Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory

The Song Machine is a survey and explanation of the changes in popular music over the past 20 years.  Although these changes have been driven by technology, through the increased use of computer software in creating songs and the new forms of music sales and distribution through the internet, author John Seabrook also gives due attention to the creators, artists and audiences of contemporary popular music.

The most striking insight I obtained from this book is how much pop music has become IKEA.  A whole corps of Swedish songwriters and producers lie behind much of today's sound.  These songwriters and producers have, through experience and research, developed an effective assembly line that produces sleek and seductive pop confections that can be, as the author notes of himself, hard to resist.  In one telling passage, Seabrook notes how the emphasis on music and the arts in the Swedish public school system prepared Max Martin, born Martin Karl Sandberg and the author of 21  number 1 singles (as of this writing) since 1999, for his amazing success.  One senses that America needs to likewise invest in arts education to achieve parity with Sweden's pop music success.

While the meticulously assembled audio design of these song can sometimes be overwhelming, performing artists (lead vocalist / vocalists) are still need to be imprinted upon the final product.  Seabrook's book presents a parade of popular music celebrity, European and American, who are ubiquitous on the airwaves and in the tabloids (mostly online these days).  He also tracks the exploitation of these young stars and describes how their creative wishes are cut short by producers who better understand how to exploit their talents and personalities for profit.

There are chapters on the origins of the Swedish sound and approach to hit-making, the boy (and girl) band phenomenon, the compositional process of the contemporary hit, music streaming through Spotify, and on K-pop.  K-pop is an even purer distillation of this singer and song manufacturing process.  For cultural and economic reasons, Korean pop producers have a tighter control over their performing talent who must practice for many years to reach the top and who must accept rigid restrictions on how they conduct their personal lives.

At the outset of his investigation, Seabrook had a low opinion of this assembly line pop.  He came, however, to have a respect and appreciation for the extreme attention to detail and craftsmanship of all involved in the enterprise.  He also places today's music in the context of prior systems of manufacturing popular songs like Tin Pan Alley, The Brill Building, and Motown.  It is easy to argue that the new hit producing infrastructure has outdone its predecessors -- at least in terms of impact in the musical marketplace.  This is, nevertheless, music designed to manipulate the listener and it's hard not to feel manipulated by these carefully designed sonic products.  But one hopes that there can also be a similar renaissance of hand-crafted sounds in the pop music world.

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015).

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