Regular Prairie Pop columnist Kembrew McLeod has turned over this month’s edition to Umläut Nideldick—the famous German song doctor and rock and roll life coach. The following text is drawn from Nideldick’s keynote address at the 2012 conference of the Eurovision Academy of Musical Arts.
Hello, fellow rockers! How ya doin’?!? Sehr gut? Alright! I’m here to tell you how to write, perform and record your very own power pop hit. Some of you may not be familiar with this genre name, but if you have ever heard The Knack’s “My Sharona” or Blondie’s “Hanging on a Telephone,” then you know what power pop sounds like: catchy, punchy and compact.
First off, you need a band, because power pop doesn’t work in a solo acoustic setting. Ideally, your group should consist of a keyboardist (optional), drummer, bassist and two guitarists. In addition to the lead vocalist, at least two other members need to be able to harmonize. As for your band name, which is important, it should begin with “The” and end with a noun, like The Cars, The Beat or The Raspberries.
The next stage of Umläut Nideldick’s Patented Power Pop Hitmaking Method® is cultivating the right sound. For starters, songs must be mid-to-uptempo (by definition, a power pop ballad is impossible). They should also be punchy, not “anthemic”—a la the U2, Coldplay, Arcade Fire axis of evil. Nein! I should also emphasize that being derivative is a virtue, so don’t even try to be experimental. There is no power pop equivalent of Radiohead’s Kid A, for example. You should instead pillage from the catchiest songs of the 1955-1964 rock and roll era, before pretentious art-rockers sullied the form by trying to make it fancy. Lastly, your band needs to be tight and well-rehearsed, and the recording should be polished (though not overly slick).
Now that you have formed a band and developed the correct sound, you must create a structure for your soon-to-be hit. Let’s start from the beginning of the track, which should avoid long, dramatic guitar intros (U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”? Nein!). Kick off with a bang. If your band has two guitarists, begin the song with one guitar and then have guitar number two enter the track after four-to-eight measures. This will add more power to your rockin’ pop song. At some point, your group should briefly strip the instrumentation down to vocals, drums, bass and handclaps. Also, put a bridge at the end of the second verse so you can briefly introduce a catchy new melody. And as always, keep it short: do not let your song exceed three and a half minutes. Understand? Ja?
Once you have the basics of song structure down, sharpen the details. Most important is the main guitar riff, which must be catchy, pretty or both (herky-jerky riffage is good, and a little Byrds-influenced chiming guitar will make a song sparkle). Guitar solos are acceptable, but should not be overly long. While acoustic guitars can be used at times, electric guitars are preferred—though lay off the distortion pedal, this isn’t grunge! Synths are also fine, but they shouldn’t dominate the mix, and no drum machines, otherwise, you’re veering into synth-pop territory. While we are on the subject of rock drummers, don’t allow them to play polyrhythms or elaborate fills. Rush percussionist Neil Peart is power pop kryptonite, so do NOT let your dumb drummer show off his sophisticated instrumental prowess. Keep it simple and direct. Ja!
Lastly, the lyrics: which are limited to sweet love, romantic angst and fun times (there has never ever been a power pop concept album, because the lyrical subject matter is too limited). While outright misogyny is forbidden, some standard-issue pop song sexism can be tolerated—like the use of “baby.” As for how those lyrics are delivered, there is no room in a classic power pop song for over-emotive vocals or bloozy inflections. Lastly, harmony is your freund. Background vocals can be used to beef up the song’s hooks with oooh-oooh-oooooo’s, la-la-laaaa’s or brief phrases like “we’re gonna have some fun!”
At long last, you are ready to rule the pop charts. I, Umläut Nideldick, will happily offer you a full refund if you fail to score a hit by following my instructions exactly. Please send all correspondences in my care to: 666 Upurass, Mainz-Kastel, Germany, 55252.
Kembrew plans to apply Umläut Nideldick’s Patented Power Pop Hitmaking Method® to produce a hit entitled “A Little Village Named Iowa City.” Stay tuned…