Horn Lines, The Signature Sound of Today’s Pop Hits?

I have a casual fascination with pop music trends, those tweaks to the pop formulas that work fantastically for some period of time before pop slides into the next hip set of sounds. It’s interesting to me when some trend is distinct yet ubiquitous—it’s often a sign that the sound won’t be popular very long. For a moment the top hits will display the fad, then everyone will mimic the sound. But trends shift, and distinct trends can quickly sound “so last year.”

Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” with its prominent saxophone sounds, started drawing attention in late 2012 then exploded on the charts in early 2013. Over the past year Jason Derulo had hits with “Talk Dirty,” “Trumpets,” and most recently “Wiggle.” All three songs have wind or brass instrument sounds carrying strong melodies during the chorus.

Belter Ariana Grande dominated the radio this summer, hitting #2 on the Billboard Charts with “Problem” featuring Iggy Azalea (whose song “Fancy” held the top spot) and #6 with “Bang Bang,”  her collaboration with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj. And Taylor Swift has been holding the #1 spot with her dance-poppiest number yet, “Shake It Off.” All three songs feature strong wind or brass accompaniments, although it’s not the only set of sounds they have in common.

Have you wondered why those three hit songs sound so darn similar? Perhaps it’s just that the pop producers are mimicking each other, playing with what’s hot at the moment?

Well, it would be strange to describe it as mimicry considering those three songs were actually produced and co-written by the same person: Swedish super-producer and pop god Max Martin. He’s the one who’s basically been “running the charts” for the last couple decades. You want a Top Ten pop hit? This is your guy. He’s everywhere.

Before I heard “Problem,” I happened to watch this spot-on pair of videos by British personality Brett Domino about the recent pop formula:

When I first heard “Problem” I wondered, What genius constructed this gem? It sounds like a mash-up of some of the best-loved pop trends in the past couple years—the hard sax line, whispering chorus, rap interlude, bass line dropping appropriately, that drum sound that everyone does, and it’s reminiscent of other pop hits but nothing too recent…Brilliant! It has all the sounds of a sure hit.

(This is not to say that I like the song. I really don’t, but I appreciate the obvious mastery of the craft.)

I’m sure there are currently albums in the works with copycat producers hurriedly inserting hot sax lines and complex percussion into songs for their pop songstresses. Will Britney get one? Or is it Katy Perry’s turn…and what sounds might Will.i.am be messing around with nowadays? I wonder how long this trend will continue.

Speaking of other producers, I mentioned that “Problem” sounds familiar, and as Brett Domino says, familiarity is good for hit songs. In 2005 Jennifer Lopez’s hit “Get Right” featured a strong sax line, and singer Amerie  broke onto the charts with “1 Thing” with funk-derived percussion and guitar. (And—surprise—both tracks were produced by the same person, also the producer of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s hit “Crazy in Love.”) Take a listen and I’m sure you’ll agree that Grande’s “Problem” bears a strong resemblance to those hits. Genius!