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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Whoa, man

I heard a song on the radio. I think it goes something like:

Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhhh!”

It’s a really great, sticky melody and the production really makes the track shine. No, it isn’t “Good Time” by Owl City. No, I’m not talking about Sam Smith’s epic melisma showcase in “Stay With Me’s” bridge. No, the riff to “Seven Nation Army” isn’t even actually sung in The White Stripes’ original recording. People do that because, I don’t know, sports make them do it!

To be honest, what song it was is a riddle with no answer. Songwriters, from behind-the-scenes, filthy-rich hitmakers to the SoundCloud free music sharer, all have access to the holy grail of catchiness: the much sought-after long “O” sound. I think of it as the monosodium glutamate, or MSG, of the music world; sprinklings of it here and there might make food tasty, but overload will surely kill you. “Ohs,” just like MSG crystals, are shortcuts to adding real substance.

Let’s sample American Authors’ hit “The Best Day of My Life.” Besides the song’s basic two-chord formula, and the forced use of varied, but not necessarily creative, instrumentation, the song thrives on forcing two songwriting schemes together. About two-thirds of the song’s lyrics are hallucinogenic verses and a repetitive affirmation that, for frontman Zac Barnett, it will, indeed, be the best day of his life. The last third consists of “Whoa” and “Oh.” One-third. About every eight seconds you’re hearing “Whoa” and/or “Oh.” Out of 338 words, 114 of them are “Whoa,” “Oh,” or “Woo.” Despite these heinous songwriting crimes, “The Best Day of My Life” pierced the top 10 of Billboard’s many subcharts, and made 11th place on Billboard’s coveted Hot 100. A successful song ridden with all sorts of unoriginal aural cliches? Song authoring doesn’t get any more American than that.

New Zealander Lorde’s “Bravado” was the song that convinced me that her middle-finger-to-pop-culture way of thinking was completely genuine, and not a facade contrived by her co-writer and producer, Joel Little. In it, she sings about the fact that she sometimes resents being in the spotlight because of her introverted personality, and her voice springs to a tortured falsetto during its confessional verses. The chorus is a heartbreaking revelation that she would rather have a pleased, screaming audience than an empty room, singing to herself. Then she slugged me with this lyrical letdown:

“I want the applause, the approval, the things that make me go, ‘Oh, whoa-oh, whoa-oh-oh-oh…’”

What?! What things make someone go “Whoa-oh?” When someone makes a mindblowing connection in literature class, it makes me go, “Whoa!” Is Lorde singing about English majors wetting their pants in insightfulness? Who knows, with how vague she is being. All sorts of things make me, you, and Lorde go, “Whoa.”

And then I realized that Lorde singing those non-words and attaching them to a catchy melody is the key to gaining the applause and approval that she needs to survive in pop music.

What exactly is it about “Oh” that makes fans scream for more? Singing it makes belting easier, and in that syllable lies a communal energy that seems to transcend lyricism. In a large group, singing “Oh” at the top of your voice can provide a visceral thrill that singing words can’t match. The most magical concert moment I’ve had was singing the “Oh”-heavy refrain to Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” with hundreds of other fans. Even my friend who hardly knew Arcade Fire sang along; it was his first time hearing the song. The fearlessness involved with joining others in singing “Oh” can make you a part of something larger than yourself.

So naturally, transcendent experiences like those are bastardized in the name of pop music profit. “Oh,” something so potentially powerful and larger-than-life, is rendered cheap, catchiness bait. Don’t bite down so easily when there isn’t much to chew on. Demand something more substantial.

 

For oh oh oh oh whoa oh oh whoa-oh oh oh, contact STEVEN ILAGAN at smilagan@ucdavis.edu.

 

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