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Delete “Hook.” Insert “Heart”

[Note: On Neo’s site she’s talking about “the hook” in popular music with many interesting things to say in How to write a hook – The New Neo. This caused me to remember this item from 2009. ]

John Popper of Blues Traveller belting out The Hook

This morning I have been bedeviled by the earworms, hooks, and heart tricks of popular music. I keep telling myself that most popular songs are not written to be true, but glib; that they run on what’s called ‘The Hook.’

Distracted by numerous lyrics that all seemed to be sending me a secret message, I decided to investigate the inner nature of ‘The Hook.’ and came in my Googling to a song by Blues Traveler from their album “Four.”

“Four” is an album I’ve had for many years (A memoir of a brief, but doomed, May — September romance a decade or so back.) which has a song on it called “The Hook.” Looking up the lyrics, I saw — for the first time — what the refrain actually says:

“Because the hook brings you back
I ain’t tellin’ you no lie
The hook brings you back
On that you can rely.”

It’s a common problem with the lyrics to pop songs that they are often misheard by the listeners. These ear blips are called “mondegreens.” I have an old friend who has bought apartments in New York City by exploiting and cataloging the phenomenon in books. (‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy and He’s Got the Whole World in His Pants, among others.)

Mondegreens are commonly explained by the facts of loose recording standards, production choices, and the volume at which all the instruments play and the singers sing. It is more simply explained by the fact, as noted by my old friend Ethan Russell about Mick Jagger many years ago, “Well, you know, he does slur a lot.”

And he does, and they all do. Singing words requires, as we learn in the sacred book of Bob Dylan, that you bend and shape the song’s words to the measure of the song’s music. Success in pop music is always found, after the last note fades, in the singer not the song.

The other thing that drives the hearing of a song is the mood of the listener. You hear things in songs that aren’t ever there just as you see things about your house that are long gone. In each, what we hear and see in down times is essentially the ghosts of … love, etcetera. And coming or going, love has a lot of etcetera attached to it that it pulls along behind it like the chains on Marley’s ghost.

All of this is a periphrastic way of coming to what I had heard sung in the refrain to ‘The Hook.’ for many years. I never heard the word ‘hook.’ Instead I heard the word ‘heart,’ as in:

“Because the heart brings you back
I ain’t tellin’ you no lie
The heart brings you back
On that you can rely.”

I’ve listened to ‘The Hook.’, with attention or just as background, probably around a hundred times over the years. I’ve trance danced to it. I’ve even been to a Blues Traveler concert in New York City that had it on the setlist. In all those iterations I’ve never heard ‘hook,’ but always heard ‘heart.’ Now I know different …. but not better.

Seen whole the lyrics to ‘The Hook’ are all about the plight and pain of being a pop star. One of the thousands of such screeds in which our celebrities bemoan the curse of wealth and fame their rise has brought to them — the endless angst of those who fear they had to ‘sell-out’ in order to ‘buy-in.’ I try, but somehow I just can’t feel this pampered pain.

In the end, I really don’t want ‘The Hook.’ to bring me back. I want ‘The Heart’ to bring me back:

“Because the heart brings you back
I ain’t tellin’ you no lie
The heart brings you back
On that you can rely.”

It might be a mondegreen, but it makes a much better song.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James ONeil December 20, 2020, 9:31 AM

    Hey I was probably 5 or 6 when I first heard Oh My Darling, Clementine” so give me a break.

    I couldn’t figure out what Her ring boxes without topses had to do with Sandals were for Clementine

  • Terry December 20, 2020, 10:02 AM

    Too much toe in that jam.

  • ghostsniper December 20, 2020, 10:49 AM

    Everyone’s a star, if you roll the tone off far enough.

    I know a guy that owns a guitar store and he can’t even play. He tries, but he’s a mess, his fat fingers just can’t be controlled. And he thinks he can sing, but he can’t and his song writing is even worse. I tried to tell him some stuff and show him a couple things but he just won’t invest the quality of effort required.

    So he sent me some lyrics to a song he wrote called “Free” and asked me to fine toon em, clean em up. There was nothing I could do with them cause I didn’t believe in the underlying theme. Not to be deterred, he played his guitar and sang the lyrics and recorded them to a 2 track. Found a place in Nashville that for $999 will take his song and with in house studio musicians and engineers will pull it all together.

    He sent me the mp3 and I played it through my vintage high performance rig and set there and marveled at what can be done for a grand. No doubt about it the whole thing had a very professional sound to it and was at first quite impressive. I could sort of hear his vox singing but I couldn’t tell what he was saying. Same with his shitty guitar playing. I heard something but couldn’t tell what.

    The engineers with their 144 input board turned up all the good stuff, the studio players and back up vocals, and rolled off my friends singing and playing, then masked the whole thing by neutralizing the overall tone. It sounded like someone threw big fat winter blankets over top of my speakers. I tried to minimalize the studios trickery with my own equalizers and range expanders but to no avail, these cats was professional. I still have that mp3 file on one of my drives but I should go find it and shitcan it cause I know I’ll never listen to it again.

  • TeeRoy Jenkins December 20, 2020, 10:54 AM

    I nominate Blinded by the Light as the most mondegreens song evah!

  • Auntie Analogue December 20, 2020, 11:54 AM

    The mondegreen that haunted me for decades came from The Rascals’ recording of “Groovin’,” the line that I’d always heard as “you and me and Leslie.” For scores of years I’d wondered Who the hell is Leslie and why is she or he in this song?. Then I happened upon a lyrics website to discover that the line is “you and me endlessly.” Can’t tell you how huge a sigh of relief I felt for poor Leslie!

  • PA Cat December 20, 2020, 12:21 PM

    Foreign languages are a fertile source of mondegreens. This being countdown-to-Christmas week, I was reminded of the José Feliciano seasonal classic, “Feliz Navidad”– one of my cousins heard the Spanish words as “Police have a dog,” and wondered what law enforcement K9s have to do with wishing people a Merry Christmas.

    The tune is a good example of an earworm, too.

  • mmack December 20, 2020, 3:03 PM


    I always heard it as The Heart ❤️ as well. And it fits better too.

  • Mhf December 20, 2020, 3:54 PM

    Louie, louie
    I say no more

  • gwbnyc December 20, 2020, 4:21 PM

    worked for years in movie set carpenter shops. blasting boomboxes, 10 hours a day, relentlessly. we called it carpenter rock- top 300 songs everyday.

    I swear to you I never understood a word of it after forty years of listening to the same crap.

    I’d tell them, “all I’d have to do to get you to kill your mothers is give you dope and a radio.”

  • John P Coggeshall December 20, 2020, 7:31 PM

    The hook…the heart…really…well, try Stephen Crane [1895]:

    In the desert
    I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
    Who, squatting upon the ground,
    Held his heart in his hands,
    And ate of it.
    I said, “Is it good, friend?”
    “It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

    “But I like it
    “Because it is bitter,
    “And because it is my heart.”

  • Joe Redfield December 20, 2020, 10:31 PM

    “…there’s a bathroom on the right…” Creedence Clearwater

  • Andy Havens December 21, 2020, 10:15 AM

    PA Cat: My kids like to sing Feliz Navidad with the words “My big, hairy dad.” It’s awesome.

    In 1993 a band called Collective Soul released a song called Shine. The lyrics in question are “Heaven let your light shine down.” Years later I heard it on the radio, and the guy I was with sang, very earnestly and with no idea that he had it wrong, “How’d your last election go.”

    There’s also Guns ‘n Roses “Take me down to the Prairie Dog City.”

  • M. Murcek December 21, 2020, 8:28 PM

    Read Daniel Levitin.

  • Daniel K Day December 21, 2020, 11:23 PM

    Eric Burden, 1970: “Spill the wine, take that pearl”
    Until around 2001 I had always heard that line as “Hey do I dig that girl”

  • Dirk December 22, 2020, 11:51 AM

    Blues Traveler Awesome. Love music, listen to music, everyday. I really enjoy the ” Travelers” I hope to see them before I pass.

    Daniel, good to see your out and about. We saw, Eric Burden in South Tahoe two summers ago. Until then I’d never had the oppertunity. I would share this,,,,,Burden was the best show I’ve been to, EVER!.

    Merry Christmas to all.