A Quasi-Scientific Look at How a Hit Song Becomes a Barroom Classic

"Livin' on a Prayer." "Come on Eileen." "Fat Bottomed Girls." All of these songs, plus a handful of others, have become American bar classics, their appeal spanning all ages and locales. Kenny Herzog talks with music critics about the making of a timeless barroom hit.

On any given weekend night, somewhere in America, a college senior is leading his local frat-bar brethren in a chorus of “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” while hundreds of miles away, a cowpoke couple at the saloon slow-dances to Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”

These seemingly un-extinguishable jukebox staples—along with other ubiquitous hits, from Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” to Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” and Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places”—are among a canon of songs that have weathered shifting trends in technology and taste. But how, exactly? What elevates a pop hit to the kind of rarified barroom classic that inspires wincingly sincere demonstrations of collective joy?

“One thing that happens when you’ve got a song everybody knows is that it reinforces the sense of ‘us’ and this shared identity,” says Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the University of Arkansas’ Music Cognition Lab and author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind. “There’s a way that listening to it together has this bonding effect with the people present.”

A cynic might theorize that artists cannily deploy these nuggets with immortality in mind—call it the “Born to Run” principle—but The A.V. Club and Vulture contributor Annie Zaleski argues it’s pretty damn hard to write a song that beckons peoples’ quarters across several eras on purpose.

“I think it’s a happy accident,” she says. “You can’t deliberately craft a jukebox classic. The only one might be Joan Jett’s ‘I Love Rock ’n Roll,’ but the classic bar songs didn’t set out to be that way.” She does, however, concede that it helps if you have “one certain element that’s really simple and catchy: These songs aren’t necessarily overly complicated.”

To wit, most of the compositions in question tend to be lyrically direct. With a handful of exceptions (think Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,”), these songs characteristically pair structural comfort with universal sentiments—love, loss, ups, downs, etc. Though, ironically, Margulis suggests that the more abstract the message, the better.

“None of us might even have a very concrete notion of what it’s about, beyond just its ‘about-ness,’” says Margulis of an unlikely nightlife mainstay such as Queen’s 1978 single, “Fat Bottomed Girls,” which, according to data from in-venue music platform du jour, TouchTunes, registered the ninth most plays on their systems nationwide in 2015. “As long as it’s floating in this way, we can share in this experience without bumping into many places where our experiences differ.”

And to the extent that it can be about a personal connection, Aritzia Music Director and influential writer and DJ Sarah Lewitinn confides that, “A lot times, when I go out drinking, I’m drowning something, and I think that’s possibly a common occurrence.” Thus, an aspirational confection along the lines of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” becomes, unexpectedly, “a bit of a self-help song.”

Below, a six-pack of songs that, by any measure, have kept night crawlers crooning and swooning in congress for years, along with some helpful commentary from Lewittinn, Margulis and Zaleski on their endless appeal. Plus, a look ahead at what modern chart-toppers might join the future bar-juke elite.

Bon Jovi, “Livin’ on a Prayer” | 1986

Zaleski: “The key change at the end is what makes that song a classic, ’cause you’re singing along, and all of a sudden you have to go up however many steps. It’s giddy, and it’s goofy too.”

Margulis: “It feels aspirational or nostalgic. [It’s] some brief escape from how layered and complex everything seems.”

Lewitinn: “Having people around you who you don’t even know telling you, ‘We’re halfway there, we’re living on a prayer,’ kind of feels good and reassuring. It’s also just really cheesy and reaches a broad audience. The lyrics are basically about the American Dream.”

Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” | 1968

Zaleski: “It conjures good feelings, and when you’re out, that’s what you want. You don’t want songs talking about strife. You want songs to pump you up, but you also want songs to calm down. And it has a really good groove and beat.”

Margulis: “Everybody’s working all the time, and then you’re at the bar, and then you enter this magical space where in fact what you do is sit around with your friends, and here’s this song that’s explicitly about wasting time. There’s this nostalgia for something maybe you didn’t ever have, for a life more carefree than the one we’re currently subjected to.”

Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen” | 1982

Zaleski: “Its Celtic influence reminds people of an Irish drinking song, though, granted, the band is from England. But you have that crescendo at the end. It’s carefree and exuberant. You’re grafting your own experience onto the song, so you can mold it to fit whatever situation you’re in at the moment.”

Margulis: “When you get involved in these intensity ramp-ups that go to these particular moments, that’s really engrossing. You get committed to the music and find yourself singing along before you knew what you were doing. If you peer into peoples’ heads, I bet there are some really different Eileens.”

Lewitinn: “[It’s] as much of a chant as a song. People are not typically singing along to the verses. They’re singing along to the ‘too-rye-ay’ part. It’s a rollercoaster of a song ’til you get to the very peak. Everything explodes and everything turns happy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say, ‘I don’t like that song.’”

Queen, “Fat Bottomed Girls” | 1978

Zaleski: “That’s a really good air-drumming song. It has a really steady rhythm. It’s kind of strident. And in terms of the Queen catalogue, it’s a little more compact.”

Margulis: “[It] starts with an a cappella choral part. Passages like that are pragmatically understood as an invitation to sing along. Also, sometimes when there’s a slightly transgressive element to the lyrical content—even the name of the song—it’s a permissive space where you’re maybe slightly stepping over a line together with an entire group.”

Lewitinn: “‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ is a song you want to hear if you get or feel rejected. It makes people really happy. It’s not only stood the test of time, but it’s developed more relevance now in the age of booty.”

AC/DC, “You Shook Me All Night Long” | 1980

Zaleski: “The riffs of that song are so crisp, and it’s such an ode to unfettered lust and a celebration of lust, but it’s not objectifying. When he says, ‘She knocks me out with those American thighs,’ it’s a really silly come-on. It’s kind of a non-pressurized way to be like, ‘Hey, I kind of like you.’”

Lewitinn: “I like to think of a song that’s popular on a jukebox existing because it’s a song that somebody wants to play for somebody else as a love letter, and I think that’s why this song probably stays in the canon.”

Beyoncé ft. Jay-Z, “Crazy in Love” | 2003

Zaleski: “[It’s] not just a song that makes you want to sing—it makes you want to move. When you hear it, you feel like you can flip over tables and lift up cars. It’s invincible-sounding, it’s well-crafted and it really does signify, ‘We can totally let loose.’ It’s a non-specific love, too. It’s an ode to love itself.”

Margulis: “There’s [a] clear intensity ramp-up where you have the sequencing going up bit by bit. It has that hookish, snagging quality. It arrives some place and then completely changes. You’re noticing it’s coming, and then the thing that comes is even catchier than the last thing.”

Lewitinn: “It’s a love song of all love songs. When there’s a song that can really celebrate happiness and love and appreciation of your partner, it’s such a rare thing. It’s also very well-produced, and the idea of being crazy in love is something everyone can relate to.”

Future Jukebox Heroes

The Strokes, “Last Nite” | 2001

Zaleski: “[This] song completely rips off ‘American Girl’ by Tom Petty, but it’s kind of the modern version. It’s in that long line of songs that remind you of other things as well, so you kind of want to play them.”

The Killers, “Mr. Brightside” | 2004

Lewitinn: “I thought about this video I saw of this guy in Ireland at the wake of his friend, and he got up on top of a bar and someone put on ‘Mr. Brightside,’ and he just sang it along with the entire bar. These guys were in their 40s. It’s going to stay in jukeboxes for a long time, because it reflects an energy and optimism people want.”

Miley Cyrus, “Party in the U.S.A.” | 2009

Lewitinn: “Whenever I hear [this] song out, everyone stops what they’re doing and starts singing along. You go out to experience life. You don’t go out to be alone. ‘Party in the U.S.A.’ is a track that celebrates life—especially in America.”

OutKast, “Hey Ya!” | 2003

Zaleski: “You’re not really sure what it’s about, but it crossed over so seriously. The phrase ‘Shake it like a Polaroid picture’ is kind of like Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off.’ It really encourages action.”