Friday 11 July 2014

What makes Mariah Carey so catchy

Arcade Fire violinist and Oscar-nominated arranger Owen Pallett dissects two current tracks to see what makes an earworm

The most frustratingly oblique device in pop criticism: "packed with hooks", "it's an earworm", "so very catchy" and so on. No music writer is without guilt. It is a vivid metaphor: the listener is a fish, the melody a snare. But it's so frustratingly unspecific. What exactly makes one song hooky, and another not?

Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe is widely regarded as the catchiest catch of the last five years. To my ears, it's all about the chorus - the arching pause on the ache of the "craaaazy" and "baaaaby", slipping into the perfunctory, coquettish "Here's my number, so call me maybe." There is nothing more arresting than the tease of a "maybe". This tease is in the musical material as well; the song fidgets and never sits still. Like Katy Perry's Teenage Dream, Call Me Maybe's chorus avoids any proper conclusion to the tonic chord of the song. Big major-key string glissandos plummet always to a deception. "One" or "root" chords appear only in passing. There's rhythmic deception in this chorus, too, as the voice and strings scarcely ever alight on the downbeat. Only at the beginning of each phrase do the strings synchronise with the kick and put your ear in its place - rhythmically, it's like a trampoline flip that lasts eight bars.

Let's get up to date and talk about the new Mariah Carey single. The truth about Mariah is this: her upper register is the musical equivalent of black truffle. You could shave it on to any shit and we'll still order it. It can bear aloft even the most uneventful material, but her new single, You Don't Know What To Do, is a proper tune. This song has the makings of a hit, from the Donna Summer-y intro, the bold melisma... even guest rapper Wale sounds like he's having "just enough" fun, instead of his customary "too much". Most of all: this song has a great hook.

First, the chorus has a surprise incongruity, just like Carly's "crazy"/"maybe" rhyme: Mariah's swallowing of the word "what". "Know what" is compressed into a single diphthong - "you don't know what to do". Mariah punches that phrase in the sternum every time it tries to escape her lips. Were it not the title of the song, would we even know what she was saying?

Second - and this is tougher to describe - but the quality of a good hook is often not measured in a melody's intrinsic features, but the context in which it appears. A terrifically catchy melody like Ylvis's The Fox could become fatally annoying, if not given an effective foil, a counterweight. The repeated "You don't know what to do", taken on its own, is about as pleasant as a car alarm. But balanced with the dextrous, low-register second stanza - "First you want to leave, then you never go" - that car alarm becomes dancefloor singalong perfection.

(The Guardian)

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