W.W. Norton & Company
October 5, 2015
SUMMARY (from the publisher)
Over the last two decades a new type of song has emerged. Today’s hits bristle with “hooks,” musical burrs designed to snag your ear every seven seconds. Painstakingly crafted to tweak the brain’s delight in melody, rhythm, and repetition, these songs are industrial-strength products made for malls, casinos, the gym, and the Super Bowl halftime show. The tracks are so catchy, and so potent, that you can’t not listen to them.
Traveling from New York to Los Angeles, Stockholm to Korea, John Seabrook visits specialized teams composing songs in digital labs with novel techniques, and he traces the growth of these contagious hits from their origins in early ’90s Sweden to their ubiquity on today’s charts. Featuring the stories of artists like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Rihanna, as well as expert songsmiths like Max Martin, Ester Dean, and Dr. Luke, The Song Machine will change the way you listen to music.
I appreciate Martha Graham Company performances because I spent years in dance studios, and I
Top 40 pop music? It’s so omnipresent, so much a part of the air we breathe, that we rarely stop to think about what’s behind it, but The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory tells a fascinating story about how we got where we are today.
For instance: I had never heard of Max Martin before I read (listened to) this book. And yet, I heard Max Martin every single day (I have three teenagers). This unassuming Swede happens to be the genius behind Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way,” Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” Taylor Swift’s entire 1989 album (what??), The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do,” Pink’s “Who Knew,” and on and on and on. You love Max Martin—I know you do—even if you’ve never heard his name.
How did this happen?
That, my friends, is the story John Seabrook tells in The Song Machine. You’ll get to start way back in those foggy electronic lights of 1970s European discos and you’ll meet all kinds of interesting people along the way: 13-year-old Britney Spears, Robin Rihanna Fenty, fresh from Barbados, and the pop hook savant Ester Dean. Some of these characters are very well known to the general public, and some of them have remained blessedly anonymous, enjoying the impressive fruits of their creative labors without having to take the lumps that come with fast-pace fame.
You’ll get to travel the world, too. Since American Top 40 is largely peopled with American singers, it’s easy to assume that it’s a mostly American industry—but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Seabrook will thoughtfully guide you from New York to Stockholm to Korea to Los Angeles, and you’ll see how industrialized, how packaged, how collaborative our music has become. All this is done without Seabrook’s judgment, and I’m glad of that. Without having to decide whether our current pop music trajectory is “good” or “bad,” I can appreciate its development for all its strangeness and wonder.
I listened to the audiobook version, which is narrated by Dion Graham. Graham does a fantastic job and has such a naturally genial voice. You’ll enjoy his narrative company.
Read it. And once you’ve finished it, turn on the radio. Instead of merely bopping your head to those catchy bass lines as you drive down the road, you’ll listen for the hooks and the bridges, you’ll wonder if the melody was written by a Swede. You might wonder if the artist’s vocals have been mashed with Ester Dean’s, and you might envision Dr. Luke or Max Martin, sitting at a laptop on the other side of your speakers, swapping in percussion sounds with the respectful, intent curiosity of a mad scientist in his laboratory. You, gentle reader, are the guinea pig. And you love it. So do I.