In which I test the ideological power of a pop chorus
A song is, ultimately, a machine, a collection of cogs with their own functions. Possibly the most conspicuous cog is the chorus, which, by its nature, is an aural focal point where the artist communes with the listener. People who do not know the rest of the lyrics to a song will frequently join in at the chorus. In fact, for a listener who is not musically inclined, the chorus could be the only section they remember—and, if they like it, the odds increase that they will like the song. (Similarly, if a songwriter can write a good chorus, the odds increase that they can write a good…any other part.)
But some choruses transcend the merely likable. A chorus becomes truly great, in my opinion, when it summarizes the spirit of the song. Several choruses have sold me on an artist or band, cementing my status as a fan. They reveal something, a new depth to the song or the creator. They lift up the listener (no, Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” did not make the list). They can bring you to tears or put an ear-to-ear grin on your face. And, crucially, they are pleasant or fun or moving to sing. Or hum: some choruses make an impression using very few words.
The choruses on my list happen to be attached, on the whole, to pretty strong verses and bridges. That said, a chorus can sometimes be a high point, a redeeming factor, in an otherwise bad song. I also have reasons for seemingly overlooking some artists (for example, nothing of Stevie Wonder’s appears here because I consider his songs such thoroughly integrated statements that their choruses cannot really be separated from their overall craft). At the risk of sounding smug, I would call my taste ‘good,’ if skewed toward pop/rock genres. But ‘good’ is totally subjective anyway. Evaluate the following and decide for yourself.
“Drive My Car,” The Beatles (1965)
Maybe the time I spend around fellow Beatles fans is warping my wider worldview, but I feel like this song has enough clout that people can sing more than just the chorus. But the chorus remains the highlight, for four reasons: the three-part harmonies; the suggestive lyric (they grew up so fast!); the bluesy piano ‘response’ between the phrases; and the “beep-beep-m-beep-beep, yeah,” which would be amazing even if the rest of the song were not.*
*Every Beatles song in ’65 was amazing on some level. But that’s another post.
“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” Arlo Guthrie (1967)
What’s not to love? It tells you where the restaurant is and what you can (or can’t) get there, and it gives you an escape hatch at the shrink. And anyone can sing it. I mean, you have to, if you want to end war and stuff. (I had to include this song given the season, which apparently is the socially acceptable time to play it on the radio, although I quote it once a week at the least.)
“Baby Driver,” Simon & Garfunkel (1970)
On an album full of great choruses (“The Boxer,” “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” and obviously “Cecilia,” to name a few), I went with this one, and not only because it begs to be covered by barbershop quartets. The lyrics are quirky and fun, the dubbed voices harmonize and stagger, and—throwback to the Fab Four—the low “bah-ba-bah-bah” seals the deal. Edgar Wright built a two-hour film around this song. And it had been his dream project for something like seventeen years, so that should communicate what a worthwhile piece of art it is. Is it stuck in your head now?
“Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell (1970)
This chorus is a double threat: there’s the “don’t it always seem to go” part and the “paradise/parking lot” part. A triple threat, if you count Joni’s infallible voice. It’s a good showcase for her (or any singer’s) vocal range, and it centers on the painfully relatable idea of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. Truly a chorus with integrity. So influential that even Counting Crows’ cover has achieved classic status—and I really like their take on the chorus, too, especially the way they slow it down after the third verse. Bonus: the “shooooo-bop-bop-bop-bop” at the end.
“It’s Too Late,” Carole King (1971)
Given what a formidable creative force she was in a male-dominated industry, I knew Carole King had to have an entry, and it was very hard to choose. But I’ve selected this one because it’s rather atypical for a pop song—if anything, it owes more to jazz. For starters, it’s in a different key from the verse, as is signaled by the piano immediately preceding it (which is also a great signal that the chorus is coming to begin with). The melody meanders, but it sounds organic, so when people sing along they might not realize the sophistication of what they’re singing. A sneaky byte of genius.
“Poems, Prayers, and Promises,” John Denver (1971)
This one is understated, something John Denver excels at unless he is hitting you with full tenor force right out of the gate (incidentally, also something he excels at). As I’ll mention a second time shortly, I’m a big fan of choruses—or entire songs—whose first word is “and.” A continuation of a train of thought, an intimate welcome into a narrator’s mind. To go a step further, the first part of this chorus is technically a sentence fragment, the action of the verse spilling over as our characters commingle “and talk of poems and prayers and promises / and things that we believe in: / how sweet it is to love someone / how right it is to care…” Actually, the fragment might last the whole section, because we segue right into a list. But we don’t notice; we’re too busy being carried along by a mellifluous motion which suits the song just right.
“Tiny Dancer,” Elton John (1971)
A pillar of that golden time when almost everything the Elton John/Bernie Taupin team did hit the mark. (We! Love! Bernie! By the way.) This one and the next essentially inspired this whole post with their perfect union of lyrics and music. Melodically, they also both include peaks and valleys which are oh so satisfying to sing. A standout feature of this particular chorus is that it first appears roughly two minutes into the song, only after two verses and a pre-chorus: a buildup followed by a rich reward. Today’s hooks tend to arrive thirty seconds in, but one of the reasons this song is so dearly loved is that everyone gets to anticipate the chorus and then just go wild on it. It harnesses the power to really bring people together.
“Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time),” Elton John (1972)
Jeez, Bernie was in top form. How do you write a lyric like this? More to the point, how do you write it without a tune already in your head? I can’t imagine a time when these words existed outside of a melody—that goes for the whole song, but especially for the chorus. Sir Elton knew the exact treatment it needed. Again, one of my favorite things about this chorus is that it begins with “and.” This train of thought is, well, not a train at all but a spaceship, and the orchestration matches: it sounds ethereal, simultaneously warm and drafty, inviting and faraway. It’s ironic how utterly natural it feels, given the uniqueness of the narrator’s occupation. (Although, of course, he doesn’t assign it any more importance than that it’s his job five days a week.) You don’t hear this chorus; you don’t learn it; it just becomes a part of you. Isn’t that the definition of great?
“Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels),” Jim Croce (1972)
Within a song about an attempt to achieve closure, this chorus provides a strange (albeit totally familiar) full-circle structure. The narrator begins by asking, “Isn’t that the way they say it goes?”—possibly the single greatest opening line of a chorus—and follows a thought process that is half addressing the titular character and half persuading himself “that it just wasn’t real” before concluding “but that’s not the way it feels.” The melody, like most of Jim Croce’s melodies, makes your soul ache. Gorgeous when he sings it alone, gorgeous when a choir is harmonizing behind him. Gorgeously accented with that finger-picking guitar. The bittersweetness spoke to me even as a romantically ignorant youngster. I came to this song for the guitar; I stayed for the chorus.
“Killer Queen,” Queen (1974)
Let me first establish that this is a damn near perfect song from beginning to end. It was their first hit, and it merited all the attention it got. Not a note is out of place. The arrangement is flawless. Furthermore, the recording process is flawless, and on full display in the chorus. Traveling from left to right channel was revolutionary at the time and honestly still is. The harmonic formation differs from, say, the Beach Boys, as all three singing members of the band overdubbed themselves something like three times apiece, racking up a nine-voice choir. Unbelievably tight. It does create a Beach-Boys-esque singalong problem in that whom do you sing with? Do you go way up high with Roger Taylor?* Can you even isolate any one vocal line? I tell you, I’ve had a bear of a time. But it hardly matters. It’s swoon-worthy. And there’s no other chorus like it—rhyme scheme? meter?? entirely irregular???—so it occupies a class all its own.
*Confession: before seeing Bohemian Rhapsody and bothering to learn the history of the band, I assumed the stratosphere harmonies were Freddie’s work. Turns out Roger provided the high notes (see: the wonderful “Galileo” scene in the film). Can you imagine having the highest voice in Queen?!?
“Rhiannon,” Fleetwood Mac (1975)
“But it’s just her name!” Except it’s so much more. It’s Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar, flaring up and dying down like a candle. It’s Mick Fleetwood’s percussion, altering subtly from measure to measure like the current of a river. It’s the dissonance of the sung triad against John McVie’s bassline, and the shift of that chord from minor to major on the last repetition. It’s the burial of the voices in the mix, how far off they sound, calling like sirens. It casts a spell over the song as powerful as anything Stevie does on her own.
“Blue Bayou,” Linda Ronstadt (1977)
I feel a bit bad defaulting to a cover, as Roy Orbison recorded it in 1963 and he didn’t exactly have an inferior set of pipes, but Linda’s is iconic. The primary distinguishing factor of this chorus is its contrast in range: after a low, contemplative verse, it jumps up an octave (in fact, if you want to get really technical, the space between the last note of the verse and the first note of the chorus is an octave and a perfect fourth, or P4). The verse is a mellow croon, the chorus an impassioned plea. It’s impossible for the listener not to pay attention. The experience is so emotional; you can’t help but feel a personal stake in the singer’s expression. You get to thinking about whatever your own Blue Bayou is. Here is universal appeal.
“Billie Jean,” Michael Jackson (1982)
There probably isn’t much I can say about this one that hasn’t already been said. There’s a hook in every instrument, it’s melodically and rhythmically original, and its relentless layering creates enough material to sustain nearly five minutes of song. Highlight: that descending string riff (first heard on the second chorus) which everybody sings automatically.
“Cherry Bomb,” John Cougar Mellencamp (1987)
Nothing against the Runaways, but this is the first “Cherry Bomb” to come to my mind, and its chorus is a big reason why. From the introduction of the line “that’s when a sport was a sport” I knew I was in for something special. It’s got a bit of the reminiscence of “Operator,” but from a more pleasantly nostalgic perspective: this narrator is looking back on his teen years from age thirty-five. The comforting repetition—“grooving was grooving,” “laughing, laughing with our friends”—suggests that he is trying to luxuriate in these memories. There are great fiddle interjections and harmonica tags. And the whole thing is sung in three-part harmony. Sounds like the glow of a neon sign on a hot night.
“Shiny Happy People,” R.E.M. feat. Kate Pierson (1991)
“Wait, wait, wait,” you cry, “surely you can’t be serious/it’s a dumb song/what about ‘The One I Love’?”* Well, I’ve made my choice, and don’t call me Shirley. Hear me out: I know of no other song whose chorus consists of a single line split into three overlapping-but-successive countermelodies. Or, I guess, a variation of a single line, as the titular people are twice said to be holding hands and then to be laughing. Musically, each segment takes its starting note from the last note of the previous segment; this necessitates not one but three exceedingly capable singers, and they nail it. Shout-out to Peter Buck, coming in clutch with that immaculate guitar.** Plus, there’s clapping (in early demos the line is actually “shiny happy people clapping”). I think people are quick to judge, but it takes planning to coordinate those moving parts. And they fit together in innumerable tessellations, as is heard the last time around. It’s a modern-day Bach chorale. You try it.
*I would like to give an honorable mention to the chorus of “The One I Love,” which, if you think about it, should be illegal, because it is illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a place where there is no fire. Props to them for flouting the law with style.
**I’d even venture to call the guitar hook a fourth countermelody within one chorus. What are you going to do, not sing it?
“What’s Up?”, 4 Non Blondes (1992)
Quintessential effective simplicity. Up the octave from the verse, but not such a total departure as to be disorienting: the pre-chorus prepares you adequately. Comes across as a lyrical misdirect, given the title, but that was only to avoid issues of confusion with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Great for yelling (see next two).
“Undone (The Sweater Song),” Weezer (1994)
I once saw this chorus described on YouTube as the perfect thing to drunkenly yell along to. That about hits the nail on the head, so I won’t belabor the point, but the minimalism of the verses makes the chorus all the more fun to slam into. Highlight: the countermelodies which crop up with increasing intricacy (“as I walk awa-a-aaaay“).
“Ironic,” Alanis Morrissette (1995)
Put aside the fact that almost nothing in this song is ironic (isn’t that ironic?) and you’ve still got a fantastic chorus. It’s the absolute ideal in a performance setting because people can really let loose. Her songs are so cathartic, so conducive to anger, that if you aren’t putting your whole self into screaming “It’s like ra-i-aaaaaaaaaain” you’re doing it wrong. The chordal structure is propulsive yet unintrusive. Wail on.
“Wannabe,” Spice Girls (1996)
I mean, clearly. I guess I could nitpick by saying the context of the title within the chorus doesn’t quite match up (it’s “if you wanna be my lover,” not someone who is a wannabe), but it probably wouldn’t be wise to mess with what I believe is the all-time bestselling single by a female group. Totally apt. If you only ever heard this chorus once you would know it forever. Call-and-response, singalong quality to spare. As a matter of fact, the “Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want” section could count as a bonus chorus because it also repeats. There you go. Choose your chorus. Either way it’s unimpeachable. But I’ll bet if you’re of a certain generation you could sing through the whole song right here on the spot.*
*Fun fact: I was born a few months before they recorded it—before the song even existed! I get to say things like that now!
“Believe,” Cher (1998)
There’s nothing like a great dance track, and this is the dance-track chorus to rule them all. It makes glorious use of reverb and Auto-Tune, both of which would go on to exert huge influence over popular genres; it’s a pure high to sing; and the guitar line—which consists of only four notes—is the perfect complement. This chorus pulls you in like a magnet. It energizes you and gives you life. It makes a feminist out of you if you weren’t one already. Which, really, epitomizes Cher herself.
“All Star,” Smash Mouth (2001)
Shrek gave it the platform it deserved, but even without it I like to think this one would have conquered the world anyway. It’s one of those songs where everything that isn’t the chorus is just building up to it. And, as we all know, it delivers. The rhythm is the most contagious part—this one is proof that you don’t need a lot of lyrics to make your mark. It never disappoints. Highlight: “Hey now.”
“Complicated,” Avril Lavigne (2002)
Once again, a lyrically familiar song from start to finish–in fact, the chorus might be harder to follow than the verses (you fall and you crawl and you break* and what’s the order of these words??), but we’re willing to give it a go every time because it’s that enjoyable. Melodically it’s hooks left and right, and if you’re not won over by now, the “no, no, no” at the end will sucker you.
*Fun fact: I hear this lyrical sequence inspired the section of the song “Wait For It,” sung by Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton. which goes “we rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes.” And Lavigne is Canadian, so hey, immigrants: they get the job done!
“Why Not,” Hilary Duff (2003)
Another generational thing, among the more indelible of my generation’s things. This gem is bound up with The Lizzie McGuire Movie and its oeuvre. The chorus is so radiantly affirmative, from the lyrics to the instrumentation, that it leaves you no excuse not to get on the back of some Roman guy’s Vespa and go sightseeing (even if his motives turn out to be ulterior, but you couldn’t have known that at the time). It also appears as a bonus track on 2003’s Metamorphosis and manages to summarize that vibe as succinctly as you could hope for. All in all, a snapshot of Duff’s defining moment.
“Soul Meets Body,” Death Cab for Cutie (2005)
This chorus personifies the song’s ghostly mood, first appearing as only a shadow of itself in “ba-ba-ba” form before later returning with lyrics. And when said lyrics speak of “a melody softly soaring through my atmosphere,” this is exactly the kind of melody we would envision: one which takes us along for a fluid ride, alternating major and minor with almost every chord, creating a limbo between the physical and the spiritual. The constancy of the drum track (a fixture throughout the song as a whole) is also really special.
“I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” Panic! at the Disco (2005)
Is there a punchier phrase than “haven’t you people ever heard of / closing the goddamn door?” Except it’s even better, because the beginning of the line is “I chime in with a”—meaning we’ve been placed in a scene with a narrator and an addressee (presumably the first verse’s bridesmaid and waiter), only for the narrator to segue into internal monologue: “no, it’s much better to face these kinds of things / with a sense of poise and rationality.” Or, as I originally heard it, “poisoned rationality”—which brings me to how fascinating it is to try to parse apart these lyrics. What does it mean to adopt this kind of philosophy? Is our narrator advocating for the left brain over the right brain even in the face of a disintegrating marriage? This is one of those bytes we’ll be analyzing decades from now.
“Oh! Pandora,” John Wesley Harding (2010)
The multifaceted artist now known as Wesley Stace—a longtime favorite in my family—boasts a history of classical references in his work. This song is one of the finest examples overall. It’s just as well that the chorus discusses Pandora’s box, because it opens up a world of possibilities. (*high-fives self*) The melody is interesting, spanning almost an octave and rife with arpeggiation; and the lyrics further the narrator’s relationship to Pandora, each recurrence heightening his frustration with her reluctance to open the box. Plus, the arrangement is peppered with horns and violins as the song goes on. To be sure, a chorus more people should know.
“Pumped Up Kicks,” Foster the People (2011)
Laid-back, terrifying, catchy as hell—this one’s got it all. The bridge even includes a whistled reiteration. The reverb on the harmonized vocals is haunting. Need I say more?
“Love On Top,” Beyoncé (2011)
This is one of those rare choruses that correspond to their song titles. It invites you to sing along until it doesn’t: Bey really goes for the ‘top’ by the end, stepping up half a key with each repetition so that some of her notes eventually hit the stratosphere. There’s a reason she’s the queen. Still, regardless of one’s own vocal prowess, one feels empowered enough to have a go, and is guaranteed a good time just by grooving along.
“Somebody That I Used to Know,” Gotye feat. Kimbra (2011)
You didn’t think I’d let this one slide under the radar, did you? At its height, the song was so pervasive on the radio that many Americans wanted to drive straight into traffic all the time. But now, several years removed, I think we can look at it for the magnum opus it is. The instrumentation is famously sparse—all the better, as it directs us toward the main attraction. The chorus is stellar, with a soaring melody and tag, and it’s somehow only improved the second time around by a heavenly layering of harmonies. What’s more, in the tradition of “Tiny Dancer,” it doesn’t show its face until a minute and a half in. In a musical environment where that sort of delayed gratification is practically unheard of, this refrain is every inch worth the wait.
“Call Me Maybe,” Carly Rae Jepsen (2012)
I have been heard (on Twitter) to call this the best pop song the new millennium has produced thus far, but irrespective of the whole the chorus has an unshakable grip on the collective psyche. It’s a meme, it’s a joke, it’s a state of mind. No one can ever say “hey, I just met you” again. If it lends itself perhaps too well to parody (I myself rewrote it for a project on Hamlet), it’s only because everyone can understand it. The orchestration is superb; those string accents mesh so well with the lyrical frame, you can’t extricate the two. Despite my recent discovery that Jepsen has a much longer and stronger songwriting record than I realized, this will always be the jewel in her crown.
“Shape of You,” Ed Sheeran (2017)
Arguably the most influential contemporary songwriter, arguably his most irresistible chorus. Begging to be danced to as well as sung. The beat practically bounces, but in case that shouldn’t be enough, the recurring phrase “I’m in love with your body” keeps the listener hooked. Also, it’s easily construed as a body-positivity anthem, since he never mentions what shape his girl is—thereby opening it to whatever you find beautiful.
It probably goes without saying that I expect some masterful choruses in the 2020s. Singalongs, power chords, earworm beats, psychological freedom—who’s to say where we go from here? To what future point the hallmarks of the past?
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