Among the oldest and most enduring criticisms of American popular music is the charge that it is nothing more than an industrial product, made for profit and designed for mass production and consumption, rather than a work of personal expression. In other words, pop songs are merely commercial goods, not art—or so the argument goes.
The first American tunes to be million-selling hits—as sheet music, before the invention of radio or records—were marketed in the 1890s, when industrialization was taking hold in this country. A maudlin ballad by one Charles K. Harris titled “After the Ball” sold more than two million song sheets in 1892 and would go on to sell more than five million copies. Mass popularity had become possible through mass production by offset printing, mass distribution over the railroads, and mass marketing through the department stores opening around the country to sell parlor furniture, pianos, and other symbols of prosperity and gentility to the emerging American middle class. It didn’t take long for newspaper commentators to equate the vastly popular and unabashedly populist sheet music with the standardization and regimentation of industrial production.
“Nowadays, the consumption of songs by the masses in America is as constant as their consumption of shoes, and the demand is similarly met by factory output,” asserted an uncredited writer for The New York Times in an article headlined “How Popular Song Factories Manufacture a Hit,” published in 1910. “Songs may be properly classed with the staples, and are manufactured, advertised, and distributed in much the same manner as ordinary commodities. The minstrels and ballad writers of old probably brought more talent to bear upon their work and took greater pains with it than do their latter-day successors.”
The “song factories” to which the article referred were the music-publishing companies of Tin Pan Alley—a phrase originally intended to ridicule the sounds emanating from the open windows of the buildings on West 28th Street in Manhattan, where tunesmiths such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and countless others labored at pianos like musical Dilberts. The songs were constructed and packaged, piece by piece, by a series of specialists: a lyricist, a composer, an arranger, and a publisher. Then the tunes would be performed (or, before long, recorded and broadcast) by additional teams of specialists: a singer, a bandleader, another arranger, a band. Hence the handy analogy with assembly-line production—and the hand-in-hand idealization of methods of the past as purer, uncorrupted by commerce or mechanization.
By the 1920s, as the Jazz Age sound of ragtime began to supplant the parlor sheet music of early Tin Pan Alley in popularity, critics simply transferred their contempt for commercial production methods to the rag craze and updated the objects of their idealization. “American ragtime is now factory-made,” proclaimed a writer for the Los Angeles Times in 1921. “Popular songs are no longer the products of lone, gifted individuals, but the work of organized experts. Their various parts are created and assembled with the same speed and mechanical perfection as motor cars.… Jazz has passed into the hands of American industry, and…the carefree days of Tin Pan Alley are over.”
From one musical vogue to another over the years, the notion of pop songs as industrial product has persisted, sometimes taken up by the music makers themselves as a source of pride. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records in Detroit, the then-booming home of the auto industry in its postwar V-8 heyday, had put in time on the assembly line at a Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan, and he modeled his whole vertically integrated musical operation on what he learned at the factory. As he recalled in his memoir, To Be Loved, “At the plant, cars started out as just a frame, pulled along on conveyor belts until they emerged at the end of the line—brand-spanking-new cars rolling off the line. I wanted the same concept for my company, only with artists and songs and records.”
Around the same time in New York, music publishers and record producers were generating teeny-bopper pop in a loose consortium of businesses in and around the Brill Building, north of Times Square. The current Broadway musical about Carole King, Beautiful, evokes that scene with sweet affection, having the young songwriter-to-be explain to her mother, “Mom, it’s like a factory where they make songs.”
Today, the pop music that’s most popular—the dance-oriented teen music that plays in tight rotation on what programmers call CHR (Contemporary Hits Radio) and that Billboard ranks on its Hot 100 chart—is produced and distributed by methods that, in many ways, appear to be more regimented and mechanized than the means by which any music had been made in the past. Producers generate instrumental tracks by sample-mining and synthesis, using software and keyboard plug-ins; teams of “topliners” add melodic hooks and lyric ideas onto the tracks; and the results are cut and pasted, Auto-Tuned and processed, then digitally tested with software that compares the sonic patterns of a new song with those of past hits. The world of this music is both familiar and unique, connected in elemental ways to the first popular music produced in America and, at the same time, utterly inconceivable in any era before the digital age.
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John Seabrook, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of Nobrow (2000), the celebrated study of the influence of marketing on public tastes, has taken up the making of contemporary pop in a new book, his fourth, called The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. As both the title and subtitle indicate, with a degree of redundancy, the book considers the pop music of the early 21st century as an industrial phenomenon. Seabrook leads his readers on a factory tour.
Researching his subject as a journalist, on the ground, Seabrook dispenses with the historical antecedents of the current music-production paradigm efficiently in a half-dozen pages and then focuses his attention on the ways that music making has been transformed since the rise of digital technology. The Song Machine is a work of recent history, reported largely through Seabrook’s interviews and firsthand observations in recording studios and music venues in New York, Los Angeles, South Korea (where pop is a national and nationalized obsession), and Stockholm, the global center of hit production today. In chapters that read like entertaining and well-informed but not overly taxing magazine pieces, the author covers a lot of ground—musical, social, economic, and even personal, with some charming vignettes about how he and his kids connect through music. Seabrook is skilled at conjuring scenes and capturing characters like Dr. Luke, a savvy American veteran of the Saturday Night Live band who teamed up with the Swedish producer Max Martin in one of the most successful songwriting and producing partnerships in pop history, and Ester Dean, a specialist in vocal improvising with a gift for spontaneously generating the catchy riffs necessary to turn an instrumental track into a hit song.
In his close-up look at Dean and her working methods, Seabrook provides one of The Song Machine’s many vivid narrative moments: a scene of Dean free-associating at the microphone, working up hooks as her contribution to the “track-and-hook” method of song creation: “The first sounds Dean uttered were subvocal—na-na-na and ba-ba-ba. Then came disjointed words, culled from her phone—‘taking control…never die tonight…I can’t live a lie’—in her low-down, growling singing voice.”
Seabrook, though not a writer on music by trade, crafts some passages of wittily lucid musical description in The Song Machine. In a chapter on Max Martin’s production of “Since U Been Gone,” a breakout hit for Kelly Clarkson, he writes:
The song starts off sounding like a mash-up of Cars hits: “Just What My Best Friend’s Girl Needed.” Eight measures of stripped-down rhythm are played by [Dr. Luke] Gottwald, using his “bad guitar” technique, an intentionally amateurish-sounding thrashing of the top two guitar strings, fretted in a G chord. Then a punk-rock bass starts, along with electronic-sounding percussion.
Guitar geeks might bridle at the fact that Seabrook refers to the bottom strings as the top ones, but a lot of people make the same mistake.
My own quibble with Seabrook’s approach concerns an error that other writers also make, though it is one for which I have little tolerance. In the five instances I counted, Seabrook quotes anonymous sources: “one music-industry insider,” “one label head,” and the like. In each case, the quotes are clever and cut neatly to the point at hand: “Who would have imagined, as one label head put it, that ‘your enemy could become your friend’?” What’s most puzzling about this to me is how Seabrook managed to find a record-label head who didn’t want to be quoted in print—especially after saying something clever. He appears to have discovered the first executives in the history of the music industry to want no publicity.
His approach, for the most part, is dramatic: Seabrook prefers showing to telling, and he tends to resist making critical judgments or doing in-depth analysis. One can read The Song Machine from start to finish and come away without fully grasping the consequences of the industrial scheme that Seabrook applies to pop-music-making today. What does it really mean, after all, for music to be made in a “hit factory”?
The proposition implies commercial purpose, of course, and Seabrook does a good job of showing how nearly everyone in his book—from performers like Britney Spears and Rihanna, to impresarios like Clive Davis and Louis “Big Poppa” Pearlman (puppet master of both the Backstreet Boys and their rivals ’N Sync)—has been driven by the singular ambition of success as it’s measured by the ranking of the Billboard Hot 100. He describes a musical culture in which “writing songs for any reason other than making hits is a waste of time,” suggesting vaguely, without quite saying it, that commercial impulses and creative ones are usually mutually exclusive.
While that notion hardened into a trope long before Seabrook started writing, it has not always borne scrutiny, especially in the field of popular music. Irving Berlin wrote all of his songs (with the exception of “Always,” a gift to his second wife) with the goal of creating a hit, and so did Chuck Berry—and the results were popular masterpieces like Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and “Cheek to Cheek” and Berry’s “School Days” and “You Never Can Tell.” As Seabrook himself implies here and there, some of the songs he discusses aren’t so bad after all. Regarding “We Got It Goin’ On,” an early commercial success for the Swedish production whiz Denniz PoP, Seabrook notes that “the song never fails you,” and he describes the melody of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” as “a lambskin glove of the softest leather that fits perfectly over the rhythmic knuckles of the song.”
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What else does industrial production involve? Regimentation, certainly, and there’s no question that the music of CHR is produced by rigidly systematic methods that can lead the songs to sound awfully similar. Then again, every form of music has systems of training and production, as well as modes of practice and aesthetic standards that can be seen as overly regimented and stultifying. In classical music, many conservatories no doubt adhere to rules of music-making no less regimented than the track-and-hook system that Max Martin employs. Besides, songs in every genre tend to sound alike—especially to listeners not steeped in the work—even as devotees of the genre revel in the parsing of minute distinctions between them. To a musical-theater buff, for instance, the blues of the Mississippi Delta might sound inexplicably repetitive. Hip-hop fans might not pick up the subtle variations between songs that bluegrass aficionados hear in their music, and vice versa. To a listener deeply engaged in current pop, like my 12-year-old son Nate, the bebop records I play in the house can sound annoyingly the same.
The worst of industrial production’s sins, historically, is the fact that mechanization can be dehumanizing. As Seabrook points out, sampling and synthesizers have made it possible to create and record complex, sonically rich and varied works of music without anyone involved playing a traditional musical instrument. Pro Tools and other digital software packages are the instruments by which pop is constructed today. Still, human beings use the software and make the creative decisions—alone at times, but often in teams of people collaborating, trading ideas, competing, squabbling, feeding off and inspiring one another. And the human voice, singing words—with the help of Auto-Tune to stay in pitch, of course—is at the center of the songs.
All of the stories that Seabrook tells in The Song Machine are tales of people involved in the profoundly human activities of invention, collaboration, rivalry, triumph, and disappointment. He quotes Dr. Luke describing his song-making organization as “a combination of artists, producers, topliners, beat makers, melody people, vibe people, and just lyric people.” That’s a lot of people, including the “vibe people” who, as Dr. Luke explains, “know how to make a song happen, understand energy and where music is going, even if they can’t play a chord or sing a note.” For all their efforts, often working obsessively day and night, many of these people spend most of the time working on music that is never released or falls short of becoming a hit. The ostensible hit makers are often engaged in the most human of acts: failure.
The industrial scheme that Seabrook employs in The Song Machine to explain contemporary popular music is a mechanism itself. Over 100 years old now, it no longer works very well. A more accurate and illuminating way to understand today’s pop might be to think of it as post-industrial, a phenomenon not of the machine era but of the information age. Music is made today by mining the vast digital repository of recordings of the past, or by emulating or referencing them through synthesis, and then manipulating them and mashing them up—with the human fallibility and genius that have always laced popular music and probably always will. Indeed, it is accessing and processing—the methods that digitalization facilitates—rather than gearing and stamping for uniformity and mass production that distinguish 21st-century pop. Like machine-age plants everywhere, the song factories have closed, and the work of the day is being done electronically.