Music Commentary

Hi my name is Jon McKenney and welcome to the first installment of “Beyond The Hook.”

A hook, sometimes called a riff, is a repeatable phrase or melody that draws you in and hooks you. I am an English major, and I am working as an intern, here at WMPG, that requires a writing component and my first assignment is to hit the ground running and produce a colucast or a (column /podcast). The beauty of the job is: I can write about a topic that I am passionate about so I will be forcing you to listen to my opinion. If you don’t like it or disagree or on the off chance that you do agree let me know.

The title of today’s show is: Nirvana: Cobain’s Answer to Gen X Angst.  And it starts like this:

Give me an a—a, give me a n—n, give me a gst—gst! What’s that spell?… angst!… What’s that spell?… ANGST!… Louder! What’s that spell?… A N G S T!… If you want to express the angst in your life you gotta let it rip and if you found yourself screaming in the last, largest, and longest spelling of angst then you are Nirvana fan club material. But what brought you to the band along with their greatest hit, Smells Like Teen Spirit, that you still like 30 years after it was released. The title?… no, Teen Spirit was the name of a deodorant Kurt Cobain’s girlfriend used and he liked the sound but that’s how poets choose words. The boy meets girl sappy quality of pop music?…No. if nothing else Smells Like Teen Spirit is not sweet. It had a soothing effect?… Not hardly, just the opposite, because the message was partly responsible for the song’s popularity. Get up out of your apathy! Get up! Get up! If you are full of angst and don’t like your life, get up and scream your head off!… Dance it off! And to quote the rapper Iggy Azalea and Tinashe Katchingwe, the writer, “You Have to Dance Like Nobody’s Watching.” Which is good advice anyway. And that’s what teenagers did – no formal steps allowed in the mosh pit – pushing and slamming into each other mirroring the music with its message of antipathy, angst, and anarchy. “We’ve had enough, and we want our turn!” They shouted the statement.

But what grabbed young people the most, what continues to grab fans, and what places the song in Rolling Stone’s top ten rock songs of all time, is the hooks or as you might know them, riffs. In this case I say there are three. It is possible for a song to have more than one hook but it is not common and Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit incorporates three. Maybe that’s what it takes to elevate a piece of music onto the upper levels of the Rock and Roll pyramid of hits. The hook takes hold of you and reels you in so smoothly that you might not even know that you’ve been grabbed. Somehow, maybe instinctively, we all know what we like and although we may not share our personal preferences with others, we know. Dick Clark on his 50’s and 60’s music and dance show, American Bandstand, would ask teenagers their opinions about a new song and the most common answer was, “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” Rock and Roll is dance music! Cobain was a very serious Beatles fan and he shows it with the first hook of the tune. The introduction establishes the beat and starts people tapping their feet and moving in their seats. Tapping one’s foot is not a crowd generated response it is a personal reaction to music that literally moves you.

Smells Like Teen Spirit has a very classical rock and roll beat that is begun by a Beatles influenced rhythm guitar solo and immediately enlarged via: hard hitting and heavy drumming. That intro is the first hook and it’s a grabber and a foot tapper. The second hook is melodic and comes just before each verse. Two guitar notes, repeated twice, are added to the continuing beat along with the first lyrical line in each verse, again, adding flavor with another taste of Beatles. Everything is built on what came before and Grunge is no exception. Cobain may have been a musical genus but even geniuses have influences and when it comes to writing hooks and music in general: THE BEATLES MAY BE THE GOAT.

The third hook and maybe the best is the lyrical last two lines in the first two choruses:
“ A mulatto, an albino, A mosquito, my libido.” The Beach Boys used similar phrasing in the chorus of Kokomo but Cobain takes his catchy poetic rhyme and turns it into a hook. Kurt Cobain, who had many of his own demons to deal with, used his darkness to write what developed into an anthem for the disenfranchised youth of the 90’s – Gen X — through its hooks. I can now see why Rolling Stone gives Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, and Smells Like Teen Spirit so much respect.”

Thank you for listening. I will only have a few of these podcasts to record so I plan on reviewing music and the hooks that I think are the best. Next time one of the most identifiable phrases in all of pop music will be featured and like it or not, it is so recognizable that you must be living under a rock if you haven’t heard it. Thanks again and hasta la vista.

The podcast can be heard at WMPG Podcasts – Beyond the Hook