There’s an unspoken science behind the songs that climb the highest reaches of the pop charts. Yes, most people know that pop artists don’t usually write their own songs. And sure, your average person has some understanding that the pop music of today is scientifically designed for peak catchiness. We’ve all heard whispers about song camps where several producers work tirelessly to create the foundational fabric of those radio singles that seem impossibly packed with hooks. In John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, these assumptions are proven through exhaustive research, telling a story about how the “melodic math” of just a few people behind the scenes has come to reshape the face of popular music.
Whether we’re at the laundromat, the doctor’s office, in our cars or at the store, nothing that reaches our ears gets there by accident. Today’s pop music, often perceived as homogenized or generic, is actually a pan-global stylistic fusion, combining the compositional sensibilities of Sweden’s ABBA, Eurodisco melodies, Jamaican dancehall reggae bass grooves, American hip-hop breakbeats and arena rock choruses among other elements to create the singular sound of commercial hit radio. Throughout Seabrook’s book we learn about the unlikely figures who helped create today’s pop landscape: a DJ who got into writing music by making homemade tape-splice remixes of American pop songs and would eventually start Sweden’s Cheiron Studios and produce Ace of Base (DenniZ PoP), a blimp salesman trying to create a supergroup out of five white teenagers from Orlando (Lou Pearlman & Backstreet Boys), a Swedish metalhead who would go on to write number one smashes for Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, The Weeknd, Taylor Swift and many more (Max Martin).
Seabrook explains how changes in radio regulation led to the proliferation of CHR stations. He cleverly dissects how the roles of songwriter, artist and producer have shifted over the span of popular music history. He provides some of the most in-depth analysis of the Backstreet/NSYNC/Britney era ever committed to print, including tidbits such as the fact that “Hit Me Baby (One More Time)” was originally offered to TLC and subsequently, to Robyn. He tells the stories behind the making of hits like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” bringing context to these well-loved compositions. Unfortunately, this book is marred by an entire section committed to Dr. Luke’s life story, featuring breathless praise and a particularly dispiriting chapter about Ke$ha that reads as an attempt to discredit her allegations that Dr. Luke sexually abused her. Despite writing a book that recalls numerous instances of powerful music men taking advantage of the women and men who perform the songs, Seabrook appears to be reluctant to demonize such a central figure in his book. As with many stories in this book, Seabrook glosses over the darkness that regularly lies behind pop’s sweet, slick exterior.
His phone interview with Lou Pearlman, the svengali behind the Backstreet Boys, is done with his subject in prison serving a 25-year term for fraud. He mentions with awe how Jive Zomba’s Clive Calder is possibly “the single richest man the music business ever produced” but never questions the ethics of the industry’s centralization of wealth at the top. As interesting as the cross-pollination of different musical styles is, some acknowledgment of the consistently seedy underbelly of the music industry would’ve been appreciated. Seabrook gives you the history but he refuses to take a personal stance. He also fails to mention how this glorious genre-melding is often at the expense of the artists who originated the sound (ie. black people). He doesn’t ask questions about why mainstream radio is more likely to accept R&B when it’s written by a Swedish man than when it’s created by an African-American woman. Seabrook opens the book up by describing his perspective as that of a mainstream pop neophyte who hopes to deconstruct this music so he can have a better understanding of what his son is listening to. The Song Machine leaves you wishing he was as inquisitive about the societal mechanisms and structures that helped bring these songs to prominence in the first place.
Rollie Pemberton is also known as rapper and producer Cadence Weapon. Follow him on Twitter.