Monthly Archives: December 2015

One for the road

I was assigned a review of John Seabrook’s The Song Machine that was killed for scheduling reasons, and I figured I’d throw it up here before we move on to 2015.

The existence of Max Martin seemed to come as quite shock to book critic Nathaniel Rich. Writing recently in the Atlantic, Rich revealed how he became aware of the incomparably successful yet media-averse Swedish pop craftsman through reading John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. From that book, Rich was dismayed to learn that most of today’s pop superstars rely on professional European songwriters and trackmasters like Martin – whose given name, Karl Martin Sandberg, the critic intoned as though divulging the alias of some nefarious foreign operative hitherto strolling unnoticed among our children. Rich called this standard industry practice an open yet closely guarded secret.” You or I might call it “a well-known fact about a subject Nathaniel Rich usually ignores.

The Song Machine is far from the searing expose of modern megapop that Rich’s review suggests. A longtime New Yorker staffer, Seabrook pries into the process of modern hit-making with a dogged and generally respectful curiosity, and his Conde Nast credentials allow him intimate access to high-level practitioners – Dr. Luke plays him Katy Perry’s “Roar” before its release. But access doesn’t guarantee expertise, or even accuracy. If an uncle suggests at Thanksgiving that Afrika Bambaataa “birthed hip-hop” with “Planet Rock,” you’ll know he’s been reading Seabrook.

This is foremost a book about contemporary pop music written for people with no particular interest in contemporary pop music, many of whom, like Rich, will approach it as a vegan might a book about sausage-making. Maybe to ease such readers into a world they suspect as aesthetically noxious, the book is bracketed by two cutesy, klutzy first-person framing chapters. Cool dad Seabrook “discovers” modern pop when his son, “the Boy,” blasts Flo Rida’s “Right Round” on the car radio. (Seabrook’s hyperbolic all-capped description of the track’s supposedly alien electrosquelches might make you think IHeartRadio has Merzbow in heavy rotation.) Seabrook (and, theoretically, you, skeptical middlebrow reader) eventually comes to love this commercial noise and respect its creators, while the Boy grows up and discovers the Smiths.

But Seabrook‘s main task is to whisk us through the past quarter-century of the pop music biz, which he does with moderate competence. We watch as Sweden’s Cheiron Studios experiences unexpected early success with Ace of Base, enters a lucrative partnership with Jive Records to foster the teen-pop explosion of late ’90s, then falters after the death of colorful founder Denniz PoP and the financial undoing of scummy boy-band impresario Lou Pearlman. Kelly Clarkson emerges from American Idol to do battle with old-school record exec Clive Davis. Rihanna overcomes her battering at the hands of Chris Brown by embracing a harsher electronic sound. Katy Perry loses Jesus and finds Max Martin. Ke$ha levels rape allegations against Dr. Luke.

If these stories sound familiar, you might not need to read them again. If they don’t, you might not be that interested in the first place. Seabrook’s tale is episodic, in part because much of this material is previously publishedthe New Yorker features on K-Pop and Spotify he shoehorns in are distracting tangents in a book already lacking focus. Certain themes and issues recur, particularly the clash between an artist (often a young woman) and the industry (typically represented by a powerful man). Not all these struggles. are as dramatic or painful as Clarkson‘s or Ke$ha‘s. In Seabrook’s profiles of Ester Dean and Bonnie McKee, topliners who yearn to break out as artists on their own, many creative individuals will recognize the compound frustration of having your voice stifled and yet doing your best work as a result. But overall the anecdotes and information here accumulate without coalescing into a real story.

Seabrook himself seemed to acknowledge the narrative weightlessness of his subject in a recent New Yorker piece on Martin, which drew heavily from the material in his book. (Martin characteristically declined to be profiled.) In closing, Seabrook compares the Swede’s legacy to the Beatles’ and laments “the absence of a broader political and cultural framework.”

The story of the Beatles, from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Let It Be,” is a story of the sixties—politics, war, protest, drugs, free love, and how the songwriters responded to those forces. The hits are embedded within albums that offer rich, complex musical statements, and insights into the artists’ personal development and changes. What story does Martin’s string of No. 1s tell, from “… Baby One More Time” to “Can’t Feel My Face,” his most recent? What changes do they trace? The songs are all about the same thing, more or less, which is not the same thing a Continue reading


2015: The Year in Keith

I feel like I wrote a lot more than this?

Anyway, here’s most of the best of what I published in 2015. Thanks, as always, to my editors: Chris Weingarten at Rolling Stone, Jay Boller and Reed Fischer at City Pages, Christy DeSmith at the Star Tribune, Brad Nelson at Maura, and Rob Harvilla at Deadspin.

Essays, reviews, previews, listicles, etc.

“The Blurred Lines verdict proves only one thing: you can’t second-guess a jury,” The Guardian, March 11  The most lawyerly article I’ve ever published outside of the Cardozo Law Review. Takeaway for tl;dr types: Judges make law, juries don’t.

“The Mall Gaze: When Tiffany’s ‘I Saw Him Standing There’ Looked Back at the Beatles,” EMP Pop Conference Presentation, April 19, audio here, also published in Maura Magazine, May 19 (subscriber only). A history of Boomer fretting about the Beatles’ legacy throughout the ’80s, leading up to T. Darwish’s trash-cendent reminder that duh, pop is a commodity. (Recommended to the social media snoots who were claiming the other day that they wouldn’t listen to the Beatles on Spotify because the music is “too special to stream.”)

“Why this Minnesota transplant loves the State Fair,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, August 25  The State Fair is a thing Minnesota writers write about, and I am a Minnesota writer who wrote a thing about the State Fair.

“Show us your hits! Analyzing KDWB’s top pop jams,” City Pages, September 9  The Hendrix of hookily modulated cyborg puking, General Swift’s testimony before a VMA subcommittee on weaponized feminism, and other quip-crit from the summer that was. The headline is a tribute to a singles roundup I published in 2002 eight years before the Bloodhound Gang best-of, I’ll have you know.

“Album reviews: Motion City Soundtrack and Low,” City Pages, September 16  This is the first time I wrote about two of Minnesota’s biggest legacy acts.

Two concert previews: Madonna & Girlpool, City Pages, October 8-15.

“20 Great Moments in Rock Star Nudity,” Rolling Stone, October 29  I wrote so many blurbs for Rolling Stone this year that my student loan servicer should send Weingarten a Christmas card. Some were a little too, you know, institutional to make the year-end c.v. (Feel free to browse, though.) This was among the funner assignments.

“God Bless Alan Jackson, Country Music’s Invaluable Extra-Vanilla Everyman,” Deadspin, November 20  Most everything I’ve written about Jackson over the years, rearranged into a longer overview of his music and his persona. Hoping to do a lot more of this sort of thing in 2016.

Show reviews

I love reviewing live shows, and I got to do that plenty for City Pages in 2015.

Sleater-Kinney summoned chaotic intensity at First Avenue, February 16

Kacey Musgraves is as real as country’s ever been, February 23

Stevie Wonder gives you more than you ever knew you wanted, March 30

Father John Misty preaches to the converted at First Avenue, April 6

Morrissey finally arrives in Minnesota, July 14

Miguel navigates sexistential crises at the State, August 17

FIDLAR’s show at the Varsity is better than drugs, September 15

Madonna celebrates all things Madonna at Xcel, October 9

Yo La Tengo bring a special kind of hush to Pantages, November 9