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 at all.

That Seabrook settles for so unsatisfying an answer to so crucial a question should give you a good idea of the limitations of The Song Machine. He searches out the story of 21st century pop in corporate offices and studio spaces and Clive Davis’s memoirs, but as interesting as the practices and personalities he encounters can sometimes be, in the end pop’s meaning is not in how it’s made. (Even Max Martin can‘t tell us what his songs mean. He’s smart enough not to try.) Pop takes place in the spaces, material and imaginary, where our desires – for sex, for community, for recognition, for sheer sensationare refracted through these songs, through the images that surround them, through the personas that cohere around, through the relationships fans form with one another. Those desires have metamorphosed in sometimes lovely and sometimes terrifying ways over the past twenty years, and the full story of that transformation remains to be told.

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  • and then she thought better of it.  On January 1, 2016 at 12:59 am

    That’s too bad – I remember when I discovered Max Martin’s existence and was shocked for about three-quarters of a second, and then thought, well, why wouldn’t there be these people? I’d heard someone sing “Baby One More Time” on the Voice, or something, and was impressed by what a solid song it was, had looked it up to see who wrote it. Actually part of the shock was some indignation that people like this weren’t getting radio-level credit. I mean the acts are great but these are very, very well-made songs, you could hang lots of acts on them.

    But Seabrook’s a hack anyway. Back in the 90s he had some terrible piece in the NYer in which he was scarred by arguments on USENET, and he was silly enough to put his email address in the piece, so I promptly wrote to him with the usual excoriating sort of USENET broadside. Text from which he promptly lifted and put in the book he was writing (or ‘writing’), uncredited. Funny thing is he did the same thing to a friend of mine I met years later — there was her email and mine in that book, both ripped off by John Seabrook.

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