Dialectic of Pop, 263–272


I. Poetics of the Hook


The very word ‘hit’ grabs the ear. The short ‘h’, the flat and dry ‘it’, the percussive brevity of the whole—everything in this word is consonant with its meaning, even for non-English speakers: it is a blow, a physical blow that shocks, that strikes (‘Les coups / Qui apprenent à vivre [The blows / That teach you to live],’ as Johnny Hallyday cried in 1966). A sonic blow to the ear, the sound seems to resonate long after the initial shock. When the word is used to describe the most popular songs,6 the figurative sense seems to retain something of the literal
meaning. Superimposed upon the idea of successful song, the idea of the hit intuitively reveals all that the pop hit contains of a warning and, it has to be said, violence. ‘He hit me / and it felt like a kiss,’ runs the line sung by Carole King for The Crystals in 1962, the blow here being synonymous with a dark pleasure. The pleasure taken in the blows of the pop hit, however, does not involve the kind of masochistic setup upon which a critic such as Adorno could base his indictment. Between captatio benevolentiae and forced capture, between invitation and warning, between consensual pleasure and helpless rapture, the hit deploys a poetics of the hook which we must try to trace back to its sources…