Describing melody III: Rufus’s Hooks

January 20, 2006

“A hook is a musical idea, a passage or phrase, that is believed to be catchy and helps the song stand out; it is “meant to catch the ear of the listener” (Covach 2005, p.71). This term generally applies to popular music, especially pop music.” (Wikipedia)

There is a difference between a hook and a riff. Again, quoting the Wikipedia:

“In music, a riff is an ostinato figure: a repeated chord progression, pattern or melodic figure, often played by the rhythm section instruments, that forms the basis or accompaniment of a rock music or jazz composition.”

Ancient Swedish Hook

One of the melodic elements that catches our attention in a song is a hook. We’ll hear a song for the first time, and the second time we hear it, we invariably will sing along with that hook. Some songs have multiple hooks. Sometimes the may appear at the beginning, sometimes they will appear in the middle, and sometimes at the end. Very often, the hook is fused to the title.

I’ll be writing a chapter about Rufus Wainwright’s use of hooks and will use this posting to throw out some initial ideas and will welcome your input.

Rufus’s eponymous (such a good word) album “Rufus Wainwright” as well as his earlier unreleased songs (The Demo Tape) are, by and large, more complex, and less like typical pop songs. There are title hooks as in “Baby” and “Barcelona,” but I listen to the other songs and don’t find blatant hookery going on.

Poses, on the other hand, has more of them. “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” has an opening title hook. The “A little bit…” sequence is a secondary hook. “Poses” and “California” both have title hooks: “all these poses…” and “California, California” the former being an opening hook, and the latter a mid-song hook. I don’t hear blatant hooks in the other songs, but let me know if you disagree.

Want One seems to be full of title hooks: “I Don’t Know What it Is,” “Vicious World,” “Pretty Things,” “Go, or Go Ahead,” “Natasha,” and “Beautiful Child” (…beautiful child, such a beautiful child again”).

Want Two continues in being full of title hooks — not surprising as he wrote all these songs around the same period: “Peach Tree” (“under the peach tree”), “Little Sister,” “Gay Messiah,” “Crumb by Crumb,” and “In With the Ladies.”

I need to point out that there are many melodic hooks that exist in his songs, but as the lyrics change from verse to verse, we are talking about a different kind of animal, one that will be dealt with in a separate chapter/posting. When the lyrics change, we hold onto the melodic hook, but have to endure a lyric change. This is good for “sticking to the subject” but perhaps tricky for everyman.

The image above is a carving of an ancient fishing boat that was found in Bohuslän (West Coast), Sweden. © Copyright 2005. O. Mustad & Son A.S.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

twarner January 19, 2006 at 7:38 pm

Your point, sir, relates to my previous comments about a literary analysis of his lyrics.

In that discipline, we find that the the repetitive refrain of a stanza (the chorus) can carry a meaning apart from the reiterated point. But, because readers tend to skip over chorus (you’ll note that when a songs lyrics appear in text form, the publisher simply writes ‘chorus’ and doesn’t bother type it out) most poetry will not rely upon stanzic repetition. Instead, poetry will depend on echo (repeating a phrase at the end of each stanza and consistent turn of phrase in the form of pun or conceite) or linear repetition (i.e. a rose is a rose is a rose.)

For this reason, Mr. Wainwright’s lyrics tend to lean more towards poetry than lyric. (For contrast, consider “The Zypher Song” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which has a rather beautiful chorus but is repeated 5 times, where as there are only two body stanzas and a bridge… more chorus than song.)

Because Mr. Wainwright understands the utility of both lyric and form (quite obviously), I might propose that you would find that the music is formed by a diliberate non-lyricality and therefore, a hook would intrude upon his deeply nuanced words and poetric phrasology.


Theodore Warner

Roger Bourland January 19, 2006 at 8:24 pm

Good to hear from you TW, excellent points made; will pursue.


Rhapsody January 20, 2006 at 4:20 am

I find more consistency than differences with the hooks in Rufus’ music across all of his albums. Rufus seems to love language and he seems to love playing with language. He frequently amuses himself when he puts together a clever phrase or play-on-words, whether it’s in a song or in an interview. He absorbs the culture around him as evidenced by the numerous allusions to art, literature, film, television and politics woven into his songs. Perhaps it’s the subtlety of his lyrical hooks that escapes the casual listener.

Clever word plays:

Danny Boy – “Had, like poor Job in the Bible, by God.” The last phrase is sung like an interjection (by God, by gooly, by gee!).

Sally Ann – “…made a terrible beauty…” antithesis

Baby – “You bring along your needles, and I’ll bring my sharpened pencils…”

As in Happy – “Nothing seems to make me gay.”

Gay Messiah – “Better pray for your sins.”

Go or Go Aheaad – “Nowhere” is “now here”

Art Teacher – The play of words with Turner, the painter and “turned to an other man”

There is something in every song lyric that confirms how carefully he crafts his lyrics. In addition to the hooks in the language of his lyrics, he has hooks in the music itself–a repetitive riff, a conversational echo between singer and instrument (especially in “Memphis Skyline”)–somthing that grabs the ear’s attention each time it is heard. Even the simple musical line in “Vibrate,” coupled with a clever phrase like “Pinocchio’s now a boy who wants to turn back into a toy,” pulls the listener into the experience of the song as a whole.

As a point of clarification concerning the timeline of his songs…. “Little Sister,” “Gay Messiah,” and “In With the Ladies” were written and performed well before the “Want” project was published. “Want Two” was a compilation of new songs and songs that were not published on previous albums. They should not, therefore, be looked at as some sort of progression or change in style, process or maturity from his first album.

Rufus has said in interviews that at any given moment he walks around with several new songs formulating in his head. Must be a busy place–that head of his! He has also stated that he labors over the lyrics for his songs more than he labors over the instrumentals. I suspect he “hears” full scores even when he plays a simple melody line. Marius DeVries has commented that Rufus, more than most other songwriters with whom he has worked, seems to compose songs “fully formed.” (I find that fascinating.)

Roger Bourland January 20, 2006 at 5:26 pm

I hadn’t planned on discussing lyrics in my book, especially interpretation. But TW and Rhapsody’s post have brought some other issues to the table that I clearly can’t ignore. I’m not even sure what the name of that chapter is, but I’m deputizing you both to hold my hand as I write it.

twarner January 21, 2006 at 1:30 pm

Well… as your deputy, I’d like to e-mail you a list of Mr. Wainwright’s references to vaguely homosexual things and vaguely religious things that I’ve been collecting. It’s not complete and I’m sure if you post it some fashion, it won’t be long before it is.

Quick example: From “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” “a little Tower of Pisa” is a fairly unsubtle reference to the male erection and the song, therein, establishes that the author and object are both men.

These sorts of observations may connect, also, to your post about who can sing Mr. Wainwright’s songs. While the emotional realty of a song like “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” may be available to everyone, only someone who is both male and gay (and the audience knows it without objection) could sing this song successfully in a live venue.

“The Tower of Learning” is also allows for phalic imagery. Another phallic image in the song is “Stained glass cathedrals” which shatter upon the view of the song’s object. This is an interesting blend of homosexual and religious imagery to the point that Mr. Wainwright seems to reveal a tension or, at least, conversation between the two forces.

Songs like “Gay Messiah” and “Agnues Dei” however culminate this tension with an interesting conclusion. Now… what that conclusion may be, I’m not sure. I haven’t figured it out yet. Any thoughts?

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