Sam Hollander Book Excerpt: How He Co-Wrote His Biggest Hit, Panic! at the Disco’s ‘High Hopes’

Sam Hollander could never be accused of being an overnight sensation. As the songwriter/producer details humorously and candidly in his memoir 21-Hit Wonder: Flopping My Way to the Top of the Charts, publishing Dec. 6 through BenBella/Matt Holt Books, his path to the top has been a rocky one as full of set backs as success.

Despite his humility, Hollander has become a top-tier songwriter, penning songs for Panic! at the Disco, One Direction, Kety Perry, Train, Fitz and the Tantrums, blink-182 and Ringo Starr, among others.  In this edited excerpt, Hollander writes about his biggest hit so far, Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes.” He had co-written four songs for the band’s previous album, 2016’s Death of a Bachelor, and after initially not hearing back on songs he sent over for the follow-up, 2018’s Pray for the Wicked (a phrase Hollander came up with) he got the word to go write in person with Panic’s lead singer Brendon Urie. 21-Hit Wonder is available for pre-order through Amazon.

Over the next few weeks, me, Brendon and [producer] Jake [Sinclair] banged out eight songs. I can’t recall ever being so creatively dialed in. I just had a hunch that we were on some next level s–t. When the tunes made their way to label and management, everyone seemed pretty joyous across the board. I could sense a real buzz on the record, but there was still one massive puzzle piece missing. [Crush Management’s] JD and Evan [who managed the band] were holding on to an incredible hook and track that had been written in a hot tub — yes, a hot tub — at a “writing camp” in Colorado a couple of years previous by the über-talented Ilsey Juber, Jonas Jeberg, Cook Classics, and Tayla Parx. I can’t overstate how epic this chorus was. The first time I heard it, I was covered in goose bumps. I believe all involved originally envisioned it as the perfect hip-hop feature, which it easily could’ve been, but every single rap A&R had passed on it. 

It was called “High Hopes.” 

A writing camp is a small congregation of topliners and producers who spend a week fraternizing in some semi- exotic locale while attempting to craft songs for a specific artist. Publishers and labels typically kick in for these things. 

So as the clock continued to tick on the record, and still feeling that it was desperately in need of a monster of a tune, the team brilliantly pulled a pre-chorus/bridge from a short-lived Brendon idea, fused it with the hot tub hook, and the foundation of “High Hopes” began to form. Nowadays, this sort of Frankenstein cut/paste thing happens on the regular, but in most cases, it rings kinda false to me. On this one, however, they completely nailed it. 

It just needed verses. There were no verse words or melody. Just a long, lengthy instrumental section. I couldn’t fathom why they wouldn’t let me have a whack at it. I was totally convinced I could deliver, as I’d now written eight songs in a row with these cats for the record, but it was always radio silence when I inquired, so I let it be. 

21 Hit Wonder

It was the day before [my son] Joey’s twelfth birthday, and I was lying on my back porch when I finally got the go-ahead to give the verses a shot. The album was set to master within a week! I slapped my head- phones on, shut my eyes, and blasted the track on loop. I knew my job was pretty pivotal on this joint. Beyond the time sensitivity, I had to be the glue to bring this thing home. There was zero room for error. 

I decided to frame it in a narrative. This meant threading the most delicate of needles — to keep it aspirational, but not preachy or contrived. The words came flooding from head to hands instantaneously. In totality, the verses took a solid thirty minutes to write, tops. The first was a conversation with my late mother. The second was a dialogue with my soon-to-be twelve-year-old. I guess in my head, the sum of the parts was the passing of the generational torch. I hoped it would drip of that ’70s lyrical optimism that I loved as a kid. Most importantly, I could see Brendon absolutely exploding on a whole other level, if he did his thing on the track. It felt like fire. 

An hour later, I drove over to Jake’s house on the Silver Lake Reservoir and sang it to those cats. Evan really responded to it, which was an awesome indicator. That night, Brendon dug further into the melody and totally elevated it. Shit was a wrap. 

Two months later, “Say Amen (Saturday Night)” was released as a set-up single. Unexpectedly to me, at least, it did some damage and eventually topped [Billboard‘s Alternative Airplay] chart. The Pray for the Wicked album dropped later that spring and, like Death of a Bachelor, it also debuted in the top spot. Brendon threw a party at his house to celebrate. Honestly, I was just thrilled that I made the guest list. Brendon was/is an absolutely delightful kid, but I’d be lying if I ever claimed that I was a part of his inner circle. No matter how much time I’ve spent with this legend, I still feel like somewhat of a gatecrasher. 

I’m not sure anyone in the room that night knew what was in store, but Pray for the Wicked just exploded. More importantly, though, the buzz grew for “High Hopes.” People seemed to love this tune. TV shows, movies, commercials. The song was even the campaign anthem of 2020 Democratic Party presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who played it on loop at his rallies and speeches. His staff and campaign volunteers created a goofy dance to the song and it went viral (truthfully, this was not some Debbie Allen in Fame–style shit). It was also jacked by Democratic candidates Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Julián Castro. Even then-president Donald Trump swiped it, blasting it at a June 2020 reelection rally. Like “HandClap,” it entered the zeitgeist, but on a substantially louder level. 

In time, the song would reach [No. 1 on the Pop, Alternative and Adult Contemporary Airplay charts] , breaking a decade-plus record with its reign atop Billboard’s Adult Pop Songs radio chart, and ruling the Hot Rock Songs Chart for an unprecedented seventy-six weeks. Now, over one billion streams later, it’s hands down the biggest song of my career. It’s hard to express how in debt I am to Brendon Urie and Crush. They really gifted me the greatest year of my musical life. At the height of the “High Hopes” hysteria, the aforementioned blink-182’s “Blame It on My Youth” was a hit at Alternative as well. That was immediately followed by the release of “Hey Look Ma, I Made It,” which caught the “High Hopes” tailwind and completely smashed across formats as well. That tune ended up being my 21st Top 40 hit. I should’ve been basking in that most exhilarating of moments, but deep down inside, I couldn’t help but feel like this stretch of success was just another fleeting cycle. Like any other neurotic creator, I’ve always viewed the glass as half full and rapidly cracking. In that way, I guess I’m sort of my own self-defeating prophecy. It doesn’t matter what you achieve in this business; you can never escape the dragging self-doubt. 

Melinda Newman