends, and we’ll keep on fight­ing till the end.” Then there’s the rep­e­ti­tion

of the word cham­pi­ons four times in one cho­rus. You can’t help but sing along with him — and as you do, you’re declar­ing your­self to be a cham­pion too.

But I also sug­gest that songs don’t have to have big cho­ruses that oc­cur in pre­dictable spots. De­lay­ing the cho­rus can be a com­pelling way to sub­vert lis­tener ex­pec­ta­tions. The ti­tle track from Feist’s re­cent Plea­sure holds off on re­veal­ing the first cho­rus un­til a minute and a half has passed. A way of de­lay­ing our plea­sure, per­haps, of mak­ing it more de­li­cious when the word is fi­nally sung. Or you might skip the cho­rus al­to­gether. Take Ra­dio­head’s al­bum A Moon Shaped Pool. The sec­ond sin­gle from this al­bum is a six-and-a-half-minute song called “Day­dream­ing,” which, de­spite the use of lyri­cal rep­e­ti­tion and a repet­i­tive mu­si­cal form verse to verse, con­tains no for­mal cho­rus that I can dis­cern. It’s ex­actly the kind of less-pre­dictable song fans have come to love and ex­pect from Ra­dio­head. You could ar­gue that Ra­dio­head en­joys a cer­tain stylis­tic free­dom be­cause of its ra­dio suc­cess in the nineties with “Creep,” a rather straight­for­ward, guitar-driven rock song with con­ven­tional struc­ture. Had it not been for “Creep,” per­haps Ra­dio­head wouldn’t be as big a band to­day.

Or per­haps it would. Luck­ily for a lot of song­writ­ers and record­ing artists, main­stream ra­dio play isn’t the only way to build and main­tain a fan base any­more. You might not achieve global suc­cess through DIY meth­ods (in spite of the dis­tant prom­ise of Youtube fame), but it’s a way to make music out­side tra­di­tional cre­ative stric­tures. The use of home com­put­ers has changed how music is pro­duced and shared, but it’s also changed the way song­writ­ers think about com­po­si­tion. Now, in­stead of writ­ing on an in­stru­ment, you can record bits of au­dio right into your com­puter and then start ma­nip­u­lat­ing these bits, adding and sub­tract­ing in­stru­ments and ef­fects, copy­ing and past­ing, and so on. Us­ing a pro­gram, such as Able­ton Live or Ap­ple’s Logic Pro X, also means that pro­duc­tion el­e­ments can be in­te­grated into the song in real time so that you start to hear what your song is ac­tu­ally go­ing to sound like on your lap­top — you don’t have to wait to go into the stu­dio to get the big picture. That is what the songs on 22, Amil­lion sound like: as if they had been com­posed with an over-arch­ing au­dio picture in mind from the start, rather than in some­one’s kitchen or on a park bench, with an acous­tic guitar.

With this ap­proach, a song­writer can rely less on the lyrics to com­mu­ni­cate the song’s mes­sage and can al­low sound to do the work. That elec­tronic drum­beat, those vo­cals res­onat­ing through re­verb and de­lay ef­fects, that weird lit­tle synth swirl — all that sonic in­trigue can move the lis­tener as much as a cho­rus can, so why not con­sider it part of the writ­ing process? If you can cre­ate some­thing son­i­cally in­ter­est­ing, maybe there is less pres­sure to write a for­mu­laic song.

Wes marskell of the Dar­cys finds him­self guess­ing on a reg­u­lar ba­sis what the pop-music in­dus­try wants. “I think that writ­ing a song with a big melody and a cho­rus is sort of less the in­ten­tion of the song­writ­ing ma­chine,” he tells me. “They’re look­ing more for the unique­ness in the pro­duc­tion, and I think that’s what be­comes a big part of what they now con­sider a cho­rus.” In other words, a fivesec­ond hook or au­dio sig­na­ture could be what sells a song. Re­mem­ber that, back in 1998, Cher used an auto-tune effect to add sonic siz­zle to her voice on her song “Be­lieve” — it’s pretty hard now to have a dis­cus­sion about that song with­out men­tion­ing the way it was made.

Be­cause of my own for­mal foun­da­tion in song­writ­ing — nights in the base­ment with a guitar, wood­shed­ding on Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” — when a song bends form, I no­tice right away. I won­der if younger song­writ­ers no­tice as much. Maybe they just think it’s nor­mal. The fact that I’m notic­ing so many songs push­ing the form now might also come from the fact that I’m seek­ing out this ma­te­rial as a way of in­form­ing my own craft. Or it may also be that, like ev­ery­one else, I have ac­cess to more music than ever be­fore — via stream­ing sites, Youtube, and down­loads. When some­one tells me I should re­ally hear a new al­bum, I just add it to my playlist. What used to be called “al­ter­na­tive” is no longer as hard to dis­cover; one can get mu­si­cally ed­u­cated pretty quickly with a monthly sub­scrip­tion to a stream­ing ser­vice.

When I asked James Sut­ton, music di­rec­tor at The Peak, a mod­ern-rock sta­tion in Van­cou­ver, what he thought about the new main­stream­ing of cho­rus­less songs, he brought up “Avant Gar­dener” by Aus­tralian song­writer Court­ney Bar­nett as an ex­am­ple of one that’s done well on­air. The song is lyri­cally dense, it clocks in at over five min­utes, and it has no real cho­rus, apart from a few pock­ets of re­peated lines. Still, Sut­ton agrees that Bar­nett’s song is some­what of an out­lier. Most of the songs on main­stream ra­dio re­main more like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.”

Per­son­ally, I love and re­spect that great com­bi­na­tion of words and melody that will stop you in your tracks, hook you, and make you want to sing along. I can’t imag­ine a world with­out tra­di­tional verse/ cho­rus songs, though my gut tells me that ex­per­i­ment­ing with form and struc­ture is a pow­er­ful way to push the lim­its of pop. And as more song­writ­ers try new ap­proaches — whether be­cause of ad­vances in record­ing tech­nol­ogy, cu­rios­ity, or just plain bore­dom — the more lis­ten­ers will open up to new sounds and ap­proaches. The best ar­gu­ment I can think of for bust­ing up the tra­di­tional song struc­ture is the effect it can have on music. It might not be that the cho­rus is dead so much as that it’s not the only way to make music that will suc­ceed.

I’m happy to re­port that Jus­tice and I left the park with a rough sketch of an idea. I have a record­ing of it on my phone, and I’ve lis­tened to it a few times. It’s me singing a bunch of non­sense place­holder words over Jus­tice’s guitar chords mixed with traf­fic sounds off Kingsway in the back­ground. I haven’t shaped it into an ac­tual song yet, but I think it has potential. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll get lucky and write one of those songs with a big catchy cho­rus that gets pop­u­lar and rock­ets up the charts. Ask me how I feel about cho­ruses then. I’ll be pool­side and I just might have more to say.

Luck­ily for a lot of song­writ­ers and record­ing artists, main­stream ra­dio play isn’t the only way to build and main­tain a fan base any­more.

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