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You’re driving somewhere, maybe to a client’s event or perhaps to your 9-5 day job, and you’ve got the radio on low. The presenter has been chattering away but then he/she starts the next track and you turn it up a notch. It’s a new song, you think. You definitely haven’t heard this before. Then the first chorus kicks in, there’s a melody there, and it’s catchy. And then you’re thinking: Hang on, have I heard this before? I have heard this before. I’m sure of it… Maybe I’ll keep listening, just to see. Maybe wait for the presenter to tell me who it’s by. Before you know it, you’ve listened to the whole song. And you think you like it. You might even play it at your next gig, if you can track it down in time. Or perhaps you’ll add it to your latest Spotify playlist, to listen to later.

Sound familiar? This happens to me with pop songs all the time. I notice similarities between them, in the chord progressions or the vocal melodies or the drum beats. Sometimes to the point where I think I know the song, even by name, only to realise a few seconds later that it’s a new song, or something completely different to what I thought it was.

It was an American musician and journalist named Patrick Metzger who noticed this happening more and more frequently post-2010. And, following a hunch, he decided to delve deeper, analysing the musical DNA of the pop songs that he just couldn’t help but love. What he found was a two-note melodic hook that most often appears around the 1-minute mark in some of the 21st century’s biggest pop hits. He called this phenomenon the Millennial Whoop, coining the phrase firstly in a 2016 blog post and then solidifying his ideas in a 2017 TED Talk.

According to Metzger, the Millennial Whoop is symptomatic of society in the new millennium, where attention spans are short and the number of video plays or song streams an artist gets can make or break them. The idea is that this ‘whoop’ keeps us listening, it holds our attention through a vague sense of recognition, and, in the long run, the fact that we listen to the song means money for the record company and/or artist.

You may even have noticed the Millennial Whoop yourself, creeping into songs by the likes of Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Owl City and Kelly Clarkson circa 2010. If you haven’t already, once you clock it you’ll start hearing it just about everywhere. Here’s what you’re listening out for, as described by Metzger himself:

“A sequence of notes that alternates between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, typically starting on the fifth. The rhythm is usually straight 8th-notes, but it may start on the downbeat or on the upbeat in different songs. A singer usually belts these notes with an ‘Oh’ phoneme, often in a ‘Wa-oh-wa-oh’ pattern. And it’s in so many pop songs it’s criminal.”

To Whoop or Not to Whoop?

Well, the naysayers will tell you that the Millennial Whoop is a dumbing down of pop music; part of a simplistic, predictable format and a style of carefully crafted songwriting that values the number of streams a song gets over the creativity of the writer or artist. They say it saps life from the music; it’s just a part used in a manufactured product, like the wheels of a new car or the fader on your DJ controller.

As some people have pointed out, in today’s digital world, it’s easier than ever before for producers to ‘mix and match’ elements until they get the ‘perfect song’. One producer, Dr Luke, has actually cited neuroscience as an influence on his incredibly lucrative approach to production, by which the structure of a track can have a certain effect on the listener’s brain or draw a certain reaction from them (usually, to keep listening). Perhaps not coincidentally, Dr Luke is a big fan of the Millennial Whoop, with a number of music fans pointing out his involvement in various chart-topping tracks that use it.

So, is the Millennial Whoop all a big conspiracy, the brainchild of the record company executives to make us buy or stream more of their mass-produced music? I seriously doubt it, because if you listen a little closer, you’ll find that The Whoop crosses diverse musical genres and the concept applies to rock/indie bands and independent record labels just as much as it does to mainstream pop artists.

The more likely reason for this phenomenon is that somebody used the motif successfully, perhaps in the mid-2000s, and a number of other artists and songwriters started using it too, because, well, it worked. After all, musicians have been copying and influencing each other since forever. In the 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll exploded in the Western world, with countless hits using what music critics called the Bo Diddley Beat, named after the blues guitarist of that name. Why? Because people couldn’t help but move to that beat! In electronic dance music, from the 1980s onwards, a drum sample known as the Amen Break – taken from The Winstons’ ‘Amen, Brother’ [1960] – was used widely and even formed the basis of entire sub-genres, including breakbeat and drum ‘n’ bass. In fact, most of our current pop music is based on the same four-chord progression used since the middle of the last century – so that’s nothing new, either.

The Power of The Whoop

Of course, even now that we’re aware of the Millennial Whoop, it isn’t going to stop us enjoying those same pop songs. That’s the real positive for mobile DJs to take from the whole phenomenon. After all, the DJ plays what pleases the crowd; nobody can blame you, as the DJ, for playing the current hits of the time. And let’s face it, even if, as a punter, I know about The Whoop and think it’s a stupid pop hook, I’m unlikely to leave the dance-floor to go and sulk in a corner! These are pop songs, for dancing and having fun to, and that’s exactly what the Millennial Whoop accommodates.

Just as the Bo Diddley Beat sent teenagers crazy in the 1950s, the Millennial Whoop plays the same role in today’s culture. Those ‘woah-oh-ohs’ are responsible for countless hands-in-the-air moments, for thousands of drunken embraces, for solidifying friendships and romances across the world. And that’s why these songs are a secret weapon in your arsenal as a DJ. They keep the dance-floor full, they keep feet moving and drinks flowing, and, ultimately, they help everybody have a good time!

That, after all, is what clients want from you when you play out at their events. Manufactured or not, if a predictable pop hook like the Millennial Whoop helps you achieve that mission, then there’s little shame in it. But please handle carefully – these tracks are dangerously, annoyingly, frustratingly addictive. But I guess that’s the point, right?
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 92, Pages 40-43.
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