- The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory
- John Seabrook
- W.W. Norton & Co.
At the start of October, seated as high up in Rogers Centre as you can possibly go, I watched magic happen. It wasn't the Blue Jays' heartbreaking first postseason games against the Texas Rangers; I was there, too, but the only magic in the house was the shape-shifting strike zone.
No, I watched magic happen at a Taylor Swift concert.
The show, the second of two nights in Toronto supporting last year's album 1989, felt impossibly mechanized. The 40,000 audience members wore LED bracelets that pulsed myriad colours with the music's beat, flooding the stadium with throbbing neon. Swift's catwalk rose from the stage to hover over the on-field crowd, twisting and turning in new ways with each song. Even her dancers, amid all the spectacle, felt one with the moving stage. And yet the show seemed impossibly human, too, as Swift made sly interjections and slight manipulations to her songs to show us that she was performing for us and us alone: an intimate, once-in-a-lifetime show that was really one stop on an endless world tour.
It was a show engineered for peak human pleasure. That should not be particularly surprising to anyone who's read 1989's liner notes: Max Martin, seen flexing in one of the booklet's many Polaroids, was its co-executive producer. Martin has been responsible for no fewer than 21 No. 1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 in the past two decades, and, as New Yorker staff writer and author John Seabrook argues in his new book The Song Machine, is perhaps the most influential pop architect working today.
Martin's work refines the art of pop for maximum listener gratification, so it's unsurprising his touch has turned Swift from one of the world's biggest artists to undoubtedly its mightiest, bringing her stage show with her. But, as Seabrook points out, Martin's fingerprints are all over music today. The Song Machine, first born of a series of New Yorker stories, connects contemporary pop's dots: Since Martin's early work with the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears in the late nineties, he has led both a wave of protégés and a production style that makes the hit factories of the Brill Building and Motown look like they're on the wrong side of an industrial revolution.
The Swedish songwriter and producer cannot claim full responsibility for this; he's simply the movement's inheritor. This zeitgeist began with Stockholm DJ Denniz PoP, who in the late eighties and early nineties dreamed of his own Swedish hit factory that merged Europop's sweet melodies with American-style, hip-hop-influenced beats. Denniz's first major success came when he refined Ace of Base's All That She Wants from confused demo to chart-topping smash. He built Cheiron Studios in its wake and took a number of young songwriters under his wing to start making hits.
Denniz PoP died of cancer in 1998 at just 35; he was the first person Martin thanked when he won his first Grammy, for producing a bevy of songs including Swift's Shake It Off, earlier this year: "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today." The Song Machine is, effectively, the story of Cheiron's influence. Among the studio's troops were Rami Yacoub, Andreas Carlsson and Kristian Lundin, who've since made music for artists including Nicki Minaj, Pink and Carly Rae Jepsen – even Celine Dion. Denniz was nothing short of a hero to them; when Spears came to Stockholm to record songs for … Baby One More Time and he was too sick to work, Martin dutifully led the sessions, though he was sometimes caught with tears in his eyes.
Cheiron closed in 2000. Its producers flocked to separate studios, but from its stylistic ashes came the industrialization of "track-and-hook" songwriting, where a producer creates a beat and chord progression and ships it to hook writers, or "top-liners," to figure out the best melody.
This shift, away from hit factories' traditional melody-and-lyrics model, has streamlined the creation of pop; it's also, Seabrook points out, why so many songs sound so similar.
The Song Machine is chock full of tales of today's factory pop – of songwriter-producers such as Stargate and Dr. Luke and topliners such as Ester Dean and Bonnie McKee, and their roles in the careers of artists like Rihanna and Katy Perry. There's even a trip to South Korea to try to grasp the hyper-industrialized world of K-Pop.
The book is sharply written and deeply reported, but something kept distracting me: While it occasionally acknowledges the uneven gender breakdown in music-industry roles, it sometimes casts women who make music in unfair lights by framing their narratives around others. When describing the fallout of Chris Brown's assault on Rihanna, more words are spent discussing how it could affect the profits of her record-industry investors than how she might feel about being assaulted. And singer Kesha is first brought into the narrative as a nuisance to Dr. Luke's career goals, rather than as an artist in her own right who has filed a lawsuit against him claiming he sexually and physically abused her. (He has filed a countersuit denying the claims, and the dispute has faced numerous delays.)
Industrialization can be revolutionary, but it is built on the acceptance of going through the motions. Here, Seabrook feeds into that staidness. The way he writes around Rihanna and Kesha – neither appear to have been interviewed – reinforces the already systemic barriers facing women in entertainment, squandering the opportunity to more deeply examine how the male-dominated record industry can afflict women. Seabrook undoubtedly shines a light on the pop machine, but gets so distracted by its polished-chrome gleam that he neglects to illuminate its darker corners. The Song Machine is like a stadium filled with flashing LED bracelets: a spectacle well worth the money that makes you feel good, as long as you check your skepticism at the door.
Josh O'Kane is a Globe and Mail reporter and author of Nowhere With You, a book about musician Joel Plaskett, to be published by ECW Press next spring.