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.


  1. Next to this stuff everything else feels flaccid.

    I think you're right but at the same time, nobody can subsist on an endless diet of candy. After being pummelled into submission by thirty relentless minutes of "like me, LIKE MEEEEE!!!" tunes, you'd want a breather - something whose charms are less blatent.

  2. Little wonder that many a feather was ruffled a year or two ago when an Ivor Novello award was given to Calvin Harris as Songwriter of the Year for a Rhianna song. Doesn't this now mean that he can hold his head up with the best of them like Costello, McCartney,Michael, Weller, Davies or John? They must have won something.

    I should confess here that not having lived in England for well over ten years now I've never heard more than a two or three second snatch of anything by Rhianna:Queen of the Chav Hive. Perhaps an unsolicited snippet embedded in a webpage here and there but not for me a pummelling by her as I pass every shop doorway when I'm down the precinct on a Saturday morning.

    So in the spirit of research I did just listen to enough of 'We Found Love'. I don't think that I've heard it before but it did sound exactly as I expected. But is it a song?

    I have somewhere a cd of that Westlife fella's version of 'Rollercoaster'. The production is fairly tinny. I thought that this was intentional so that it would carry over the clatter of machinery in a thousand workplaces on dodgy P.A.s belting out Radio Local.

    ps. Is everyone up with the US mockumentary series 'Documentary Now'? Programme 7: The Blue Jean Committee.Lead Vocals:Gene and Clark.
    You get the idea.

  3. Pop Richard Thompson's "Still" album on for a bit of earthy release!

  4. ‘Next to this stuff everything else feels flaccid.’ Well maybe. But honestly, do you really want to listen to ‘this stuff’?

  5. Taylor Swift's '1989' is a hell of a lot better than Adams' rather generic rock take on it

  6. Alan Latchley said:
    ‘Next to this stuff everything else feels flaccid.’ Well maybe. But honestly, do you really want to listen to ‘this stuff’?


  7. It is the kind of music you hear in shopping malls. It is strangely soporific.

  8. Tend to agree, but how different is it, really, to She Loves You, for instance? Crammed to the rafters with hooks as that (perhaps the very toppermost of the poppermost) joyous 3 minutes may be...

  9. One difference, perhaps, is that "She Loves You" took about 10 minutes to compose. Okay, 15 minutes. And, according to Ian Macdonald, Mark Lewisohn and a few others, about five hours to record. Along with the B-side, "I'll Get You".

  10. It's a funny thing, this book. So many people are reacting to it as if the "music making machine" was a surprise revelation when, in fact, it's been common knowledge for years.

    What's more, the modern hit-makers are no different to the ones in tin-pan alley 80 years ago. I think what people find repellent is the vocabulary they've developed: beat, top line, hook and track. It makes the process of songwriting sound mechanical when, as any interview with these "pop factories" illuminates, they're as in thrall to music as Jagger and Richards ever were.