“Retro-Blend” is definitely the phrase du jour. Today’s Pop charts are sounding more and more like the music charts of long ago, from the Neon Trees’ “Everybody Talks” to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” to Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven.”
Retro-influenced songs like these evoke the best of yesterday blended with today’s melody, lyric, and production techniques.
Two of the latest hits to pay their respects to the oldies are Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and MKTO’s “Classic.” If you can remember dancing to Marvin Gaye and the Jackson 5, then you’ve got a big head start on this style. But the commercial magic is in the blend of old and new. Today’s listeners want it ALL. So let’s a take a look at a Pop hit that delivers the best of yesterday and today. It’s “CLASSIC”!
Recorded by MKTO
Writers: Evan Bogart, Andrew Goldstein, Emanuel Kiriakou, Lindy Robbins
The Shortcut numbers below refer to chapters in my books “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” (“Hit”) and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” (“Film/TV”).
The genre is retro-blend Pop. This track is obviously paying its respects to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” The tempo is very close and the feel of the groove is similar. There are little sections of the melody that suggest the Jackson 5 original and touches in the arrangement, especially the rhythm electric guitar.
This is a perfect example of a song you’ll find a little further down on the Pop charts. That’s why it’s important not to stop with the top five or ten songs. Keep digging for those gems – the ones that make you say “I wish I’d written that!” These are the songs you want to learn from.
The song structure is…
VERSE / PRE-CHORUS / CHORUS
VERSE / PRE-CHORUS / CHORUS
BRIDGE / CHORUS
The pre-chorus starts with the line “I want to thrill you like Michael.” The section builds anticipation and energy going into the chorus which is just what a pre-chorus should do.
The chorus begins with the line “You’re over my head…” and ends with the title/hook line “Baby, you’re so classic.” By repeating this line, the writers make sure that listeners remember it and they give the song a little breathing room. It’s nice to give listeners a little something they can sing along with. And that’s just what this does!
The bridge is a rap. It’s focused and the section works but it seems a little bit of a let down. They could have written a peak melody and a lyric that really showed us what the singer loves about this girl. But… there’s that thing about blending old and new. 😉 (Read more about using the bridge to create a peak moment in “Hit” Shortcut #54.)
The lyric is tightly focused on the theme of classic beauty and courtship. The songwriters are capitalizing on the current nostalgia for the elegance of the past. Keep your eyes and ears open for trends like this.
Right at the top, the writers set the tone: “Oooo, girl, you’re shining / Like a 5th Avenue diamond.” A line like this suggests wealth, beauty, and breakfast at Tiffany’s. Be sure your opening lines draw listeners into the world of the song like this one does.
I love the way the chorus sums up the heart of this song. If you didn’t hear a single word of the verse or pre-chorus, you’d still know what the song is about.
You’re over my head, I’m out of my mind
Thinking I was born in the wrong time
One of a kind, living in a world gone plastic
Baby, you’re so classic.
A ‘stand-alone’ chorus is a huge plus in a hit-style Pop song. There are so many distractions going on around the listener that they may not even hear your verses the first time around. If your chorus catches their attention and they’ll make an effort to find out what the rest of the song is about. (“Hit” Shortcut #51)
Rhymes: Fresh rhymes are a hallmark of today’s Pop hits, so polish off your near-rhymes and half-rhymes to give your lyrics a contemporary feel. (See the LINKS section below for a good rhyming resource.)
Rhymes like “plastic / classic,” “Marvin Gaye / Hathaway,” “roses / notice,” “cadillac / glamour back” are unexpected and fun. The influence of rap on lyric rhymes is unmistakable in this song, something that adds to the contemporary feel.
Like many current hit songs, the chord progression for “Classic” is simple and repetitive, much more repetitive than the original Jackson 5 hit. This is one of the big differences between then and now. We use the phrasing of the melody to keep the chord progression interesting.
Verse: The first two lines of verse start on Beat 1, just like we used to do. But take a look at the third line (“They don’t make you like they used to.”) This line starts on an upbeat – the “and” after Beat 1 – and emphasizes upbeats through the rest of the line on words like “them” and “used.” Then it’s back on Beat 1 again for the last line.
Playing with emphasized beats and words is a contemporary trick of Pop songwriting and helps update the song.
Pre-chorus: The first two lines of the pre-chorus melody are similar (“I want to thrill you like Michael/I want to kiss you like Prince” but, again, the third line changes. This is a great pattern to use in your melodies – listeners love it. There’s enough repetition to make the melody memorable and enough variation to keep it interesting.
Try this pattern in a song of your own: Repeat the first line melody, go a to a new melody for the third line, then you can wrap it up any way you want to. (Learn more about melody patterns in “Film/TV” Shortcut #32.)
Chorus: The chorus is a great example of a contemporary melody. Starting with “You’re over my head…” it’s a whole string of short phrases with no pause for a breath until it finally comes to rest on the hook/title line “Baby, you’re so classic.”
Eliminating these pauses creates the kind of forward momentum you hear in many of today’s biggest hits. (“Hit” Shortcut #100: “Five Ways to Make a Dated Melody Sound Fresh.”)
DO IT NOW!
Sing along with the recording a few times and notice the pattern of the melody. Which melody lines are repeated? Which ones are longer, which shorter? On which beat do the phrases start?
Embedding this melody style by singing it is a great way to get a feel for today’s hit song melodies. If you compare this melody with the Jackson 5 song “I Want you Back” you’ll hear a distinct difference.
(The recording is a half step up if you want to play along.)
Verse, Pre-chorus, and Chorus:
| C G | F | F G | Am |
| Am G | F | F G | C |
There are a lot of nods to the Motown style in this arrangement and production. Just for fun (and a little ear training) listen to “Classic” and play a round of “Where’s Motown.” See if you can find all the references.
Both the MKTO and Jackson 5 tracks have a great groove but if you play them back-to-back, the first thing you’ll notice is a difference in the tightness of the ensemble playing. Today’s Pop hits are recorded to a steady click, and drums are often looped to created a relentless, steady beat.
Now believe me, I’m not arguing that one style is better than the other – just sayin’ that today’s listeners are used to this type of tight ensemble playing in a slick Pop hit. (You can still wreck it in other contemporary styles, just not mainstream Pop.)
DO IT NOW!
Write a verse and chorus lyric using near rhymes that have a fun, fresh feel. You could use the groove of MKTO’s “Classic” to give you a place to start, and sing your lyric to the melody if you want.
Check out the Pop music charts and Adult Contemporary charts at Billboard.com. Listen to some of the songs in the top twenty spots until you find one you like. Look up the lyrics online. Sing along to a verse and chorus. What’s the song doing that you like? Could you try that technique in a song of your own? Bookmark the Pop chart or Adult Contemporary chart (or any chart you’re interested in) and come back to it at least once a month to see what’s new.
by Robin Frederick