Reverse-engineering Top 40 Song Lyrics

“Did you write a top-40 song?”

“No.”

“So why are you writing about writing a top-40 song?”

I have no idea if anything that follows is a recipe for popular music. What I do know is that you can analyze and reverse-engineer common elements to top-40 songs, which I’ve done here. (I chose “reverse-engineering” over “how to write” for the reason that I am not a fabulous megastar songwriter.) With this in mind, I’ve observed that Top-40 music consistently contains one or more of these following rhetorical traits:

Broadness

specific: Breakup due to lawsuit

broader: Breakup due to financial trouble

really broad: Breakup in general

Not everyone has experienced a breakup due to financial trouble and even less have experienced a breakup due to a lawsuit, but a majority of people have experienced a breakup in the general sense. The lion’s share of popular songs have lyrics broad enough to cover common experiences: going out, falling in love, making friends, whatever. Some have very specific experiences, such as “Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem and Rihanna, but the chorus describing those experiences is vague and the lyrics supplementing those experiences are vague as well. Legions of women have posted “I love the way you lie…” as their facebook statuses, even though the lies they’re talking about probably have nothing to do with domestic abuse.

Most popular songs are chorus-centric, in the sense that listeners recall the chorus and nothing else and that songwriters usually name the song after the chorus for this reason. The verses dividing the chorus from the beginning are less “parts people remember in addition to the chorus” and more “chorus-foreplay.” “Hello” by Karmin is a good example of this kind of song: the chorus is literally just “hello” repeated, and that’s exactly what most people are going to hear from it.

Interestingly, nerdcore rap sets out to do the opposite of this: rap about hilariously specific experiences that only nerds have, like experiencing spoilers on the internet.

Everyday Triggers

Why was Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” so popular?

Sure, in part it’s because the chorus was easy to remember and because a lot of people can relate to being in hot rooms, I guess. But the other part is because the lyrics contained everyday triggers: a lot of people will say “it’s hot in here” when they want someone to make the room’s temperature colder by way of thermostat. This is a common, everyday saying, and one that Nelly capitalized on, because people who have heard the song respond to the complaint in their head with “…so take off all your clothes.” This phenomenon was even mentioned on reddit: “To this day when someone says “It’s getting hot in here”, I immediately think “So take off all your clothes”. What pop culture fads do you fear you will never be rid of?

Other everyday triggers in lyrics: “Stop (hammertime)” “Hey now (you’re an all-star)” “Wake up in the morning (feeling like P. Diddy)”

The principle of making your chorus an everyday trigger doesn’t seem to be passed down to music-writing teachers, probably because music-writers are optimistic about the depth of their own musical talent. “How to Write a Hit Song” (p. 43) contains this line: “there is a trick to telling whether the melody is a hit.” This is optimistic because it assumes a lyric’s chorus needs to have a melody in the first place. The chorus of “Shots” by LMFAO and Lil’ Jon is devoid of melody — if you translated its chorus to a piano, it would be one note — yet this is a song which has Top-40 airplay, so by the mere existence of its position the book must have missed something: whenever anyone is at a party and says “shots”, the chorus of LMFAO’s “Shots” is the first thing that they think of.

And by the way, “LMFAO” is itself an everyday trigger. Because I now cannot type that in Facebook chat without thinking of the band. (As absurd as it would be, “brb food” might be a good band name.)

Important clarification, though: this only seems to work if it’s the FIRST part of a chorus or lyric that can be recalled. “Take off all your clothes” (to the extent people say this) does not follow with “it’s getting hot in here” in the same fashion. This probably has something to do with the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon whereby someone can remember the first letter but nothing else.

Out-of-contextability

I had a girlfriend who could not understand why I listened to “Ridin Solo’” by Jason DeRulo even though the song is about the virtues of being single.

Correction: the rest of the song is about being single. The chorus doesn’t even hint at that and you can listen to the chorus by itself and hardly know the difference:

I’m putting on my Shades to cover up my eyes,
I’m jumpin in my ride, I’m heading out tonight,
I’m solo, I’m riding solo, I’m riding solo, I’m riding solo, sooloooo.

I’m feeling like a star, you can’t stop my shine, I’m loving cloud nine, my head’s in the sky.
I’m solo, I’m riding solo, I’m riding solo, I’m riding solo, sooloooo.
I’m riding solo, I’m riding solo, sooloooowoooo.

The superficial relevance of a chorus to a situation is all it takes for a movie or TV show producer to use the song in a scene, and MTV Cribs was replete with examples of song choruses being taken out of context. A person has a cowboy hat and Kid Rock’s “cowboy” is played; a person shows off their miniature toy collection and Blink 182′s “All the Small Things” comes on. If it existed today, any time the owner of the crib in question went to a newborn’s bedroom, Justin Bieber’s “Baby” would play despite the song having nothing to do with actual babies.

The ability to take a song out of context is useful for its success, because that increases the number of situations in which the song can be referenced, which increases the number of times people will hear it in their heads and eventually feel the need to buy the song. Top 40 songs don’t even really have to be about anything; being about something specific is probably bad for success anyway, since that would make a song less broad and broadness is helpful.

Bonus: Virality

The former three devices have one aspect in common: they are factors which influence how often a song is recognized or remembered. Virality doesn’t have anything to do with song lyrics, but it’s a theme that can be used in song lyrics. For example:

PSY – Gangnam Style

The Lonely Island – Like A Boss

Virality in music usually means:

  • a music video demonstrating an extreme of human behavior; it is aggressively distinct
  • a song with a dance attached to it

A song is rarely viral outside of an accompanying music video. If the song depends entirely on its virality, though, its aggressively unfamiliarity will eventually break and the various media surrounding the song will be the stuff of reddit’s “cringe” section. Witness: the Glee rendition of Gangnam style, which is proof this song has become Macarena for the 2000′s generation:

The Lonely Island tried to do this with “Creep” — and, to be fair, they did get 70 million views — but they did not experience the same success in part due to how difficult to memorize the chorus’s song lyrics were.

There are a lot of factors to creating popular song lyrics that I have not mentioned, which is probably a good thing for song producers since the job can’t be that simple. One of which, just mentioned implicitly, is the need for songs to have easily-remembered lyrics. But when I once posed “out-of-contextability” to a music producer he acted like I had just revealed a masterful secret, which leads me to believe a lot of people don’t notice these things and considering them is a worthwhile exercise.

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