Archive for John Seabrook

The Song Machine: No Ghosts Here

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on October 19, 2015 by dazzlesoundproductions



A book recently published that will be of interest to anyone who listens a bit too closely to music is John Seabrook’s Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, which grew out of this article.

Ever wondered why Top 40 crud is now impossible to ignore as it pours out of radios, shops, fast food joints?  It’s because it is precision engineered with heavily compressed batteries of “hooks”, earworms of particularly vocalised beats and synth sounds and rhythmic samples.  Songwriting has been formularised to a terrifying degree by an elite group of mostly Scandinavian digital technicians who marshall battalions of writers and arrangers, focusing their skills on crafting three and a half minutes of pure sugar rush, flavoured with a triple shot of porno lyrics.  This book lays it bare, it is fascinating and also disorientating.

Seabrook is a middle-aged journalist who should be preconditioned to despise this virulent all-conquering phenomenon, the Japanese Knotweed of pop.  But he admirably set aside the prejudice to dig into the process of construction with a musicologist’s eye and ended up taking the monster home.  He shows how teams of writers specialise to a crazy degree (top-line only, chorus only, ring-mod breakdown only) to distill the product to super-strength, and he spots some interesting wrinkles; ever wondered why so much of the sex-obsessed lyrics have an infantile feel?  They are written by composers in their second language so elegance goes out the window in favour of crunching groin-level impact.

There’s no escaping the commercial forces driving this development either – the music is the sound of decline.  As revenue from recorded music collapsed, the big labels realised that there was no room for sentiment.  If they were going to commit big budgets to new artists they wanted no holes out of which air could escape.  The wall between composing and fronting/performing which the Beatles had demolished came up again, the professionals moved into forensic songwriting and the Rihannas, Katy Perry’s and Nicky Minaj’s became the public faces, with a co-credit once they had sold enough to insist on being cut in.  These “smash hits” don’t generate anything like the money they used to, but they hoover up what’s left of the cake and keep the music industry alive even as it circles the drain waiting for streaming services to (possibly) put it to sleep permanently.

Where does it leave those who aspire to write for themselves?  Out in the cold frankly.  The song machine runs on singles with big-selling albums much thinner on the ground, but autonomous artists have had to vacate the mainstream or accept the shackles of co-writing.  The very idea of a major (EMI) giving a 17 year old prodigy (Kate Bush) an advance and mentor to develop her songwriting and hoping for the best is laughable today.  But hey, when 1% of the roster generates 80% of the profit complaining is like throwing tomatoes at a tank.  There are examples of the 21st century craft that force even cynics to make the shoot sign (Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” to pluck an example out the ether is an outrageous pimping of 60’s girl group pop) but mostly it is like liqueur chocolates being forced into your eardrums, the handy bottle-shaped ones I guess.  The book does a sterling job of showing how the edifice is made in studios in London, Stockholm and LA but left me feeling much as I do when surveying Euston station – I can’t deny it’s huge but I don’t want to go inside unless it’s to leave again.