the song machine inside the hit factory - john seabrook.pdf - For Harry and Rose The Melody and the Beat CONTENTS HOOK The Bliss Point 1 You Spin Me

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Unformatted text preview: For Harry and Rose: The Melody and the Beat CONTENTS HOOK: The Bliss Point 1 You Spin Me Round 2 A Continuity of Hits FIRST VERSE: Cheiron: Mr. Pop and the Metalhead 3 Inside the Box 4 “The Sign” 5 Big Poppa 6 Martin Sandberg’s Terrible Secret 7 Britney Spears: Hit Me Baby 8 “I Want It That Way” CHORUS: The Money Note: The Ballad of Kelly and Clive 9 My Ancestral Hit Parade 10 The Dragon’s Teeth 11 The Doldrums 12 American Idol 13 “Since U Been Gone” SECOND VERSE: Factory Girls: Cultural Technology and the Making of K-Pop 14 “Gee” CHORUS: Rihanna: Track-and-Hook 15 “Umbrella” 16 “Ester Dean: On the Hook” 17 Stargate: Those Lanky Norwegian Dudes 18 “Rude Boy” BRIDGE: Dr. Luke: Teenage Dream 19 Speed Chess 20 Katy Perry: Altar Call 21 Melodic Math 22 Kesha: Teenage Nightmare CHORUS: Spotify 23 The Moment Space OUTRO: Songworm 24 “Roar” A Note on Sources Acknowledgments Index One cannot live outside the machine for more perhaps than half an hour. VIRGINIA WOOLF, THE WAVES Bring the hooks in, where the bass at? IGGY AZALEA, “FANCY” 1 | You Spin Me Round IT STARTED WHEN the Boy got big enough to claim shotgun. No sooner seated up front than he reprogrammed the presets, changing my classic and alternative rock stations to contemporary hits radio, or CHR—what used to be called Top 40. I was irritated at first, but by the time we had crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and arrived at school, where he was a fifth-grader, I was pleased. Hadn’t I reconfigured my parents’ radio to play my music when I was his age? And since there are only so many times you can listen to the guitar solo in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” without going a little numb yourself, I made the Boy my DJ, at least for the day. Thumpa thooka whompa whomp Pish pish pish Thumpa wompah wompah pah pah Maaakaka thomp peep bap boony Gunga gunga gung Was this music? The bass sounded like a recording of a massive undersea earthquake. The speakers produced sounds such as might have been heard on the Island of Dr. Moreau, had he been a DJ rather than a vivisectionist. What strange song machines made these half-brass, half-stringed-sounding noises? It was the winter of 2009, and “Right Round,” by Flo Rida, was the number-one song on Billboard’s Hot 100. The song begins with a swirly sound that goes right ’round your head in a tight circle. EEeeoooorrrroooannnnnwwweeeyyeeeooowwwwouuuzzzzeeEE Sprays of words follow the jackhammer beats, sung-rapped by Flo and assisted on the hook by the barbaric yawp of the artist Kesha. You spin my head right round right round When you go down when you go down down I missed the lyrics at first, but thanks to the repetitiveness of the CHR format—the playlist was closer to Top 10 than to Top 40—I didn’t have to wait long for the song to come right ’round again. It concerned a man in a strip club watching the pole dancers spin. And the hook was a double entendre for oral sex! Now, in my day, songwriters used double entendre to conceal the real meaning of the song. But in “Right Round,” the surface meaning—From the top of the pole I watch her go down—is as lewd as the hidden one. The nation was near the bottom of its worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, but you wouldn’t know that from “Right Round.” Social realism is not what this song is about. Like a lot of CHR songs, it takes place in “da club,” where Pitbull oils his way around the floor, calling women “Dahling” and remarking on their shapely behinds. The club is both an earthly paradise where all sensual pleasures are realized, and the arena in which achievement is measured: the place where you prove your manhood. Exactly what is the Boy doing in this place? Fortunately, I will be here with him now, to keep an eye on things. “I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND,” my first number one, came out when I was five; my sister had the 45. I heard pop music on the radio, on car-pool rides to and from the bus stop. (“Bus Stop” by the Hollies was one of the hits.) The mothers kept the radio tuned to WFIL, a Philadelphia Top 40 powerhouse in the mid-’60s. The Brill Building era, epitomized by professional songwriting teams like Gerry Goffin and Carole King, had given way to the Beatles. That led to the rock era, and I was fortunate enough to have lived my peak music-loving years during the glorious ’70s and ’80s up through the ’90s with Nirvana and grunge. For me, rock came to a spectacularly violent end on April 5, 1994, although Kurt Cobain’s body wasn’t discovered until three days later. By that point I’d mostly moved on to drum and bass (The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim), then to techno and EDM. Otherwise I listened to hip-hop, but only on my headphones—you couldn’t spin that stuff around kids, and my wife hated the misogyny. Around the time I stopped listening to rock, I began playing it. I rediscovered my teenage love of the guitar, and when the Boy came along, I gave him the gift of rock. By the age of three he had been treated to any number of intimate unplugged concerts, featuring me performing the folk and rock canon, during bath and bedtime. Why couldn’t my dad have been this cool? Yet the little gentleman showed an unnatural lack of affection for my music. “Don’t play!” he’d say whenever I reached for my instrument. He’d leave the room when “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” came around again. In his displeasure with my music he reminded me of my dad. And now, age ten, the tables were turned and for the first time I was treated to a full blast of his music, rudely shaking me from my long rock slumber. The songs in the car weren’t soulful ballads played by the singer-songwriter. They were industrial-strength products, made for malls, stadiums, airports, casinos, gyms, and the Super Bowl half-time show. The music reminded me a little of the bubblegum pop of my preteen years, but it was vodka-flavored and laced with MDMA; it doesn’t taste like “Sugar, Sugar.” It is teen pop for adults. Like the Brill Building songs of my youth, the hits on the radio are once again “manufactured” by songwriting pros. The hit makers aren’t on the same team, but they collaborate and work independently for the same few A-list artists. Collectively, they constitute a virtual Brill Building, the place where record men go when they have to have a hit. The song machine. MUSICALLY, THE SONG MACHINE makes two types of hits. One branch is descended from Europop, and the other from R&B. The former has longer, more progressive melodies and a sharper verse-chorus differentiation, and they seem more meticulously crafted. The latter have a rhythmic groove with a melodic hook on top that repeats throughout the song. But these templates are endlessly recombined. And the line between pop and urban is as blurry as it was in the ’50s when the record business was in its infancy, and the distinctions between R&B and pop were still fluid. Sam Smith, Hozier, and Iggy Azalea are all white artists with a black sound. Phil Spector, an early master at mixing R&B and pop, required dozens of session musicians to build his famous Wall of Sound. CHR hit makers can make all the sounds they need with musical software and samples—no instruments required. This is democratizing, but it also feels a little like cheating. By employing technologically advanced equipment and digital-compression techniques, these hit makers create sounds that are more sonically engaging and powerful than even the most skilled instrumentalists can produce. And it’s so easy! You want the string section from Abbey Road on your record—you just punch it up. Whole subcultures of musical professionals—engineers, arrangers, session musicians—are disappearing, unable to compete with the software that automates their work. Some instrumental sounds are based on samples of actual instruments, but they are no longer recognizable as such. And the electronic atmosphere and the dynamic changes in the density of the sound are more captivating than the virtuosity of the musicians. The computer is felt in the instrumentation, the cut-and-paste architecture, and in the rigorous perfection of timing and pitch—call it robopop. Melodies are fragmentary, and appear in strong short bursts, like espresso shots served throughout the song by a producer-barista. Then, slicing through the thunderous algorithms, like Tennyson’s eagle—And like a thunderbolt he falls—comes the “hook”: a short, sung line that grips the rhythm with melodic talons and soars skyward. The songs bristle with hooks, painstakingly crafted to tweak the brain’s delight in melody, rhythm, and repetition. The artists occupy a central place in the songs, but more as vocal personalities than singers. The voices belong to real human beings, for the most part, although in some cases the vocals are so decked out in electronic finery that it doesn’t matter whether a human or a machine made them. On sheer vocal ability, the new artists fall short of the pop divas of the early ’90s—Whitney, Mariah, Celine. And who are these artists? Britney? Kelly? Rihanna? Katy? Kesha? What do they stand for as artists? Their insights into the human condition seem to extend no further than the walls of the vocal booth. And who really writes their songs? Yes, I could have reprogrammed the presets and gone back to “Comfortably Numb.” I didn’t. Now the Boy and I had something to talk about. I HAD TRIED TO interest him in watching sports. He’d seen the pain the Philadelphia Eagles organization has caused me over so many years; naturally he wanted no part of that. But he was pleased to debate the merits of beats, hooks, choruses, and bridges. Like me, he knew where hit songs stood on the Billboard Hot 100—the fast risers and quick fallers-off; the number of weeks spent at number one; whether or not Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream album would score its fifth number one and thus tie Michael Jackson’s Bad for most number ones ever on an album. When Katy did it, he was proud; it proved his pop stars could compete with mine. And yet he was reluctant to share his true feelings about his music. He sensed there was something unnatural about my interest in it, and probably there was. After all, the songs on CHR were his. I’d had my glory days with the Sex Pistols; shouldn’t I step aside, take what pleasure I could in, say, Mark Knopfler’s amazing pickless guitar playing on the live version of “Sultans of Swing” on YouTube, and leave him to it? What if my parents had said, “Hey, son, the Pistols are really groovy!” or “Sid Vicious seems like a nifty guy!”? They’d only approved of one rock(ish) song, and that was “Teach Your Children,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I could never listen to it with pleasure again. Who are the hit makers? They are enormously influential culture shapers—the Spielbergs and Lucases of our national headphones—and yet they are mostly anonymous. Directors of films are public figures, but the people behind pop songs remain in the shadows, taking aliases, by necessity if not by choice, in order to preserve the illusion that the singer is the author of the song. I knew much more about the Brill Building writers of the early ’60s than about the people behind current CHR hits. They all have aliases—disco names. One of the most successful is called Dr. Luke. He and his frequent songwriting partner, a Swede called Max Martin (also an alias), have had more than thirty Top 10 hits between them since 2004, and Max Martin’s own streak goes back a decade before that; more recently, he’s become Taylor Swift’s magic man. In both volume of hits and longevity, Max Martin eclipses all previous hit makers, including the Beatles, Phil Spector, and Michael Jackson. “Did you know that ‘Right Round,’ ‘I Kissed a Girl,’ ‘Since U Been Gone,’ and ‘Tik Tok’ are all done by Dr. Luke?” “Really?” “I doubt he’s a medical doctor!” I snorted. The Boy smirked uncertainly. This became my mission: to find out more about who created these strange new songs, how they were made, and why they sounded the way they did, and report back to him. I shared tidbits I had gleaned about the process, and the Boy seemed pleased to know them. Our car rides together were full of song talk. It was bliss. SOME WEEKS PASSED. A new song or two appeared, but for the most part the same tunes played ad nauseam. There were few ballads, and fewer rock songs. The music sounded more like disco than rock. I thought disco was dead. Turns out disco had simply gone underground, where it became House, only to eventually reemerge, cicadalike, as the backing track to the CHR music and to bludgeon rock senseless with synths. Weirdly, the only place I consistently heard new guitar-driven rock music was on the girl-power cartoon shows my youngest watched on Nick Jr. There, guitar gods were still aspirational figures, albeit for fiveyear-old girls. Taylor Swift was a welcome surprise. Her early hits—“Our Song,” “Love Story,” and “You Belong With Me”—were still playing on the radio. They’re sort of country rock songs with great rhythm guitar parts, and Nashville polish and production added. And Swift was at least recognizable as belonging to the old singer-songwriter tradition I grew up with. She actually wrote her own songs. We both loved her. Some of the pop hits had a definite rock vibe, and I dutifully pointed out the spots where I heard it. The back beat in Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” The opening riff in Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” The baroque swoop of ’80s guitar lines in Kesha’s “Tik Tok,” except that they aren’t actually made with guitars. These songs are musical chimeras—rock bodies with disco souls. They have more melody than rap songs, but less melody than most ’80s music, and less chord complexity than songs from the ’60s and ’70s; they’re closer to punk that way. They get a lot of song mileage from simple and repetitive chord structures, thanks to the lush production. You’d think that in an age when anyone with basic computer skills can make a song on a laptop—no musical training or instrumental mastery is required—the charts would be flooded with newbie hit makers. The barriers to entry are low. And yet it turns out that the same handful of top writers and producers are behind hit after hit—a mysterious priesthood of musical mages. They combine the talents of storied arrangers like Quincy Jones and George Martin, with the tune-making abilities of writerproducers like Holland–Dozier–Holland, Motown’s secret weapon. On the pop side, there’s Ryan Tedder, Jeff Bhasker, and Benny Blanco; on the urban side Pharrell Williams, Dr. Dre, and Timbaland. Bridging both genres are the über hit makers like Stargate, Ester Dean, Dr. Luke, and Max Martin. THE MORE I HEARD the songs, the more I liked them. How could that be? If you dislike a song the first time, surely you should loathe it the tenth. But apparently that’s not how it works. Familiarity with the song increases one’s emotional investment in it, even if you don’t like it. This happens gradually, in stages. The initially annoying bits If I said I want your body now Would you hold it against me become the very parts you look forward to most in the song. You quote lines like “No lead in our zeppelin!” as if they are hoary oaths. In the car, I steel myself against hearing the same song yet again, but once it starts, I feel oddly elated. Melody and rhythm are deliciously entwined; in Brill Building songs, melody and rhythm sleep on opposite sides of the bed. The beats produce delightful vibrations in the sternum. And the hooks deliver the aural equivalent of what the snack-food industry calls the “bliss point”—when the rhythm, sound, melody, and harmony converge to create a single ecstatic moment, one felt more in the body than the head. At the PS 234 graduation the following summer, there was a DJ in the schoolyard who played Kesha, Pink, Rihanna—the whole posse of post-aught pop stars. And because I knew the music, I had a great time dancing. I outdid myself twirling around to Chris Brown’s “Forever” with one of the younger moms, while the Boy looked on, mortified. What can I say? Ordinary domestic life needs its bliss points, those moments of transcendence throughout the day—that just-behind-the-eyelids sense of quivering possibility that at any moment the supermarket aisle might explode into candy-colored light. The hooks promise that pleasure. But the ecstasy is fleeting, and like snack food it leaves you feeling unsatisfied, always craving just a little more. 2 | A Continuity of Hits CLIVE DAVIS HAS a way of pronouncing the word “hits.” If the word occurs in the course of conversation, as it always does, the record man will huff it out, like a lion. “I’m talking about HITS!” he barks in his curious Brooklyn-by-way-of-Bond-Street accent. It’s 2014, and Davis, who is the chief creative officer of Sony Music, has been talking about hits for fifty years, ever since he started at CBS Records as a music attorney in the mid-’60s. For a record man like Davis, hits are the whole ball game. A pop star is nothing without a hit, and a pop career depends on a “continuity of hits,” a favorite Davis phrase. Of course, there have been swings in popular taste over Davis’s career. The pure pop center he aims for has periodically been purged by new, edgier styles, which, in turn, eventually become absorbed into the mainstream too, usually on a ten-year cycle. Teen tastes, which pop music has historically served, are the most fickle of all. But through all the cyclical changes, there have always been hits. Hits are the strait gate through which all the money, fame, and buzz passes on its way to heaven. Ninety percent of the revenues in the record business come from ten percent of the songs. A recorded song has two principal sets of rights—the publishing and the master recording. The publishing covers the copyright of the composition, and the master is the sound-recording copyright. The master is the real estate; the publishing is the mineral rights under the land, and the air rights. In addition there are mechanical royalties, which are based on sales, and performance royalties, for when a song is played or performed in public, including on the radio. There are also synchronization rights, for use of a song in a commercial, ball game, TV show, or movie. In some countries (though not in the United States), there are neighboring rights, which are granted to non-authors who are closely connected to the song, such as the performers. The system is ridiculously complicated, as it’s supposed to be. It takes a music attorney like Davis to understand all the complexities in royalties payments. Labels have lots of them. A smash hit not only makes the songwriters a bundle on radio spins, it also moves the album, which generally benefits the label, and sells tickets to the world tour, which is how the artists make most of their money. A historic smash can be worth hundreds of millions for the rights holders over the term of its copyright, which, depending on when the song was composed, is the life of its composers plus fifty or sixty years. “Stairway to Heaven” alone was said to have earned its rights holders more than half a billion dollars by 2008. With so much dough potentially at stake, it is no surprise the hits are the source of hard dealings and dark deeds. In the old days, artists were induced to give away the publishing rights of their hits, which ended up being worth more than the records. Today, a top artist can insist on a full share of the publishing even though they had nothing to do with writing the song. (“Change a word, get a third,” the writers call this practice.) “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs,” Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, and that’s how the hits have always been accounted for. (Thompson added, “There’s also a negative side.”) Does it make sense, this all-or-nothing way of doing business, in which one song becomes all the rage and ten equal...
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