I saw the sign
And it opened up my eyes
I saw the sign
Early in The Song Machine, John Seabrook describes what must be the defining feature of pop music today. He opens with a scene involving “the Boy,” his fifth-grader son who has begun to listen to Top 40 stations as he rides with his dad to and from school every day. Stirred by his child’s new palate, Seabrook starts listening to Top 40 as well (which, he immediately corrects us, is properly called Contemporary Hits Radio, or CHR). He reluctantly abandons his dad rock for Flo Rida and the like, as a sort of bonding exercise with his son.
Seabrook’s initial reaction to modern pop is that of anyone as highly cultivated and deeply refined as he. He asks himself:
Is this music?
Hard to believe, but those over-compressed, synth-laden beats and repetitive melodies do indeed pass for music today. What happened to Pink Floyd? Where are the delicate cadences of Highway to Hell and Bohemian Rhapsody? Sure, nostalgia can be fun, but as you may have guessed, this isn’t a book about the fine old days of rock’n’roll. Seabrook’s revulsion to pop radio lasts about as long as it takes a CHR station to play the same song twice—around ten minutes. After hearing the songs over again, the fortifications to Seabrook’s head began to weaken, and soon they crumbled away altogether. “The more I heard the songs,” he writes, “the more I liked them.” He was hooked. A simple truth about the repetitious CHR format: no matter how idiotic the song, hear it often enough throughout the day (the industry standard, he explains later, is three listens) and you will probably want to hear it again. Indeed, it’s often the most annoying parts of a song on first listen that become the very parts you look forward to later. What’s happening here?
I don’t know. And I’m not sure this book will tell you. Enter the paradox of pop music, and why The Song Machine was fascinating nonetheless. Pop music is evidently nonsense. It’s repetitive, it’s garish, and it’s nearly meaningless; everyone making it seems to know this. Then why is it at the same time so brilliant and, sometimes, genius? You’ll soon find yourself in awe of both the art and the engineering involved in creating something so addictively empty. We are, after all, talking about the Cheetohs of music, and everything about them is carefully orchestrated for fleeting bursts of pleasure.
The number of people who know how to consistently write hit songs for the American charts is probably not above two digits. There’s a skill to it, but also a kind of magic. There’s no guarantee that a seasoned hit maker won’t suddenly lose his or her touch and fall out of style. The music is formulaic by nature, but if there were an actual formula to making a great pop song, the industry wouldn’t so highly value the few who consistently do. This book gives us a look at those people. You’ve never heard of them, but it’s guaranteed that you’ve heard their work.
The Song Machine is at its best when it’s giving us the little-known history of the last 30 years of pop music. It picks up with the Swedish producer Denniz PoP, who sprang from the Stockholm house music scene in the late 80s. His first great success as a producer was behind Ace of Base, for whom he glued together the sounds that became songs like All That She Wants and, enormously, The Sign. These songs prefigure much of 90s bubblegum pop, from the distinctive production (featuring synthesized hand claps, among other signature sounds), to the nonsensical lyrics: “Grammar and usage didn’t matter much to Denniz, and wit and metaphor, Brill Building staples, aren’t even in the picture.” These guys were not writing in their native language. Once this is pointed out it seems natural that the words are a little disjointed. It changes your take on 90s pop to remember that it was written largely by Swedes for whom English words were best used to support a melody, no matter their meaning.
More than anybody else, Denniz PoP’s protégé, Max Martin, would go on to shape much of what we hear today. He is the book’s real pivot of interest, since he has been so extraordinarily prolific and invisible. He’s no household name, yet he has written for Britney Spears (and now you know that “hit me baby” really means “call me, baby” through a Swedish filter), Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Katy Perry, and most recently, Taylor Swift. If you’ve ever heard a new song on the radio and thought it sounded suspiciously just like another one from six months before, this is probably why. Max Martin has refined his style to be immediately identifiable to the public, not as a Max Martin song, but as a hit. He has long been the sound of pop, and as far as I know The Song Machine is the first book to seriously ponder his rise and method.
In other parts, however, The Song Machine becomes a series of celebrity biographies, and by the later chapters it gets tiring. Hearing about Ace of Base was weird and significant because I never knew such an unserious group had been the harbinger of what we hear on the radio today. Reading about Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys was interesting in a 90s cultural history kind of way. I had no clue the charter jet mogul-turned boy band financier-turned convicted felon Louis Jay Pearlman was first cousins with Art Garfunkel; those unexpected connections are exactly the kind of trivia I love finding in books like this. But then the celeb bios run on, with sections on the origins of Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna, and Kesha. Soon I was wishing we could move onto something less reminiscent of E! True Hollywood Story.
Speaking of Kesha, the other figure looming from these pages is the producer Dr. Luke. In the 2000s Dr. Luke, Manhattan DJ and former guitarist in the Saturday Night Live house band, became Max Martin’s writing partner and triggered a new phase in Martin’s career. By the late 90s Martin had become pigeonholed as a teen bubblegum writer, and his more rock-oriented work with Dr. Luke (think Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone) gave him a solid push into the millennium that he’s still riding today. Luke himself has written enough hits to almost rival his partner, so he’s an unavoidable character if we’re going to dissect this century’s pop trends.
But of course, if anyone has heard of Dr. Luke before it’s probably from the ongoing legal strife between him and Kesha. That was the only reason I knew his name, so I was curious to see how Seabrook would handle the story. As it turns out, Seabrook can be a little heavy handed. He speeds through the story with an attempt at neutrality. Still, it comes off as a little disingenuous when Kesha is made out to be an unstable manipulator conniving with her mother against an eccentric genius. Seabrook even bothers to quote a Luke associate as saying, “Wouldn’t a young girl’s mother, on hearing her daughter had been drugged and raped by her boss, immediately call the police?”—a variation on a worn-out line that has been used to discredit rape accusations for ages, and an unfortunate waste of print in this context as it so nimbly dodges the power dynamic between an aspiring pop singer and the prince regent of the industry.
This ham-handedness of Seabrook’s gets in the way of certain parts of The Song Machine, and I can’t tell if it’s an affectation to make his writing, like the music he’s writing about, accessible to everybody, or if this tone deafness is somehow an allowance of his status as a highbrow writer. He’s a great repeater of clichés, and can employ them to startlingly blunt ends. Witness his take on another recent episode of male violence against women in the music industry (alas, a subject with a long and seldom-told history): the abuse of Rihanna at the hands of Chris Brown. Unlike his arm’s-length survey of the Kesha affair, which comes later in the book, the Rihanna story is spun with a melodramatic flair that belies its truth and ugliness. I was aghast to read the following line:
Rihanna, radiant in a floor-length Gucci gown, rose to acknowledge the industry crowd’s warm applause, while Brown, handsome as sin in a black leather jacket and tie, beamed up at the beautiful face he was about to beat to a pulp.
This anvil of a sentence is as bad as it gets. Seabrook seems to be reveling in the seediness of his writing as he lobs these nauseating platitudes (Handsome as sin? Beat to a pulp?) to foreshadow one of the most high-profile acts of domestic violence in recent memory. At least his imagery is fitting, since pulp is the type of writing he is recalling here, rather than the sober New Yorker prose we might be expecting. You can decide for yourself if the approach suits the subject.
But for what it is, this book is worth it and lines like the one above are thankfully few. I could go on about other areas covered in the book, like the track-and-hook method by which almost all pop songs are written and produced; or the colossal amount of money big labels put into promoting a new single, hoping for a hit; or the magnetic personality of another great pop song master of our time, Esther Dean. If, like me, you once dismissed this music as frivolous populism, you might now find yourself listening a little more closely to the next hit being pushed up the charts. More than that, you might just start craving to hear it again.
* * *
I got this book for Christmas because I asked for it after reading an excerpt online. The chapter, about the rise of Spotify, is incidentally one of the best in the book and stands great on its own.
This is the first hardcover I’ve reviewed so far. Anyone else take the sleeve off when reading hardcovers? I do, otherwise it gets caught on things and falls off all the time. But it always goes back on afterwards for a long happy life on the shelf clutching its buddy.
Other favourite quotes from The Song Machine:
With producers here, it’s all ‘It’s a smash! It’s a smash!’ Whereas the Swedes are like, ‘I think this could be better.’
The people behind pop songs remain in the shadows, taking aliases, by necessity if not by choice, in order to preserve the illusion that the singer is the author of a song.
Intrinsically, if you’re rapping, and then you’re singing, you’ve created a new part. There’s no question about which part is the chorus—it’s the sung part. (deep words from Dr. Luke)
Oh man, what am I going to say? This is a terrible song!
-Sean “Backstreet’s Back” McB