The Song Machine. An early review.

A friend, John Seabrook, has written a book about modern pop songs, called The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. This is a subject that screws up the faces of Rock Remnants writers and followers, or at least most of us, who think that the pop music game is simply awful.

But most of us love the pop music of our youth, at least some of it, which came in a variety of styles. The best argument against modern pop music is that it isn’t really rock, which is pretty much always true. But there is no denying that modern pop music is pop. This is the music that generates all the music industry’s profits these days.

I haven’t read John’s book yet, but an influential music industry commentator, definitely an old guy, wrote a review of it today in his newsletter. He points out some flaws, but he also nails the bit about the generational divide (not that we didn’t know that already). It is the youth who decide what qualifies as important in pop music, which is why I felt kind of flattered that I Love It was a hit last year. It sort of sounded like something I would like.

Here is what John posted on Facebook today.

Lefsetz, for those not in the music business, is the premier analyst in the industry. His newsletter truly is a must reading. Getting reviewed by him is a scrotum-tightening prospect. It happened this morning. And while it’s not all good (the “boob label” – ouch) I’ll take it. “The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory”:

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

You will find the content of this book so offensive you will stop blaming Spotify for the death of music.

Not that it’s that good.

John Seabrook is a writer for the “New Yorker.” He specializes in covering what those in the industry already know. Which is the problem with this tome. If you work in the hit industry, you won’t learn a thing. If you’ve been paying attention to music for the past fifteen years except for the hits, you’ll keep nodding your head saying “I know that.” But the truth is we live in a bifurcated land where those playing by the old rules lose and those playing by the new take all the marbles. And the old people and those following in their footsteps don’t like it.

All the money’s in pop music. In a world of chaos, where there are more tracks than anybody can know, never mind listen to, we gravitate to that which has been anointed. Oh, not you, never you, you know better, you know what’s good, who has talent… My inbox is filled with the self-satisfied self-congratulating. As if anybody cared what they had to say. The old bands have been touring so long there’s no need to see them, they haven’t had a hit in decades and even the nostalgia is wearing thin. Yes, classic rockers and those who followed them set the world on fire, but as they say…what have you done for me lately?

Not much.

Everybody lionizes the Beatles, with their melodic tunes you could sing along to.

And then there are the classic rockers, from Hendrix to Clapton to Zeppelin with a dose of west coast thrown in for good measure. They were virtuosos testing limits who took us on adventures, they set our minds free, we stayed up all night listening to their albums, we went to the show to get closer, and we haven’t had that spirit here since 1999. Sure, songs might rule in country, where they play guitars, never underestimate the audience for that music, even as you pooh-pooh it, but in pop…

Gargantuan stars were built by MTV. But the whole world was watching and by time the door closed on the boy bands, Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, sales were dropping, money was missing and everybody with a computer was making music.

And out of this came…

Max Martin and Dr. Luke. The producer was king. Songs written by committee have ruled. And John Seabrook does an excellent job of telling you how these records are made, and you’ll be horrified.

Despite all the money in Rihanna and Katy Perry, no one’s bothered to explain the nougat at the center of their candy-coated productions. We’re inundated with info on their success, who they’re dating, how much money they’re making, but what’s at the core…nada.

Until now.

The book starts off with the story of Max Martin. Which begins with his mentor Denniz PoP. I wish Seabrook went deeper, talked about Karl Martin Sandberg’s, i.e. Max Martin’s, music school roots, how he became so proficient in music. But we do learn the story of Ace of Base. But from there we jump to the story of Lou Pearlman and his charges and too much of this is repeats. Those paying attention know all of it. There are a few details, but also a few mistakes… Like ‘N Sync recorded for Areola? A boob of a label? No, that’s “Ariola.” And it’s Andy Schuon, not Schoun. And most people won’t care, but those who do have a hard time taking a book seriously when there are such basic mistakes. Has anybody ever heard of Google? Or has proofreading gone out the window?

But then Max Martin gets cold, and the story truly begins. He hooks up with Dr. Luke, an arrogant prick who knows how the world works. Max asks if he can rent Luke’s studio…Luke says you can work FREE! Being talented is at most fifty percent of success, knowing how to navigate people…it’s the other fifty.

And they concoct “Since U Been Gone.”

But then comes a detour into Clive Davis, who is lionized, as if only Clive knows a hit. You know all this too.

But then comes the story of Rihanna.

And the creation of the track and hook formula.

No, they don’t write the songs the way they used to. Some make the beats and others create the topline and Seabrook does a great job of delineating how this works. If only he threw out the retread info, he’s so busy writing a survey of the past couple of decades that the good info is nearly drowned out. And the section on K-Pop is nearly superfluous. But when it comes to creating “Umbrella”…

They don’t sit in studios with guitars and pianos, writing melodies and lyrics together. At best, they do that in Nashville. Rather producers come up with beats and then they have their favorite topliners create melodies and hooks on top. And if there aren’t enough hooks in the track, they start all over. They’re in the business of hit singles, not album dreck. And they know one hook is not enough, that you’ve got to grab the public instantly and continue to thrill them.

And this formula is working.

I’m not judging it, just telling you how it is.

Could change… But this is how our biggest star, Taylor Swift, creates her music. She’s tied up with Max Martin. And so is this summer’s phenom the Weeknd. And Miley Cyrus’s hits were written by the usual suspects. And there are more players than Max and Luke, but they’re all similar, they’re men behind the curtain who create the formula, no different from junk food, that’s right, Frito-Lay adds unnatural flavorings to keep you addicted, and so do these producers.

So what we’ve got is a generation gap so wide that the boomers and even the Gen-X’ers can’t see across it. They keep clamoring for a return to what once was the same way Justin Timberlake begged for music videos to return to MTV. Music videos are now an on demand item on YouTube, and if melody and albums and all the rest of what once was comes back it will be different, and certainly made by a younger generation free from the past that understands today’s world.

This is where we are. The youngsters drive music consumption. The reason those making oldster music can’t make money on Spotify is because their audience doesn’t have time to listen. But the youngsters…they’ve got music on all the time. But we keep crapping on their music. The truth is, they’ve tuned us out. And they’re not looking for what we once had. To them, music is purely sauce, constant background noise or dance fodder…it ain’t gonna change the world, that’s for tech.

Who are Benny Blanco and Ester Dean? Are you familiar with the canon of Tricky Stewart? Believe me, he’s much more important culturally and financially than Keith Richards, whose album is sinking like a stone, despite all the fawning press. How about Stargate? And Sturken and Rogers? All the people truly driving popular culture are in this book. That’s why you should read it. And that’s why you’re gonna hate it. This is music? This is what we’ve come to?


People want to make money. These producers have gone where the money is. The labels are following them. Songs are written in camps. And we’re so far from the garden Joni Mitchell is incapable of writing a song about it.

We’ve got all this info on legal, Don Passman writes an excellent book. People know how not to get ripped-off. But they don’t know how to succeed, because they don’t know how the game is played. Because those involved are too busy making money to slow down and tell a press that doesn’t care.

Credit Seabrook for caring. He was curious as to the genesis of his son’s musical favorites.

I just wish he’d gone deeper.

Read this. It’s not out for a couple of weeks. But make a note, pre-order it. And at times your eyes will be rolling in the back of your head as what you already know is repeated simplistically. But then comes the meat…

As for those profiled in the book…they’re too busy trying to make hits to worry about inaccurate portrayals. Because the truth is songwriting and producing are evanescent careers. As my famous friend says – put Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon in a room for a month and tell them if they write a hit we’ll have world peace…and they won’t be able to do it. You lose the pulse, your instincts are untrustworthy, you just don’t want it bad enough.

But these cats do.

And Max Martin has a career longer than the legends.

Which is why you must pay attention. “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” may be pablum, but it’s better than any rock ballad since. And “Since U Been Gone” is probably the best rock record of this century. And you may not know the rest of the hits in this book, but what the men don’t know, the little girls understand.

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15 thoughts on “The Song Machine. An early review.

  1. That song you like, Peter, always just reminded me of that Chumbawamba song that was popular years ago. Not that either is absolutely terrible.

    Don’t know if I’ll read the book, but the subject matter is fascinating in a completely disgusting way. The “music is purely sauce, constant background noise or dance fodder” to the youth of today comment is so spot-on.

    I’ve wondered a lot recently if Katie Perry sang “Shake It Off” and Miley Cyrus sang “Roar” and Taylor Swift sang “Wrecking Ball” would it matter one bit?

    I think not.

    • That’s a good question about the interoperability of our tiny pop divas. Especially since a notable cover of Shake It Off came out today:

      I think each of those gals has cultivated a different style, and that shows. But I bet any of them could have sung any of those songs and made them work for their style, because it is the same producers and writers on all of them. They work with what they’ve got.

      • The Sucking Crew?

        And speaking of Sucking, that Ryan Adams cover is even worse than the original.

        Always was nothing but a wannabe Paul Westerberg, that Ryan Adams.

  2. No, but I read the review…

    @ Jennifer: yeah, I’m terrified. We oldsters have had plenty of time to get used to it, since nothing has changed culturally in a good 25 years. Every single frightening shard of today’s pop culture was happening that long ago and before. No wonder the kids use it as wallpaper. And believe me, since I know my nine children and many, many of their friends, today’s young people listen to our music and even our parent’s music as much or more than today’s pop hits.

    I hear decent snippets in pop songs all the time. I don’t know what any of them are called but that’s the thing: they’re not songs, they’re hooks and attempted hooks in audio collage with a boom-boom-boom beat. You can hear the committee.

  3. Yeah, culture is a big river. My daughter, who last year was all over Ellie Goulding and 2 Chainz, is now all over the Beach Boys (she loved your post Gene) and 2 Chainz. She still is a Goulding fan but when it’s her turn to choose will play Pet Sounds in the car.

    I think what we’re seeing is the evolution (Devo didn’t see this coming) of pop culture into collage. A song is not a song, it is five songs. A movie isn’t a movie unless there were three movies before it. Or reboots.

    There were plenty of fine artists who saw this coming 50 years ago, who saw the contradictions of figurative and abstract art and turned to collage, and yet neither they nor us know exactly what it means for the future. Forty years ago, as a teen, I had very specific ideas about how the clash of cultures would play out, but that didn’t happen. And when I game how they’ll play out now almost all the same factors are in play.

    Despite almost every year in between having new Simpson’s episodes.

  4. What I mean to say is that in a period of stasis, the most powerful statement is commentary on what came before. Collage, a huge part of punk visual culture in the 70s, is perfect for appropriating the past and commenting on it.

  5. Well, what my kids like is total shit and they want nothing to do with anything I like. Draw your own conclusions from that.

    Fetty Wap was their big new thing when they were here this summer.

  6. Sorry.

    But it turns out Mr. Wap is from Patterson New Jersey, which reminds me of my favorite Abbott and Costello lines:

    Where you from?


    Lake Arrowhead?

    No. Patterson New Jersey.

  7. there is so much in here, between what peter wrote, and the comments, it is hard to know what to say or where to begin, so i will go obvious first, and that is the simpsons clips are brilliant, jennifer.

    since i don’t have kids i don’t get much katy perry (i did like her superbowl gig, though) and, i only know ellie goulding cos she played on the NFL opening day pre game show a couple of thursdays back. i could not name a miley cyrus song, and i don’t know any of the troika of songs steve pointed to.

    i get everything that is old is new again. well, most of the time. tell it to miles and coltraine and stravinsky and the duke for starters.

    and, there are newer bands i kind of like. deerhunter. built to spill, tame impala. mountain goats. and, there is so much old stuff-def leppard (see my latest post), rush, lots of frisell and django that i never paid attention too that is all great stuff.

    but, i guess i am not so sure i want to know how musical sausage is made. i know how i make it, and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what is written about. on one hand, i don’t give a shit. on another, i guess i will never be a famous songwriter.

  8. I guess Bart just noticed tattoos and hip hop. Or maybe Twitter freaks him out.

    I don’t like a lot of hip hop and no doubt I’ve missed some great stuff over the years, but until I hear it this is my bestest rap. Kicks the shit out of AC/DC. A blueprint of postmodern music.

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