There is no way to say for sure what specific elements, sounds or aspects of a record make it a HIT. Yet every hit has a few key things that grab our attention and make it memorable.
Reviewing a long list of hits, we find that many of the same or analogous elements work over and over, in their separate contexts, to create their charisma.
Some of these have to do with the song itself, others with the way it is arranged, performed, or with the recording and production process.
Finally, some factors may work from the outside, i.e., current events, trends in society, marketing, etc.
Here’s how a song recorded in a dingy, warehouse attic on an 8-track became one of the biggest hits of the 1980s:
Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”
Lead vocal: Annie Lennox
From the album: “Sweet Dreams,” originally released 1983.
CD issued 1987: RCA CD# RCD 25447
Music and lyrics by Annie Lennox, David Stewart
Produced by David Stewart
Recorded by D. Stewart, A. Williams, and R. Crash in a London warehouse
Key: C minor
Tempo: 126 bpm
Time signature: 4/4
Key elements: Riff, mood, vocal, chorus, artist’s look, recording
Signature: Mechanistic, dehumanized, synthetic tracks; Lennox’s haunting, doleful, sometimes soulful voice; grim lyrics focusing on the risks, danger, and pitfalls of life and love; the “Look”!
“Sweet Dreams” begins with its signature two-bar progression, a hypnotic loop of 1–flat-6–5. No chords: just pulsating eighth-note arpeggios sound on a reedy synthesizer patch, prowling ominously left and right.
A constant quarter-note kick drum beats time, while the downbeat of each two-measure phrase is marked by a heavy, ringing floor tom or similar-sounding Brazilian sordu. Altogether, the feel is grim, mildly horrific, and definitely threatening.
Lennox’s rich, soulful voice enters, dry and sibilant. In eight terse lines, she surveys mankind’s dark, perverted motives.
Like Martha in Edward Albee’s play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” or Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s novella, “The Heart of Darkness,” Lennox pronounces that we are all jungle creatures, terrified by the eyes staring at us from the void.
The dual choruses are totally dry, stark, and devoid of emotion. In contrast, each release paints a pitiful, highly stylized picture of mankind’s lot.