Hit Songs Deconstructed Interview with David Penn

David Penn is the founder and editor-in-chief of Hit Songs Deconstructed, which gives in-depth analysis and commentary of hit songs and trends in pop music.

After The Show: How did you decide to start Hit Songs Deconstructed?

David Penn: The idea came about while I was attending a music conference in Los Angeles. During one of the panels, the moderator asked “how many of you study the hits that are currently topping the charts?” No one, including myself, raised their hands. It then occurred to me that if I really wanted to get to the root of what makes hit songs successful, I should start analyzing them to their core to see what makes them tick.

As soon as I began “deconstructing” the songs, I started to see immediate results with my own songwriting. I was learning things that I never would have realized without doing the exercise. Equally as important, it was keeping me current with what was going on in the mainstream. It was then that I realized that this could be a really valuable tool for other songwriters and producers. Soon after, we officially launched Hit Songs Deconstructed.

How do you compile the research that goes into your reports?

I developed a methodology for evaluating hit songs which allows us to track “like” elements and see how hit songwriting may be changing over time and across various genres. It’s all done manually, centered on LOTS of listening!

Are there noticeable cultural differences that change what kinds of songs are popular in different countries? On a micro-level within each song, are there commonalities between a hit song in Korea vs. Mexico vs. Australia, for example?

Culture does play a role in what types of songs are most popular in different countries. For example, lots of the songs that top the charts in Brazil have a distinctive native Brazilian vibe and are performed by Brazilian artists. In Japan, the charts are currently dominated by native boy bands and girl groups like AKB48 and Kis-My-F12, all of which have a sound and vibe that’s distinctly J-Pop. In both these cases the native artists and songs don’t really translate into other cultures (markets).

That being said, many songs do cross over and top the charts outside of their native countries. This is especially the case with “phenomenons” such as “We Found Love,” “Gangnam Style” and “Somebody That I Used To Know,” for example.

On a micro level there are hit songwriting commonalities that traverse all cultures throughout the world. The songs might be sung in a different language, utilize different instrumentation and possess a unique vibe that’s indigenous to a specific country, but at their core they all utilize the same effective craft fundamentals that enables them to connect with the largest possible audience and resonate. This includes lyrical themes (i.e. love/relationships), simplicity, repetition, short intros, choruses hitting early within the song, amongst many others.

How do you account for the inexplicable element in something as creative and emotional as music? Does applying mathematical, rational criteria to a song’s components sometimes not fully explain why listeners connect viscerally to a song? 

Both craft and the “inexplicable element” are equally important. The craft is the vehicle for delivering the “soul” of a song so that it connects and resonates on the deepest level possible. There needs to be a perfect balance between the two.

Has the importance of hit songs changed over the last few decades? Are they less valuable to artists now since major labels are putting less resources into an artist’s career longevity, just pursuing the latest hit? Rebecca Black’s “Friday” was a hit song, but that story ended so quickly.

Rebecca Black’s “Friday” was a “hit” for all the wrong reasons, and her 15 minutes of fame came and went in a blink of an eye because there was no substance behind it. Remember, people love to see train wrecks and much as they love amazing talent. It’s all about the entertainment value.

I would say that hit songs are even MORE important now than ever before. Why? First and foremost it’s a singles driven business. The song can’t rely on an album to carry it – it needs to stand on its own.

Additionally, if you want any chance of getting a deal with a publisher or a label and securing longevity for yourself, you need to be writing songs that are undeniable hits – the best of the best – pure and simple. If you’re delivering, and they’re selling, publishers and labels would be more than happy to keep you in their ranks. That’s for sure.

It’s interesting that most hits today have some synth incorporated into other instrumentation. What’s your view on the staying power of EDM?

All “fads” come and go. Disco, 80’s New Wave, Hair Metal and Grunge all had their day, but they never fully disappear. It will be the same with EDM. Electronic Dance Music is always going to be around in one manifestation or another, but it’s prominence in the mainstream will vary with the times.

What’s the role of individual, subjective musical taste in what makes a song a hit song? How important is timing and context (what other songs are on the charts at any given moment)?

Musical taste is 100% subjective. The listener either connects with a song or they don’t – it’s that black and white. As for timing, it obviously helps. For example, if the Pop scene was completely being dominated by songs possessing an Electro Pop, Hip Hop/Rap influence, and that’s what was being pushed and marketed, then songs of that ilk will definitely have the best chance to succeed at that point in time.

Another good example is the grunge scene in the 90’s. Every label was scrambling to sign grunge bands. The ones that were the best (and most commercial) hit it big. But #1’s are a different kind on animal. They might be in-line with what’s going on within a particular scene, or they might go against the grain (i.e. Adele, Gotye, Fun, PSY). It usually comes down to the combination of the song plus external factors such as the video and dance associated with “Gangnam Style.” Or Fun’s “We Are Young” being featured on Glee and in a Super Bowl commercial.

Can it impede an artist’s natural creative process if labels, publishers, or managers tell artists and producers what kind of song to compose, based on your reports/what’s popular right now?

All songwriting and inspiration is “unique and creative” at its core. However, in the mainstream, producers, labels, songwriting teams, artists and others all have input into WHAT types of songs should be recorded and HOW they should be written. Remember – these songs need to be methodically structured to succeed with their intended audience on a mass level. That being said, the songwriters involved will always bring their “unique creative process” to the table each and every time they write. Sometimes there’s flexibility to push the envelope, and sometimes there’s not.

Where’s the line between trying to stay ahead of the curve and just writing in search of the next hit?

It all depends on what you want to do as an artist. Are you looking for mainstream success in Pop? If so, you should be paying attention to what’s going on within your core genre and thinking about ways that you can push the envelope to stand out from the pack and get noticed. You want stay ahead of the curve BECAUSE you’re in search of the next hit. They work hand in hand.

You’ve rolled out auxiliary products like the Song & Artist Development program. What do you envision for the future of Hit Songs Deconstructed? 

We have a lot of new and exciting things planned that will really benefit both songwriters and the industry alike. We’ll keep you posted!

Check out Hit Songs Deconstructed

Like Hit Songs Deconstructed on Facebook