For most artists, the likelihood of writing a major hit diminishes over time — pop success is often synonymous with youth. But at the end of January, Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes” was comfortably ensconced at Number Four on the Hot 100, making it the biggest hit of the band’s 14-year career.
And that may not be the most atypical feature of this hip-pop-parade-march mishmash: “High Hopes” is bizarre down to its musical skeleton. A recent report by Soundfly analyzed every song that cracked the Billboard Top 5 in 2018 and concluded that more than half of those songs used two to four chords. “High Hopes,” on the other hand, was the only major hit to incorporate eight different chords.
“That song is candy for a music-theory geek,” says Dean Olivet, who authored Soundfly’s report. “Some bands, like Panic! and the Killers, almost hearken back to lounge singers with jazz influences — that’s what all those chords are, jazz chords. Whenever you’re in jazz or Broadway, the chords start multiplying like rabbits. You have to put [‘High Hopes’] in that frame of reference.”
Sam Hollander, who co-wrote the Panic! at the Disco single, is proud of its stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb qualities. “We live in a strange era of uniform sameness, and it makes me crazy,” he says. “I’ve been in rooms where people pull out their Splice plugins and immediately assemble the basis of a track in two minutes with the same change that I’ve heard in 400 songs on the radio. Many times people are rewarded for presets.”
Hollander’s path into the music industry is about as peculiar as the structure of “High Hopes.” (The Soundfly report marvels, “who ever heard of a bridge squishing itself in between abutting pre-chorus and chorus sections?”) In 1991, a 20-year-old Hollander was signed to Select Records, but his resulting debut album “sold about five copies,” leaving him deal-less by 23.
Thanks to industry trends, he was directionless, too. “I wanted to bring the Brill Building to rock, but co-writing just wasn’t a thing — rock was in that Kurt Cobain-era of self-contained bands,” Hollander recalls. “I banged on doors, but there was zero response. So I did whatever I could do to stay in it. I learned how to make beats and I did remixing for Def Jam. I did jingles and dance records overseas. I wrote a BaHa Men song. It was an awful grind.”
Hollander also started to develop acts, but while his bands kept getting signed, none of their songs stuck. “I think I have a rarified distinction: The first six or seven records I made, five were never released, the sixth came out on September 11 and was never heard from again, and the seventh, Dreamworks folded on the act,” Hollander says.
His career inflection point came through Gym Class Heroes: Hollander co-wrote the single “Cupid’s Chokehold,” which was certified platinum in 2007. “I went from making major label records for hundreds of thousands of dollars with no success to making the Gym Class Heroes’ As Cruel as School Children for $29,000 including mastering,” he says. “That record changed my life.” He started to build his plaque collection — he co-produced Metro Station’s “Shake It” (double platinum) and We the Kings’ “Check Yes Juliet” (platinum) — and to place songs with the upper echelon of pop stars: Katy Perry, One Direction.
In the subsequent decade-ish, co-writing has become more popular in every genre — most of the biggest streaming hits last year had five or more writers — which makes Hollander’s Brill Building-meets-rock vision seem more attainable. The challenge today is not the Brill Building half of the formula but the rock half: The genre’s commercial fortunes have fallen off a cliff.
Despite this, Hollander has managed to carve out a space writing rock hits in a world that mostly doesn’t want them. Recently, his most productive partnership has been with Panic! at the Disco. He helped pen the platinum-certified “Emperor’s New Clothes” in 2015 and the gold-certified “Say Amen (Saturday Night)” last year.
Before writing “High Hopes,” Hollander “was in a dark place,” “existing on a healthy diet of boat drinks and despair.” “There are creative frustrations — I have so much I want to put out there, and sometimes when I feel stonewalled, I just start to plummet,” he explains. And with “High Hopes,” he repeatedly failed to find a groove. “The chorus was lingering — they played it to me a few times, and I was chopping it to bits, but [the rest of the song] would never materialize,” he says.”I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song go through so many iterations and actually work,” adds Scott Nagelberg, who manages Panic! at the Disco.
Hollander describes his eventual breakthrough with the bright details of a longtime lyric writer. “I put my headphones on, laid back in my porch and the sun was just blazing through my skull,” he says. “I began to hear optimism. I tried to channel that.”
Writing a song is only half the battle: A painstaking, often expensive process is required to turn non-rap into hits. (Rap is still the only genre that can consistently blow up on its own.) That campaign fell partly to Nagelberg, who says the unusual structure — and extra chords — in “High Hopes” did not deter listeners. Quite the opposite, in fact: “That’s the Frankenstein, theatrical nature of Panic!” he explains. “It’s supposed to be a little bit of a challenge.”
Still, Panic! at the Disco considered the track too pop-leaning to lead their Pray for the Wicked campaign. “We wanted to go where the band’s roots are: alternative [radio],” Nagelberg says. “Say Amen (Saturday Night)” hit Number One there in June. When the band started promoting “High Hopes,” they pushed it to alternative, pop, and, for the first time, Hot AC, an adult-focused format that can grease the wheels for crossover. “It started testing well there, and I think that research helped [encourage] a lot of the pop programmers [to play ‘High Hopes’],” Nagelberg says.
Support from all three formats simultaneously has been key for recent rock songs that hope to reach a wide audience: Radio beamed “High Hopes” to a combined audience of 155 million listeners the week of January 9. And since, as Nagelberg puts it, “radio begets streaming, streaming begets radio,” the single was also racking up more than 3 million streams a day on Spotify in January. It’s still earning more than two million daily, performing so well that the band has not yet released a third single from their album.
Hollander now refers to “High Hopes” as “the eight-chord wonder.” “What’s heartbreaking to me [as a writer] is that intellectual curiosity seems to have gone out the window to just chase whatever’s happening on Spotify this second,” he says. “I’m gonna keep taking strange detours at the traffic light.”