Why The Chant Goes On Forever

I listened to Sirius XM Hits 1 last Thursday and heard it on three out of the first five songs I encountered.

I punched over to Sirius XM 20 On 20 to get away from it, and it was there, too, in the first song I heard.

I alternated with Sirius XM's Christian AC station, The Message, and it was on two consecutive songs as well.

I spent some time that day with hot AC Chili 90.1 Launceston, Australia. Even in Tasmania, there was no escaping it. I heard it in four out of five songs by artists as different as Matchbox Twenty, Jason Derulo, Kelly Clarkson, and Cascada. The fifth song was Tal Bachman's late '90s "She's So High," and if it was produced today, that song probably would have it, too.

What I heard in almost every song was "the chant" -- usually some version of "whoa-ay-oh." And over the last year, the chant has become the recent equivalent of the repetition of a syllable or word in the middle of a sentence -- the "turbo-pop" production cliché of three years ago. 

Sometimes the chant becomes the chorus, as it did in Phillip Phillips' "Home." Often, it takes you from the chorus to the next verse, as with Maroon 5's "Daylight." Sometimes it appears mixed-down under the chorus. Sometimes it punctuates the chorus, as in Jake Owens' country hit, "Bare Foot Bluejean Night." Sometimes, it's "oh-ohhh-oh" or some other sort of rhythmic chanting. Sometimes, combining the last two trends, the last word of a sentence becomes a chant (e.g., Little Mix's "Wings").

The chant can appear in a song in multiple forms. The first song I encountered on NRJ Belgium this morning was Axel Tony's "Au-Delà Des Mots," in which there was a chant at the beginning of the song and after the chorus. And the Little Mix trick was there as well. 

However it's used, the chant is in so many records now that it's like Pitbull raps a few years ago--you hear them and it still takes you a second to place which song you're hearing, because there are multiple candidates. Pitbull used "whoa-oh-ay-oh" so successfully in "International Love" that a similar chant is used in the same place, right before the hook in "Feel This Moment."

It's not new. When fun.'s "Some Nights" became a hit last year, you could easily trace it back to the "whoa-oh-oh" bridge of Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecilia." It was a common thing to hear when other western rock stars experimented with "world music." Or, sometimes, on the real thing. Juluka's "Scatterlings Of Africa," one of the best chanting songs ever, probably deserves some royalties for its influence 30 years later.

But as Robbins Entertainment A&R Director Matt D'Arduini notes, it was probably Usher's "OMG" four years ago most kickstarted the current trend. Readers Tom Smith and Lee Chesnut both astutely trace that back to Zombie Nation's arena chant in "Kernkraft 400."  And you can take that back to this cheesy international hit of the early '70s. 

The chant has almost become the way that an act announces that it is deliberately incorporating the sound of now. On Thirty Seconds to Mars' change-of-pace alternative hit, "Up In The Air," it's practically the first thing out of the band's mouth, after an equally of-the-moment staccato keyboard intro. Fall Out Boy's comeback, "My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark" ups the ante with both chanting and repetition.

And yet, "My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark" is my favorite song on the radio now, even though it ropes in yet a third trend by co-opting the sludgy, dense feel of dubstep. I can recognize all the work parts, and yet "My Songs" somehow sounds like nothing else out there, at least for now. It is, of course, destined to be replicated by any alternative band looking for new currency, just as 3Oh!3's turbo-pop "Don't Trust Me" became the template for any teen punk act that was tired of the genre's old "like-Blink-182, but slicker" sound.

I haven't yet worked out whether all this "whoa-ay-oh" is a bad thing. There are certain things I am always happy to encounter in a record. When somebody chants "come on/come on/come on/come on" in a song, it almost always works for me. Internal repetition was generally a good indicator that I would like a song, too, until it was overused. And it somehow didn't bother me when both Foxy and the Michael Zager Band incorporated a disco era chant that was considerably less subtle than the current one. 

Because we are in the "Swedish House Mumford" era of grab-bag pop, in which genres quickly steal from each other, it is inevitable that any nice little touch from a hit record will end up copied in every genre. And because of "hit lag," the nine-to-18 month incubation process for many songs, the chant will go on forever. Perhaps it's just part of the mortar of pop music and complaining about chanting is like saying too many songs have background vocals. But a song like "Blurred Lines" that doesn't have the chant stands out. And the elements of a hit record are less fun when they become memes -- and it feels like there is no shortage of memes at the moment.