Here's Why You Can't Get That Top 40 Song Out Of Your Head

Adele, Barry Manilow and Poison all use this powerful musical trick.

If most of the aughts were scored by Beyoncé’s pulsing successes, each more danceable and soulful than the last, then the end of 2015 was a brief fermata, a chance for another powerful voice to chime back in. If you’re a Top 40 devotee, you know that voice was Adele’s, a sorrowful croon that can burst into a vivid range of auditory flourishes on a whim.

When “Hello” came out last fall, it impressed critics, who were already primed to love the edgy, young Cockney singer’s tear-jerking tunes. It also broke a lot of records. The power ballad is Adele’s fourth song to top the Billboard Top 100 charts, but her first -- and the first ever -- to sell one million digital copies in one week.

“Hello” surpassed Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” in YouTube views, speaking to the song’s catchiness. Even listeners who didn’t want to commit to purchasing the track couldn’t stop replaying it, hooked by its mournful, nostalgic tone and slow-marching buildup, culminating in an explosion of feels. This Monday, she'll preform the hit live at the Grammys. 

To figure out what it is about “Hello” that continues to hook both Adele-lovers and reluctant fans, I spoke with David Metzer, professor of music at the University of British Columbia. He’s literally writing the book on the history of the ballad right now, so his insights seemed like they might be valuable -- and they were.

First off, Metzer cautioned against categorizing songs too stringently, especially contemporary hits, which are much more likely to incorporate disparate genres. Although Adele’s “Hello” could be classified as a power ballad, it also pulls in pop, soul and what Metzer called “singer-songwriter intimacy.” That it touches on so many sounds is part of the song’s appeal.

That being said, it also follows a formula -- one that’s been employed by ballad writers in the 1970s and beyond, demonstrating a keen ability to please.

“A power ballad is based on one musical formula, and simply put it's one of constant escalation. These songs begin quietly and subdued, but then it's just nonstop building step by step by step by step,” Metzer explained. “So, usually, you’ll just have piano and voice or something like that, but by the end you’ll have a full orchestra and some electric guitars and all that, so it’s just this ramp-up of emotional intensity and musical intensity.”

Spurred by an abrupt change of key, the jerky shift in a power ballad is referred to as a “truck driver modulation,” a sudden escalation that makes the heart soar.

The switch from slow build to intense release usually happens about three-quarters of the way through the song, according to Metzer. Spurred by an abrupt change of key, the jerky shift in a power ballad is referred to as a “truck driver modulation,” a sudden escalation that makes the heart soar. “You can sense it right away,” Metzer says. “It’s just like everything literally has been taken up a step.”

Metzer traces the power ballad formula -- three quarters escalation, one quarter no-holds-barred emotion -- back to a musician who ostensibly has nothing in common with Adele: the schmaltzy, Broadway-inspired Barry Manilow.

“If you look at songs like 'Mandy' or even 'I Write the Songs,' he’s the one who really came up with this formula that I’ve been following, where it’s just constant escalation and modulation at the end,” Metzer said. “In fact, a critic in the early 1980s called it the 'Big Bang' formula.”

It’s the basis for a bevy of '80s pop and rock hits, including Aerosmith’s head bang-inducing “Dream On,” and Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”

“I think in the 1980s, you had pop and rock groups pick up on these ideas of ballads that just got bigger and bigger and bigger,” Metzer said. “I’m not sure if they were referring to the Manilow songs, but, really, in the late '70s and early '80s the Manilow songs were inescapable, so I’m sure they picked up on it in some way.”

So a simple formula, and the emotional lyrics they tend to encapsulate, unites Adele’s unfiltered love letters, Barry Manilow’s show-tunesy ditties, and Poison’s gravelly insights.

Beyond the catharsis provided by these songs’ structures, Metzer believes they appeal to listeners because they provide moments of earnest emotional indulgence -- which are rarities on the bubbly, glossy Billboard charts, populated as they are with teenage dreams and cheery commands to “Shake It Off.”

“If you look at pop culture, there are very few moments where you do get that unbridled release,” Metzer said. “And these songs provide them, so I think people grabbed onto them for that reason.”

It’s a weighty task for a single song to carry, which is why it makes sense that Adele’s “Hello” is a big, enveloping force, with bold, broad lyrics that could describe the feelings that accompany a variety of lost loves.

Adele has said that “the other side” refers to the maturity she’s discovered beyond the threshold of a rough-and-tumble youth. The song, she’s said, is about no one in particular -- an ode to everyone in the past she’s left behind. So when we sing along, we chant the mantra of a universal feeling: the creeping approach of adulthood, a smooth ride for occasional bursts of overwhelming nostalgia.

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