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Monday, September 28, 2015

How The Song Machine overwhelmed the Old Way of making pop

John Seabrook writes for The New Yorker about the frontier between music, commerce and technology. In his fascinating new book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory he describes the changes that have occured in the last twenty years in the way the hits are made and played.

If they could only clear the rights to the music, it would make a great movie. It's got characters: the fiercely-driven young mouseketeer Britney Spears who started off assuming  anything she was told by an adult was the law and wound up checking out of a rehab clinic after one day and shaving off all her hair in public; Clive Calder, the parsimonious, publicity-shy, allergy-suffering South African who sold his company Jive Records at the top of the boom for almost $3 billion dollars; Lou Pearlman, who made a fortune out of managing the Backstreet Boys, spent it propping up a bunch of fraudulent ventures and is in prison as a consequence; a long-haired Swedish metalhead called Karl Martin Sandberg whose genius for grafting the chord progressions of European pop music to the brutal cookie cutter rhythms of American hip hop would transform him into Max Martin, the most successful songwriter and producer of the 21st century.

Seabrook calls it the "track-and-hook" business. It starts with some kind of rhythm bed, engineered for maximum dance appeal by a specialist in the art. The track may then be sent to numerous specialists in coming up with the "top line". Everybody competes to see who can fashion the most compelling one. The weirder and more arresting the effects the better – these people are endlessly ingenious – but it's an article of faith in the Song Machine that the listener should never be too far away from the comforting embrace of a chorus close enough to what they've heard before to render it naggingly familiar after three listens.

Next to the Song Machine's appliance of science and fierce creative competition, there doesn't seem to be a lot of hope for the traditional nice-words-and-music pop song. You just have to look at the charts. Next to this stuff everything else feels flaccid. Ryan Adams' recent decision to make his new album a cover of Taylor Swift's Max Martin-produced and written "1989" is less  a homage than a white flag raised over the ramparts of the Old Way.