The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When I was quite young, somebody gave my brother and me a new toy for Christmas. It was a little plastic speaker, which played 60-second clips from popular songs from tiny memory cards called “HitClips.” Though primitive in retrospect, at the time it seemed like incredible technology—to us kids, at least—and I spent weeks driving my mother crazy by playing and re-playing the one-minute version of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” I had. My brother, meanwhile, had the HitClip of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” and now if I listen to either song it makes me slightly nauseous.
This was, however, probably the most significant intrusion of contemporary pop music into my childhood. My father is a musician and, under his influence, I became a fan of the music of his generation—the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Bob Dylan—and remained mostly ignorant of, and uninterested in, the music of my peers. Indeed, like many teenagers with pretentions to artistic and intellectual superiority, I was quite proud to be disdainfully unaware of what was on the radio. It was therefore quite interesting to retrospectively learn about this music via John Seabrook.
Seabrook examines just the music that I was busy snubbing my nose at: the pop music of the nineties and aughts, such as the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Brittney Spears, Rihanna, Kesha, Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Perry. However, as quickly becomes clear, these artists are not the real focus of the book. Rather, Seabrook wants to examine the far less famous people who actually write and produce the songs that make popstars so famous. Indeed, it is fairly uncommon for a pop star to actually write their own music nowadays, which is why they have to tour and perform so regularly—they do not make much money on record sales.
A surprising number of songwriters are Swedish (apparently, the culture or the language fosters melodic gifts), such as Max Martin—a man infinitely less well-known than the singers I listed above, but who has written many of the songs that made them famous. Martin, along with others such as Dr. Luke and Tricky Stewart, do not write songs the way you might imagine is the “normal” way. Rather than searching for chords and melodies on a guitar or a piano, they focus on making “beats” or backing tracks—usually, using only digital tools, a fact that has put many studio musicians out of business. Then, this track is sent out to “top line” writers, who come up with the melody and perhaps the title; and finally, a lyrics writer finishes up the product.
Working this way, a song can be created relatively quickly. This is key to the modern pop song industry, as it allows producers to search for potential hits via trial and error. The same backing track can be sent out to a dozen or more top line writers, who in turn send back their melodies and ideas for the song. Of these options, the most appealing is chosen, and then worked into a full song. Even at this point, however, it is not unusual for a recorded song to be canned for being deemed insufficient. With so many options to choose from, producers need only to release what they are confident will succeed. And this is not merely a matter of guesswork. According to Seabrook, there are computer programs which analyze songs and rate their likelihood of becoming popular.
Now, being a purist is a good way to make yourself unhappy. And, in any case, “authenticity” in art is difficult to insist on, as it is such a slippery thing to pin down. Even so, I have to say that my sneering teenage self felt amply justified by this book. But before I snub my nose, I must add some caveats.
First, as Seabrook points out, this is hardly the first time in history when songs have been written by professionals for purely commercial ends. From Tin Pan Alley, to the Brill Building songwriters, to Motown and Phil Specter, there have long been professional songwriters creating material for charismatic singers. And hardly anybody thinks it inauthentic, for example, when a trained soprano sings an aria written by a professional composer (and many opera composers were quite shamelessly commercial, recycling old material and working with tight deadlines). At the very worst, this production model puts pop singers on the same level as movie stars, who are admired and praised just for knowing how to recite their lines. If anything is new about the modern “song machine,” then, it is just that the producers nowadays have more advanced tools than their predecessors.
All of this being granted, I must admit that parts of the book turned my stomach. This was especially true of the chapter on K-pop, which describes how potential stars are trained to sing and dance from a young age, and whose lives—from their schedules, to their diet, or even the boundaries of their love life—are carefully managed. The section on the dispute between Kesha and Dr. Luke—which included allegations of abuse and rape—was just as upsetting, epitomizing the exploitative extremes of the business. Indeed, as another reviewer has pointed out, there is a striking gender imbalance in the industry, with the overwhelming of producers and songwriters being men. And, of course, even if it is not exactly new, it is never pretty to see the inner workings of industrialized pop culture. It is like a visit to a hot dog factory.
Seabrook, for his part, seems to have come to like contemporary pop music more as a result of his delve into this world. Well, to each their own I suppose. He has written an informative and entertaining book on a subject that most people are familiar with, but which relatively few understand, and so has earned the right to listen to as much NSYNC as his stomach can handle.
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The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook