What Can We Steal from Mike McKay’s “Imaginary Stop Signs”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Imaginary Stop Signs,” pop song
Author: Lyrics and Music by Mike McKay (on Twitter @MikeMcKayBand)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The song appears on the Mike McKay Band’s 2013 EP Fortress.  You can also view the official video here:

Bonuses:  Here’s a cool article about Mr. McKay from the Syracuse New Times.  Aw, guess what Mr. McKay did for Valentine’s Day?  He distributed Love-o-Grams!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Hooks

You know, you’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.  I look around me and I see it isn’t so.  In fact, some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. And what’s wrong with that?  I’d like to know.  So here I go:

“Imaginary Stop Signs” is a sentimental ballad in which the first-person narrator is singing to the person he (in this case) loves.  The song begins with an arpeggiated guitar and voice alone.  The second time we hear the chorus, Mr. McKay layers in a harmony vocal.  During the bridge, there is a multiple-part harmony accompanying him; this set of additional voices accompanies Mr. McKay through the rest of the song.  And what is Mr. McKay singing about?  Well, it’s a relatively simple love story that isn’t cynical or dark in the least.  (I have trouble relating.  Ha ha, it occurs to me that had I wrote the song, the narrator would be singing it to a stranger or a stuffed animal or something equally strange.)  He promises to care for the woman who loves so long as she reciprocates the treatment.

From time to time, I mention “hooks.”  I’ve stolen this concept from pop music because it completely relates to all other kinds of writing.  A hook is a little riff or a powerful lyric or particularly visceral image…something that hooks the listener.  They’re something “shiny” that attracts and/or holds an audience. I’m not going to say that Cher Lloyd’s song “Want U Back” is the most awesomest song ever, but it’s hooky as heck.  Every four measures, Ms. Lloyd adds a “frustrated grunt” to the track.  You can’t help but listen to the song because that darn… “frustrated grunt” has captured your attention.

Motown songwriters were (and are) masters of hooks.  Check out the Jackson 5’s “ABC:”

The lyrics are a hook.  (A-B-C, 1-2-3, do-re-mi the focus on childhood school stuff in comparison with love.)  That crazy awesome repeated fuzzy guitar riff keeps you listening.  That three-chord piano riff.  That repeated bass note James Jamerson plays during the bridge.

Here’s where I prove how hip and current I am.  Danger Mouse took The Beatles’ White Album and mixed it up with Jay-Z’s Black Album.  Check it, yo:

What do you think are the hooks?  The elements are taken from “Helter Skelter.”  There’s the descending guitar riff.  That fat bass beat is totally compelling when it’s repeated (and boosted) during the verses.  The screaming guitars that sound like howling voices.  (Or the spaceships from Star Wars as they pass you.)

How does this apply to people who don’t want to write songs?  A nonfiction writer can have a great hook for their memoir if they grew up in a cult and were held in a Turkish prison for twenty years after smuggling drugs.  See how shiny those concepts are?  I want to know what it’s like to grow up in a cult!  I want to know how it felt when the person smuggled drugs!  (The abject terror, of course, smuggling is bad, mmmkay?)  What was it like to be in a Turkish prison?

Mr. McKay has packed “Imaginary Stop Signs” with a few hooks.  First of all, that title.  I didn’t hear it in the first couple verses and I was hooked by wondering when it was going to appear.  Finally, Mr. McKay sings: “And you seem to stop the time/ When you make me stop to kiss you at imaginary stop signs.”  It’s an abstract mental image; when we are in our cars at a stop light, we’re in our own little world, even though we’re in public.  Mr. McKay is singing about a relationship in which reality can be whatever the couple wants it to be.  There’s a hook.

Mr. McKay uses a capo on the eighth fret of his guitar.  (I think it’s the eighth.  I’m getting old and so are my eyes.)  When he strums, the guitar sounds a little like a mandolin, a slightly exotic instrument whose sound sets the song apart a little.  You’re also subliminally reminded of Hawaii and beautiful places.  (Appropriate for lovers, no?)

The lyrics primarily consist of rhyming couplets.

And I’ll wake you every morning/ Take pleasure in the little things in a life that can get boring.

And I’ll love you every day/ And we can talk about how neither of us have ever felt this way.

The couplets create a sense of anticipation…what will be the rhyme?  (Think about a TV show like Desperate Housewives.  Every time someone new moved in, you knew they were in trouble.  You just didn’t know what would happen.)  You’ll also notice that the first lines of each couplet are simpler than the second; this structure requires him to change up the rhythm in a manner that grabs us.

Mr. McKay’s song builds in a very traditional way.  The song begins with just him and a guitar and other voices join in and the volume and passion has increased.  This makes sense because every piece of writing consists of the many elements the writer introduces.  Shouldn’t these increase in intensity as they interact throughout the piece?  The climax, after all, is where you begin paying off the hints you’ve dropped throughout a work.  Think of Beethoven’s Ninth.  The gentleman spent an hour introducing melodies, harmonies, instrumentation?  The end of the symphony is a natural place for everyone to sing and play at high volume and with maximum passion.

And the end of a pop song like Mr. McKay’s is the perfect place to take some of the emphasis off of wordplay, allowing him to simply harmonize his most important point for the young lady he has in mind: “I’m yours.”

What Should We Steal?

  • Hook your reader like one of those evil genius songwriters.  Once you’ve won over your audience, you can do anything you like with them.  A novel or a short story can be just as much of a “shiny thing” as a Kelly Clarkson song.
  • Establish a structure that creates natural suspense.  Rhyming couplets encourage your reader to wonder what will come next.  Creating a TV show set in a neighborhood rife with murder and duplicity ensures that your audience will suspect murder and duplicity at every turn.
  • Increase the amperage on each element of your piece as it crescendos to its endingA little mystery or confusion can be good for a reader…but only a little bit.  Don’t sacrifice the reader’s understanding of the piece as a whole.




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