Introduction to Hooks

Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? . . . if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, “You please me, happiness! Abide, moment!” then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored—oh, then you loved the world.

“Hooks,” I propose, are all the special attractions in songs that have, in fact, hooked you. A hook is any discrete thing that makes you want to listen again, in rock anything from the magnetic first second of “Jailhouse Rock” to the two minute twin guitars extravaganza at the end of “Hotel California” to Corey Glover’s always-more-than-you-expect scream in “Information Overload” [2].  If you want to attend to something more pervading, like a singer’s attitude or a drum kit’s tone, fine:  “hooks” is a doorway to every worthy subject (and not just in music, either). The main point is that no subject is too limited for hook inquiry. Specific is good. Specific means a sharp focus on a brilliant single joy.

While joy in music abounds, it’s hard to write about music without being assailed by feelings of irrelevance. The goodness of music is musical; what can words reveal about it? What would we be, though, without our words? Unavoidably our experience seeks a more satisfying completion in putting word-ladders up to music’s rock face, swinging ropes of comparison and contrast, hammering in meanings to stand on. You start the climb if you so much as say “What a great lick!” or “I love the way she sings that phrase.” You’re saying “This is important!” But how so? Why? This curiosity isn’t idle; the music has roused us and nourished us; something of ourselves is at stake in it. We need to talk this out and clarify what we’ve gained, add to what we can share.

The popular music business fosters a way of talking about hooks that only partly coincides with hook appreciation as I understand it. Producers of music want to predict the ingredients that will catch on rapidly with a mass audience. Musical consumers want to know which products will provide “ear candy” pleasure, rating at least eight on a scale of ten. I maintain that a true hook lover refuses to treat any great musical ingredient as wholly predictable or as merely pleasing. Hooks are more considerable than that. Surprisingly, we fall in love with them; impressively, their interest endures and grows.

Can one hook critic tell another what to think? No, of course not, but we can inspire each other. My approach here is wholly exploratory. I want to find out what can be said to make sense of my peak experiences in listening to popular music, testing ideas against the evidence. Then I want to see what larger picture of music and experience emerges when I make a number of these attempts, ranging over many different kinds of hook power. I’m quite willing to speak prescriptively, in the idiom of the Theorist—as just now I laid down a law for a “true hook lover”—but I keep an ear open for your reply. I’ve been humbled and corrected many a time in conversations with friends and with the music itself.

Let’s see then how we might say Yes, and more than just Yes, to rock’s wealth of single joys.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra IV, 19, 10, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Viking Penguin, 1966), p. 323.

[2] Update on Corey Glover screaming in Living Colour:  there’s an outstanding patch of controlled out-of-control screaming from 2:54 to 3:10 in “Out of My Mind” (2009).


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