I recently became aware of something called “The Millennial Whoop”. Patrick Metzer wrote an interesting piece about it for Slate magazine. Its a musical pattern used within many types of songs to give instant comfort to the listener and make it sound familiar. “It’s a sequence of notes that alternates between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, typically starting on the fifth.” The effect is the vocalist’s voice warbles quickly up and down. (Think Wa-oh-wa-oh” in Katie Perry’s “California Gurls”.) The article then gives a dozen other examples of the whoop in pop, country and R&B songs.
I sent the article to my youngest daughter’s music teacher. He’s taught and played in bands for decades and his wife happens to be in the music industry. He wrote me back to say the Millennial Whoop is just the latest of a long line of patterns used in various genres. “The BLUES for example has the same phenomenon, however, different intervals, themes, and hooks.”
Both of my children are musicians and I’m somewhat familiar with patterns in music. A song by the Punk/Emo band Marianas Trench called, “Pop 101” details within the lyrics the pattern required for most pop songs. John Popper, wrote about the frustration of artists with the music industry’s reliance on these patterns for Blues Traveler, in the song “Hook”.
“It doesn’t matter what I say, So long as I sing with inflection, That makes you feel I’ll convey, Some inner truth or vast reflection, But I’ve said nothing so far, And I can keep it up for as long as it takes, And it don’t matter who you are, If I’m doing my job then it’s your resolve that breaks”
Its one of my favorite songs. Maybe because my brain is reacting to the chords of Pachelbel’s Canon Popper used to make his point. I would prefer to think its because I love the lyrics which express artistic frustration.
Journalists use patterns too. Sometimes its the inverted pyramid: you start with the most newsworthy facts, then use quotes and supporting details, then wrap the story with a general thesis and some background information. In digital journalism its the staircase: you start at the bottom with data, the next step is filter, then visualize and the top of the staircase is a story. I was taught to use the circular pattern of journalism: start with a specific example (someone experiencing whatever quandry you’re investigating), circle around to include facts, figures and sound with “officials”, then circle back to your original subject to show the problem being solved or action taken. I was also taught to keep myself out of the story as much as possible, however, that pattern is no longer in vogue.
The latest pattern emerging is “process journalism”. This is the documentary style, raw look,”shot it on my IPhone” journalism. Its not meant to look shiny and “packaged”. VICE will start a new newscast on HBO and the promotional campaign touts “no anchors” and “journalism without the makeup”. The pattern of process journalism is to take the viewer on the story with the reporter, showing the viewer each step in the news gathering process. Here I am heading to my story, here I am interviewing someone, here I am getting a message on my mobile that my other interview has cancelled, here I am in the streets just hanging out on the edge of this near riot, here are my feelings on this story and dammit, HERE I AM TELLING YOU, you should care!
I have to admit, I like the idea of taking viewers along for the news gathering process and I certainly could live my life in less makeup but I do wonder how our brains will accept this pattern of journalism. It strikes a narcissistic nerve in the traditionalist in me but that is before seeing that it is a pattern. It is the Millenial Whoop of journalism. Its exists because viewers crave transparency, they are slower to trust and want to see proof. If they don’t see you there, you weren’t there. That is the pattern emerging from a post youtube, citizen journalism world. Don’t just show me and tell me. Take me along for the ride.
Some people are better than others at implementing the pattern. Watch an Anthony Bourdain show. Any of them. You watch more than 3 and you can pick out the pattern. He may take you to exotic places to watch him eat unfamiliar dishes…but the opening of his show always explores a perfectly relatable concept. Home, Family, War, the feeling of anticipation, returning to a place drenched in history or personal meaning. The effect is that you are pulled into the story, not by him but by the words conjuring up images and concepts, pinging those parts of your brain that love patterns and familiarity. You get to follow him on the journey as he discovers, tastes, drinks a lot and eventually comes to an understanding. His shows have some brilliant writing and are about so much more than travel or food.
Whether music, journalism or the movies, the human brain is constantly looking for patterns. You can pick out every stage of Joseph Campbells “Heroes Journey” in most movies, one of my favorites being “The Matrix”. Realizing that you manipulatable, even if your brain enjoys the manipulation, is key. As in the Matrix, you can take the blue pill or the red pill. It doesn’t matter as long as you realize you are presented the choice. The next time you’re moved by a story, song or movie, ask yourself is it the message or the pattern? Or, just shut up and let your brain enjoy the ride.