top of page
  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Lady Marmalade" and hook theory

Labelle's smash hit is so catchy because nearly every individual element is infectiously memorable on its own.

I'm still finding it hard to believe that yesterday was the hundredth day of my blog and my Senior Year Soundtrack. There's just something about getting into the triple digits in anything that seems so daunting. And yet, here we are, ready to begin the next hundred.

Interestingly enough, the inspiration for the beginning of the second hundred entries is the same as that of my third post, which was on Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People." Simply put, I got the song in question stuck in my head once I heard it playing loudly from a car driving by Sproul Plaza.

Interestingly enough, this time I heard the song's intro rather than any sort of lyrical refrain. All the same, I could identify Labelle's "Lady Marmalade" clear as day from its opening measures, and even though I hardly heard the "Hey sister, go sister" which soon followed, I filled in the rest of the intro and much more in my head. Gitchi gitchi ya ya, let's listen to the full thing before I just sing it all myself:

Listening to "Lady Marmalade" and wondering why it's so darn catchy led me back to some of the discussions in which I took part in my popular music theory class this semester. The course is a brand-new one at Cal, and it's a pretty rare topic of instruction in any music department or school, so it was really eye-opening for us to look at popular music in the way we did. One of the lessons we had was on the concept of the "hook." The term "hook" is often used to describe a chorus or another repeating vocal line, but in our class' discussion as well as some wider pop theory discourse, the word can be used to describe any repeating rhythmic or melodic element that stands out and is remembered by the listener — basically, anything that recurs and is considered catchy.

Considering the repetition- and loop-based nature of popular music, a song can have a substantial number of hooks. Case in point: "Lady Marmalade," a track nearly entirely made up of hooks from start to finish. I'm going to go through each in order of when they're first heard, discussing the role they each play.

  1. Guitar and bass riff: The first melodic figure in the song gives a really strong sense of the two-chord pattern that plays for most of the song by landing on the roots to each chord (G minor and C Major) at the same time as the piano. It's a pretty simple pattern — arpeggiating a minor dominant chord on G before hitting C — but hooks often draw their power from simplicity in tandem with repetition. Something that's recurring and is simple to hum or play back is a textbook hook.

  2. "Hey sister, go sister...": It only repeats once before the first verse begins, but the first line sung by Patti Labelle, Sarah Dash, and Nona Hendryx is a real attention grabber, and it appears again in the background of the second verse. If it isn't a hook, I don't know what else you could classify that way.

  3. "He met Marmalade down in old New Orleans..." Now this vocal line doesn't repeat, but the melody used to sing it does. Distinguished by its minor third leap of G to B-flat, it's a focal feature of all the verses which follow.

  4. "Gitchi gitchi ya ya da da": The first line of the chorus is a hook which sets up most of the lines which follow it in the section. It actually features the same minor third repetition that the verse does, but the tail of the line ("da da") distinguishes it enough for it to be its own hook.

  5. "Creole Lady Marmalade": A line separate from the rest of the chorus in its timing and melody, I hear this lyric and its melody finishing the sentence that "Gitchi gitchi ya ya da da" started as it leads into the next hook.

  6. The two-bar instrumental break before the post-chorus: The aforementioned dividing factor is something I get stuck in my head a lot when I think of this song. It's a simple figure down and slightly back up the G minor pentatonic scale... and my point about simplicity stands from earlier.

  7. The post-chorus melody: I consider the French lyrics of "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" to be the post-chorus, because it's separated from the rest of the chorus by a short instrumental, and it leads back to the verses. At first I considered it to belong under the umbrella of the chorus hook, but I think it's distinguished enough by its timing in the second half of the line, especially the ending on "ce soir." The fact that the outro is largely an extended post-chorus definitely helped reinforce my conception of the melody as being a separate hook.

  8. "On her black satin sheets where he started to freak...": I didn't consider this melody a hook at first, but I changed my mind once I listened enough times and realized the melodic figure repeats twice in the third verse in the same spot, first on "Made the savage beast inside / Roar until it cried."

  9. "More, more more!": The final hook to be introduced, its unbridled energy reflects the climax implied at the point it which it appears in the narrative. Its one-time recurrence before the final chorus solidifies it as a hook, and it's a massively important one in providing variation and increased anticipation for the release in returning to the chorus.

From my analysis, I can conclude that nearly every beat of "Lady Marmalade" is covered in part by at least one hook. With each of the aforementioned hooks being memorable and catchy in their own right, it makes sense why the song as a whole is the same way.

Of course, the fact that so many hooks are present in the song doesn't automatically mean that they all work together. Getting small ideas and snippets to sound good together involves careful songwriting and production that curates all the different ideas into a cohesive whole, one which values each of the hooks while also placing them in somewhat of a hierarchy based on where they occur within the song. As much credit as Labelle, Dash, and Hendryx, and the instrumentalists, are warranted for their artistry, the same level of praise (if not greater) should go to writers Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan, and to producers Allen Toussaint and Vicki Wickham, for having the vision and ear to mediate all the hooks that go into "Lady Marmalade" and shape them into such a satisfying song.


bottom of page