Just Wait Till We Get Our Hooks in You: Dr. Smith & the Aesthetics of the Hooks Contest

by Alex Melnick
arts & life editor

You know that part of a song that gets stuck in your head on repeat, or a movie scene you can’t stop thinking about? That’s what media producers call a hook. Often times they get so embedded into our thoughts that they leave us wondering how to exorcise the hook from our skulls. Dr. Steven Smith has devised a relatively painless surgery for removing these embedded hooks and hangers in your brain: The Hooks Contest.download (6)

Initially devised as a student-led Friday Forum debating what the “best songs ever” were in 2007, the Hooks Contest has emerged as a fascinating facet of the Millsaps experience. Every year, students write a paragraph on anything that “hooks” them. Entries have ranged from meditations on cooking to movie scenes. Last year, Smith even had a Beatles-themed Hooks contest.

Smith sat down with the P&W in his charming office to explain the perks and pitfalls of being involved in aesthetic theory, and why Millsaps students sometimes can’t seem to get “hooked” into this sort of academic discourse.

The Purple & White: Let’s start with the basics. What is a hook?

Dr. Steven Smith: The term “hook” comes from commercial music. It’s a way to talk about writing pop music. To catch on with a big audience, you have to put hooks on it. Sometimes in pop music criticism, you’ll see an album praised for having lots of hooks. But, that kind of trivializes an important aesthetic notion. There are pieces of artworks that are of exceptional interest that we would go back to, and that we would fall in love with. The practical meaning of “hook” is that we would want to hear that song again, but once we get into it, you start to get curious and wonder why that has such an effect on us or work so well. Usually when you start thinking about it, you start realizing what’s going on around it—it’s like the peak of Mt. Everest. There’s really a lot to Mt. Everest other than the mathematical point on top. People have to climb to get there to get that fantastic view up there. You have to think: “I’ve been put into this position by this peak moment or a line in a poem, and I’ve been given a view around and various things have been leveraged to get me there.” I wanted to throw open the Hook question beyond music or the commercial to make it a way of looking at everything special in our lives. Hence, that the totally open call for experiences in the Hooks contest.

P&W: How did the Beatles theme do last year?

SS: Well, we didn’t get many submissions at all. What gave me the idea for the theme was that Dr. Raley was teaching a course on the Beatles, and I thought it was a golden opportunity for Hooks writing. Those people would really be in the zone for noticing moments of peak interest and craftsmanship!

P&W: Were you sent anything?

SS: Nothing. They stiffed me. I pestered a few students though. We did get several interesting submissions from other students. I pitched mine in and tried to get other colleagues to write them. The moral of the story is: You got a fairly small population of folks who are really going to write a Hooks essay, or who are excited about the opportunity. Then you have a larger circle of people (and I find it considerably larger) that think it’s an interesting question and want to talk about their favorite guitar riff or television series. For a lot of those people, it’s just not congenial to them to sit down and write the paragraph.

P&W: What would an ideal Hooks essay look like?

SS: Well, I love how when you look at the Hooks website they’re all so different! There’s no real standard one. It’s just a hooky paragraph. I’m encouraging people to have fun with it and use personal style because the subject matter is so diverse. You have one student talking about a song she loves, and then Riley Starrett talking about “Breaking Bad.”

P&W: I always really liked Eli Kerby’s piece on “There Will be Blood.”

SS: See, you remember it! He succeeded!

P&W: Is there anything you would want to tell the student body about the Hooks Contest?

SS: We’re here to wake up and become mindful about the good things in life. The Hooks conversation is not fun for everyone, but it’s fun for a lot of us. I’d like to expand that conversation. A big motivation for me is that when I get other people talking about what they value is that I learn about things I didn’t know about. I love lists. I love when people make their “top 10” of things because invariably they contain things I haven’t heard of that I will have a chance to seek out and get enriched by.

P&W: So that’s what the Hooks Contest is all about?

      SS: Yeah! As a teacher, you are always encouraging students to be concrete as they write. You have to have substantial ideas, but those ideas need to be anchored and illustrated by the concrete. In a sense, when we have students write heritage papers, we’re trying to enforce Hooks discipline. We think that the best writing and thinking involves recognizing particular components of works of art and being able to effectively describe them. You can talk on a larger scale about themes or hooks; it all goes together ultimately.