NOVEMBER 22, 2015
LAST AUGUST, The New York Times ran a video vignette called “Bieber Diplo and Skrillex Make a Hit,” in which the titular trio — Justin Bieber and the producers Diplo and Skrillex — broke down the stages of production for their platinum single “Where Are Ü Now?” Bieber was already working on new music with his songwriting collaborator Jason Boyd (known as “Poo Bear”). When Diplo and Skrillex approached him to contribute to their “Jack U” project, Bieber sent over a piano track and an a cappella vocal: musical elements in search of a song. As is the case with most 21st-century pop, the production took place inside a laptop, which Skrillex manipulates as deftly as any instrumental virtuoso. There were no “musicians” or “instruments,” in the conventional sense, involved. In the Times video, the music is visualized with colorful animated circles that scroll vertically across the screen like punch-holes on a roll of sheet music: as good a way as any to give the track some kind of physical presence. The best part of the clip is when Skrillex demonstrates how he used a program called Ableton Live to transform a random Bieber vocable into a sound resembling the keening cry of a cyborg dolphin. This sound, when woven through “Where Are Ü Now?,” elevates the tune from catchy bauble to irresistible earworm.
Six years earlier, some similarly weird noises in Flo Rida’s 2009 #1 hit “Right Round” caught the ear of New Yorker reporter John Seabrook. In the opening pages of his new book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, he describes his confused reaction to the track’s “jackhammer beats,” the bass that sounds like “an undersea earthquake,” and its own cyborg dolphin, which Seabrook transcribes as “EEeeoooorrrroooannnnnwwweeeyyeeeooowwwwouuuzzzzeeEE.”
“Right Round” marked the point where Seabrook decided he had to figure out how pop music started sounding like this. Expanded from four reported pieces that initially ran in the New Yorker, The Song Machine covers a period that begins in the early 1990s and extends to the present day, encompassing many of the biggest hit records of our era along the way. It could also almost double as a chronicle of the recent cultural history of Scandinavia, given that producers like Max Martin (from Sweden) and Stargate (from Norway) dominate the pop landscape it surveys.
The title of The Song Machine has two meanings: it describes both the cyborg-like human/technology hybrids that make up so much modern music and the industry that produces them. Neither of these developments are new, but Seabrook approaches them as an outsider. (A background note: Seabrook plays guitar in a rock band called The Sequoias, and he mentions his fondness for the solo in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” the second paragraph of the book’s first page.) While The Song Machine isn’t quite the clueless Rock Dad Discovers Pop personal narrative that some critics have painted it as, it does sit at a distance from current pop criticism that doesn’t rely on rock as a benchmark of quality. Nor is it quite a conversion narrative: in the last chapter, Seabrook confesses his continued fondness for pop hits which “stripped of their glossy synths […] hold up really well as acoustic songs.” For context, Seabrook compares 21st century pop-by-committee to 1960s’ “song factories” like the Brill Building and Motown. The general idea might be the same but, as Seabrook sees it at least, the output is very different. He considers Ke$ha and Katy Perry “vocal personalities” as opposed to capital-S Singers like Diana Ross or Darlene Love. Sexual themes aren’t disguised by clever double entendres but slide up and down the pole in plain view. And then there’s the fact that most production today happens “in the box,” a phrase describing the kind of laptop necromancy that has supplanted rooms full of crackerjack session musicians playing to the precise whims of geniuses like Phil Spector and Berry Gordy.
What Seabrook discovers after prizing the Song Machine’s pieces apart is something countless critics have wrestled with before him: the creation of art under commercial constraints is a very complicated thing. This is pop music’s market-driven pleasure principle, as well as the source of evergreen debates about its cultural authenticity (which, to his credit and his readers’ sanity, Seabrook mostly avoids). On one hand, pop music is a consumer product like any other, built to satiate fickle audience demands and generate profits for its creators by engendering the desire to hear the same songs over and over (and, under certain circumstances, pay for the privilege). On the other hand, pop has profoundly meaningful — and often unpredictable — effects as it circulates through listeners’ lives; effects that, for many, render its crass capitalist origins irrelevant. The most transcendent pop songs of the 20th century, from Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” through the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” on down to Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” were all, Seabrook notes, composed in a way more closely resembling a TV writers’ room or potato chip flavor powwow than a tortured artist wrenching inspiration from his or her soul.
The one big difference between previous hit factories and today’s luxury Swedish model? The earlier ones came to an end. The Brill Building, Phil Spector, Motown, proto-disco collective Philadelphia International, early-MTV hitmakers Stock Aitken Waterman: all enjoyed an average of six years of peak production, Seabrook notes, before they ceased making hits, after everyone else caught up to what they were doing or trends moved on (or in Spector’s case, they went insane with power and alienated everyone). Compare these streaks, impressive as they are, to the oeuvre of the ex-metal front man Max Martin (real name Martin Karl Sandberg), whose first #1 hit was Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” released to radio in November 1998. His most recent chart topper — The Weeknd’s disco-coke-pop banger “I Can’t Feel My Face” — is likely coming out of laptop speakers or a car stereo near you right now. Yes, Martin has crafted chart-topping hits that manage to sound absolutely of their moment sixteen years apart. Especially once you adjust for the accelerated pace of pop music trend-turnover as the 20th gave way to the 21st century, this kind of longevity is unprecedented, and it shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
How in the world does Martin do it? He got his start, as Seabrook explains, with Stockholm’s Cheiron Productions, a loose network of Swedish producers obsessed with American and British pop. Cheiron was founded in 1992 by Denniz PoP, an ex-DJ who had written a couple of titanic hits for a Swedish reggae outfit called Ace of Base: “The Sign” and “All That She Wants.” Anyone who was sentient in the early 1990s can hum them both without thinking. These songs seamlessly merged American funk, with vintage analog synths imitating laconic Kingston melodies, and added dashes of Europop’s giddy thrills and the chipper disco guitar pioneered by Chic. At the same time, PoP stirred in something less formulaic and more fascinating: the uniquely Swedish mix of melancholy and melody that made ABBA sell similarly astounding numbers in the 1970s, and a distanced approach to European and American pop that could discern the exact relationship between the whole forest and individual trees.
Music fans born in the year commemorated in the title of Taylor Swift’s 1989 — an album which includes seven Martin co-productions — have grown up in a world in which pop has always been produced in exactly this way. In these songs, rhythm and melody receive equal billing (Dr. Luke, an American protégé of Martin’s who has worked on massive hits for Ke$ha and Katy Perry and co-produced “Right Round,” calls it “melodic rhythm”). The theatricality and histrionic guitar squeals descend from 1980s pop-metal; Def Leppard’s 1987 album Hysteria is a machine-tooled, gazillion-selling touchstone for the Song Machine. Most importantly, hooks — formerly a requirement only for choruses — come as fast and furious as explosions in a Transformer movie, providing non-stop “bliss points” (a term that Seabrook borrows from the snack-food industry). Dr. Luke, who honed his mastery of the pop-rock canon by playing guitar with the Saturday Night Live band for several years, confesses that, while he loves the bold arena pop of 1980s duo Tears for Fears, he gets antsy listening to them now because they take too long to get to the hook.
It’s important to understand that, from a Song Machine perspective, everything is a hook, from the keyboard riff that starts “…Baby One More Time” to the “ay, ay, ay” that closes the chorus of Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” Seabrook’s best reporting delves into what he dubs the “track and hook” production method beloved by modern R&B producers like Stargate and Atlanta’s RedZone Entertainment. The best single chapter in the book focuses on RedZone’s Ester Dean, one of the best in the industry at what’s called “toplining.” Toplining, Seabrook explains, departs fairly significantly from the traditional Tin Pan Alley style of pop songwriting that persisted well into the rock era, which typically started with melodies and lyrics. By contrast, RedZone’s producers (Tricky Stewart, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, and Kuk Harrell) often start with the basic rhythmic hook for a track, over which they ask Dean to improvise a vocal. According to Seabrook’s account, Dean is a sui generis topliner, typing words and phrases that sound good into her smartphone and then trying them out in the studio, creating “vocalized beats” that owe much more to reggae toasting and early hip-hop freestyles than traditional lyric-craft. For Stargate — two “lanky Norwegian dudes” with a hit streak approaching their Swedish counterparts — Dean toplined the hook for Rihanna’s 2009 smash “Rude Boy” in the booth: “Come on, rude boy, boy, can you get it up / Come on, rude boy, boy, is you big enough?”
Of course, Rihanna herself deserves much, if not most, of the credit for the success of “Rude Boy.” Pop can’t exist without the outsize identities of stars, those human condensations of cultural signification whose personas both precisely define and vastly exceed the songs they perform. Without stars, there are no hits. That said, Seabrook’s investigation into the phenomenon of modern stardom feels at once necessary and superfluous. There is no denying that pop stars like Rihanna are hugely important to the Song Machine. Producers even convene periodic “writer camps” to match the right material to her unique gifts, knowing that if they can get her to sing over their track it’s bound to register with her loyal, global base of fans. As in the case of the film industry, pop music’s star system was developed to mitigate the countless failures suffered for each rare hit record by insuring some degree of consistency apart from individual songs or albums. Stars provide a sort of insurance policy, as well a signal boost: their participation takes some of the risk and randomness out of the pop marketplace.
Stars, like the songs they perform, are constructions: seamless montages of signifying elements. Rihanna was discovered, molded, and launched by brand-building businesspeople, and her career is by no means an anomaly in 21st-century pop. Is Rihanna’s undeniable importance to millions of young women undermined by the fact that her material, and her image, was crafted by the Song Machine? Of course not. Is her stunning level of stardom imaginable without it? Of course not. For Seabrook, straightforward biography is enough to address this paradox, and a full quarter of The Song Machine is devoted to the “Behind the Music”-style narratives of performers like the Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Perry. These sections are, by far, the most familiar and least essential in the book. More relevant would have been background information on the industrial and technological machinations behind the machine: the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the subsequent reorganization of pop radio, and the MP3’s reassertion of the single form are all are more responsible for the rise of the Song Machine than Seabrook allows, and discussing them would have fleshed out his narrative. Then again, I’m boring myself just typing that, so it’s perhaps understandable that Seabrook and his editors steered clear of it in lieu of stargazing. (Who would you rather read about: Senator Larry Pressler, who shepherded the 1996 Telecommunications Act through Congress, or Rihanna?)
The Song Machine ends on a note of triumph for Sweden, which supplied a quarter of Billboard’s 2014 Top 100 hits and, via Daniel Ek’s Spotify, the default place for 60 million global music fans to find them online. Massive technological shifts always come packaged with ideological assumptions and, just as Napster did 10 years earlier, Spotify reignited debates about the value of musical labor, compelling some of the biggest stars in pop’s galaxy to take political stands on their right to earn a fair wage. It also turned everyday listeners into armchair political economists, wondering if their desire for an infinite jukebox comes at the expense of performers and songwriters.
Other political questions arise, too. Early on in the book, Seabrook wonders why, despite the ostensible democratization of production and distribution technologies, hits are coming from a smaller-than-ever group of creators. Should we worry about our pop diet being cooked up by a small handful of Swedish chefs? Are we seeing the emergence of a global musical inequality to mirror the economic version, dominated by the Song Machine’s creative labor and Apple, Spotify, and Google’s digital distribution monopolies? Comprehensively addressing this question — calibrating one’s moral compass for the navigation of art under capitalism — means zooming out farther than Seabrook’s orbit, to the infrastructures and alliances that power the Song Machine’s melodic engines. As much as superstars singing catchy hooks, a tolerance for or ignorance of capitalism’s crass excesses is what’s always made pop pop. For more than a century, relatively small groups of songsmiths, organized into openly mercenary guilds, have dominated the airwaves and charts with variations on verse-chorus-verse structures while a handful of corporations reap profits from distribution monopolies, exclusive contract terms, and technological patents. The methodologies may have changed — melody-plus-lyrics gives way to track-and-hook, warehouses and shops cede to iTunes and Spotify — but the Song Machine has always been a winner-take-all endeavor. Long may it churn.