A Waste of Hooks? or, The Problem of the Negahook: Gnarls Barkley, “Who Cares?” (2006)

What are we to make of the many lovable hooks that have been thrown away on bad or indifferent songs?  One can maintain for the sake of argument that a great hook cannot exist outside of a great song, since (a) the greatness of a hook must be validated by an explanation of its greatness, and (b) any good explanation of a hook’s greatness must show how the hook is an indispensable ingredient in, or a microcosm of, a larger great experience, to wit, the experience of the whole song.  But this thesis just won’t fly.  Every time I hear the “big old jet airliner” phrase in the oft-played Steve Miller Band version of “Jet Airliner”—a four-second oasis of magic in a four-minute desert of infelicity, possibly even a Top 100 Hook if I wanted to make such a list—I’m reminded of all the wonderful ideas and outbursts that are scattered across the musical universe, marooned; we could never save them all.

I’m not sure whether to be more encouraged by the profusion of great hooks or discouraged by their waste.  Perhaps the most positive thing we can think about a misplaced great hook is that it implies a great song yet unwritten.  To articulate what is so cool about “big old jet airliner,” I would have to sketch in some lines of an emended “Jet Airliner” that would be worthy of it.  (Note to self:  OK, so how does that better song go?)

Anyway, what does seem necessary to address in a survey of great hooks is the phenomenon of throwing away a great hook on purpose by hitching it to something bad—a negahook, as we might call it.  I think we have a clear case of this in “Who Cares?” by Gnarls Barkley.

First, the good:  the song’s chorus starts “I could go on and on and on” backed by a sneaky-neat progression of chords (I can tell you what they are, but I had to work at it) stated in a tinny, remote, movie-soundtrack-ish voice that could easily have been a blemish on the track but instead works perfectly to lift the “on and on and on” to some plane of fable.[1]

“Who Cares?” 1

You’ve been made to really wonder where you’re headed.

But next, immediately, spoiling everything, comes the bad:  a hokey radio-ad sort of voice, unmusical, too loud, saying “But who cares?”

“Who Cares” 2

And we are forced to witness the marriage of the beautiful “I could go on and on and on” with the ugly “But who cares?” five times before the song is over.

Could the spoiler be a true hook after all?  Consider:  mass-media advertisers seem to think that a great way to hook is to annoy.  I think of this as the “Culligan Man” principle because as a radio listener in the 1960s I suffered a great deal from the Culligan water purifier campaign featuring the shrill honk of a housewife, “Hey Culligan Man!”  Is it something like the hostage falling in love with the abusive captor, or not being able to take your eyes off roadkill—you get bound to the very thing you can’t stand by a magnetism in the horror?

Is it possible, then, that “Who Cares?” actually got more plays because of its negahook?

Maybe so, but who cares?  More plays doesn’t make it right.  True hook devotees do not identify great hooks with the “proven infectious” commodities that the music business craves to sell.  But we can show respect for all the good things gone to waste, thus lessening the shame of it.

[1] Apparently this is a sample from Keith Mansfield’s “Mono Ski” cunningly deployed by Gnarls Barkley’s prime arranger, Danger Mouse.  The chords at the beginning of the chorus are:

…And I could go…on and on and on

But those first two chords are played without roots in the bass and are hard to resolve, their notes close-packed and trebly.  Since the verses of “Who Cares?” are in F minor, that F major chord throws us off.  There’s something strange about what I’m calling the initial A-flat too—my bemused ear says it could even be a B, which shares a couple of notes with A-flat minor.

Notice that the second A-flat chord hits an eighth-note ahead of the downbeat on the first “on.”  Really none of the first three chords comes in an obvious place.  We’re kept off balance, as though we’re in the early whitewater part of a canoe run.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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