This is a song I came across purely by chance. But at the same time it’s a song I had heard a million times before I just didn’t know it yet. In fact, even if you were to go and listen to it now, you will have heard the song before, even if you’ve not actually heard it before… If you get me…
This is the part where you’re thinking “What’s he on about this time?”, but the chord structure for the song stems back to the classical era to Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. There has also been various rocked-up versions of the song and its place in pop music history is embedded even harder than dry Weetabix on the side of your breakfast bowl.
Canon in D Major is, along with Beethoven’s Ninth and the Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire, tied for the “If I play this one more time I’m going to hang myself” trophy. But what you don’t get from the other two that you do get from Canon is that because you’ve heard the chord progression so many times before you end up singing the other songs that use it while playing the chords to the original. Aerosmith’s Cryin‘, Green Day’s Basket Case, Dire Straits’ Tunnel of Love and Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger to name but a few. It should actually be noted that Basket Case uses a modified structure, but the concept is pretty much the same.
Having seen which songs have used the Canon structure you will now realise that you’ve heard it a million times before, but the Blues Traveller song in question is different on a whole ‘nother level.
I had been aware of Blues Traveler from their brief cameo in the looking-back-why-did-they-actually-do-that-stupid-film-even-though-I-loved-it-when-I-was-ten film Blues Brothers 2000 where they played the soundtrack-only song Maybe I’m Wrong over a driving montage. For me they were one of those bands that I had heard of, knew they were critically acclaimed but I would not be able to name any of their tracks. Then Emma Stone appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show and participated in a lip sync battle with Jimmy in which she performs a song called Hook by Blues Traveler.
“Oh hey!” I said to my fianceé as she said it. “I know them!”
I liked the rap, so decided to listen to the entire song. And this is why the song is genius
Using the Canon progression: I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V in the key of A, the music immediately takes on the “This sounds like something else I’ve heard” feeling, with the song’s lyrics, aimed directly at the listener, tell them that the lyrical content of any song is effectively meaningless, as the song’s musical hook will keep listeners coming back, even if they are unaware of the reason. In popular music the ‘hook’ is the memorable part of the song that you end up getting stuck in your head or the lyric in the song that sticks out more than the rest of the lyrics in the song. Such examples include Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al, Guns N Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine and The Rembrandts’ I’ll Be There For You.
It doesn’t matter what I say
So long as I sing with inflection
That makes you feel that I’ll convey
Some inner truth of vast reflection.
These lyrics are a satirical take on the way popular music is generated. Further on in the song however, the lyrics become even more blatant, claiming that formulaic music is an easy way to make money, with singer/songwriter John Popper blatantly admitting that this song was an easy way for him to make money while using the Canon in D progression
When I’m feeling stuck and need a buck
I don’t rely on luck,
because the hook brings you back…
Radio-friendly hits tend to be the catchy ones, such as Photograph and How You Remind Me by Nickelback, and Blues Traveler’s brief foray into radio-friendly pop was to- ironically- have a dig at radio friendly pop. At first listen, it just sounds like any other pop song, save for the epic harmonica solo that would have just been a basic major-scale-based guitar solo on any other day. The lyrics, as mentioned before, are about how he’s got nothing to say because we aren’t listening to the lyrics and the lyrics on further investigation actually make no sense whatsoever but we don’t notice this because again, we aren’t listening and the mindless masses that we are will just gobble it up.
After declaring that “to confuse the issue [he’ll] refer to familiar heroes from long ago,” Popper immediately drops a reference to Peter Pan (a hero with an appropriate arch enemy). “I know you’re going to like these chords no matter what lyrics I slap on them, even if you can’t put your finger on why,” Popper might as well be saying, “so why should I bother pretending otherwise?”
And, as if to rub it in Popper’s face, it all worked: Hook was one of the biggest radio hits on an album that went platinum six times. He wasn’t telling listeners no lie, but he might have been a little sad to find out exactly how right he was.
And we fell for it… Well done John…