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John Seabrook's Pop-Music Treatise The Song Machine Is Half Wrong, Half Boring

Illustration for article titled John Seabrooks Pop-Music Treatise iThe Song Machine /iIs Half Wrong, Half Boring

Don’t bore us, get to the chorus: John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (Norton) is one of the most frustrating music books in memory. You will learn a lot from this book; unfortunately, a lot of what you’ll learn is inaccurate. And all too often, what’s not inaccurate is vitiated by Seabrook’s wan storytelling.

The bulk of The Song Machine consists of lightly retouched versions of features Seabrook has written over the last few years as a staff writer for The New Yorker. It’s an attempt to draw the curtain back on how the gears turn to make big pop hits, with particular attention paid to Swedish producer-writers, from Denniz Pop (the book’s timeline begins with his charges Ace of Base) to Stargate (whom we first encounter through the eyes of singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, expressing skepticism that a pair of “lanky Norwegian dudes” could write R&B). Despite some of the hilariously alarmist reviews it’s inspired, the book is less an emperor-has-no-clothes exposé than a let’s-examine-the-tailoring survey. But much of the time, Seabrook seems to be working freehand: If he’d simply anthologized his pieces, we might be spared his shaky grasp on pop history, not to mention his refusal (or simple inability) to weave together his various strands into an intriguing whole. Seabrook has written a history of modern pop that lacks an overview.

Being a New Yorker staff writer gets you in doors, though it doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything interesting is happening behind them—or, in Seabrook’s case, that you can make what’s happening there seem interesting. He hangs out in a number of writers’ rooms, recording studios, and home bases, watching hookmeister Ester Dean lay down a demo vocal or super-producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald pumping up new protégé Bonnie McKee by goading bigger stars into appearing in her new video, and then checking back to make sure they’ve tweeted about it. If he’s out to prove that the offices that pump out chart hits are as uneventful as any other workplace, he succeeds handsomely. The big exception is also an outlier to the book’s American focus: the chapter on K-pop, which outlines the near-military training members of Seoul-based boy and girl groups undergo and the bizarre practice of mastering “eye smiles.”

Seabrook offers lots of background on several of pop’s biggest background stories—from Max Martin to the Swedish super-producer’s own protégé, Dr. Luke—but few of these characters come to life. The exceptions are the ones who hand the author a personality on a platter, such as Clive Davis; when the legendary mogul tells Kelly Clarkson that the personal material on her third album, 2007’s My December, is going to tank, Seabrook writes, “Davis was right. (In Davis’s stories, he’s always right.)” This is hardly surprising: From making goo-goo eyes at the dirty business of interning to profiling alt-rock never-weres Radish, the author’s credulity has often come at the cost of insight.


He isn’t bad, though, at divining the small tricks that have become part of the pop formula—such as the “melodic math” dictating that a melody should never deviate, however nonsensical the resulting lyrics. (Seabrook’s example, from Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants”: “It’s not a day for work / It’s a day for catching tan.”) But once he establishes the book’s bigger stars—Rihanna, for example—he drifts away from them, as if unsure where to go next. Instead of definitive arcs, however incomplete, their appearances amount to rambling anecdotes. That goes double when the tale ventures outside of strict machinery. His treatment of Kesha’s accusation that Dr. Luke raped her is strictly hands-off, and while Seabrook clearly isn’t condoning anything, his refusal to explicitly draw the lines between the producer’s power (one of the book’s—and industrialized pop’s—running themes) and the star’s charges and ongoing lawsuit reads like a dodge, a tale narrated by Shruggie.

But where The Song Machine stumbles hardest is in what would seem to be the easiest part: the old stuff. There are so many books about pop-music history that gleaning facts from them should be a snap, but Seabrook commits one needless historical boner after another.


Take his shaky grasp of hip-hop. “Def Jam was started by Rick Rubin in his dorm room at NYU in 1983, after Rubin produced Jazzy Jay’s album It’s Yours,” Seabrook writes. Well, no—“It’s Yours” was a 12-inch single by T La Rock & Jazzy Jay, released on January 28, 1984; neither man ever titled an album It’s Yours. Seabrook also credits “the A&R work of Russell Simmons” for “Def Jam [having] brought hip-hop into the commercial mainstream.” In fact, Rubin brought the Beastie Boys, L.L. Cool J, and Public Enemy on board; Simmons mainly signed R&B singers like Tashan and Oran “Juice” Jones to the label. Seabrook also claims that Run-D.M.C. were on Def Jam (they were on Profile), and asserts that Lyor Cohen “forced out Rick Rubin” from Def Jam. In his hip-hop history The Big Payback, Dan Charnas spends several pages detailing the reasons for Rubin’s voluntary departure from the label in 1988. Cohen isn’t one of them.

There’s more. “Afrika Bambaataa sampled Kraftwerk (without permission) in his 1982 song ‘Planet Rock,’ combining the melody of ‘Trans-Europe Express’ with the rhythm of Kraftwerk’s song ‘Numbers’ and those 808 beats. His Kraftwerk mashup birthed hip-hop.” This is false on its face. As Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life points out, “Planet Rock” co-producer John Robie re-played the “Trans-Europe Express” keyboard part; the only sample Bambaataa’s record contains is the orchestral “hit,” which came as part of the Fairlight sampler and was taken from a recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird. (You can read UCLA musicologist Robert Fink’s extensive history of that orchestral “hit,” a/k/a ORCH5, here.) And it’s been documented to death that hip-hop was born when DJ Kool Herc began cutting double copies of funk tracks on twin turntables, most notably the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache.” Worse, Seabrook seems to be calling “Planet Rock” the first hip-hop record, even though the Sugar Hill Gang had released “Rapper’s Delight” three years earlier.


Seabrook’s interpretations are similarly off-base. “Nashville is in some respects the Brill Building’s spiritual home,” Seabrook writes, ignoring the fact that the city’s Music Row, which largely powers country music’s own hit-making machine, came to prominence at approximately the same time as the Brill Building. Music Row is already its own spiritual home. Seabrook also asserts that “ABBA showed that teen pop could be about adult subjects” (a decade after Dylan and the Beatles had done the same thing), and that the group’s singing about their own divorces was “something you didn’t see in pop music every day” . . . unless you were one of the 10 million people who’d bought Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours within its first year of release, to say nothing of Sonny and Cher, or the Mamas and the Papas.

More recent musical history gets short shrift as well. Seabrook IDs the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim as “drum and bass” (nope), calls Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” one of her “early hits” (in 20 years, maybe), and admits that in 2010, “I thought disco was dead”—apparently having missed “Billie Jean,” the Flashdance soundtrack, and “Groove Is in the Heart,” just for starters.

His musical descriptions are similarly inapt. Describing “Wet Lapse,” a 1998 single on Rawkus Records that Dr. Luke released under an earlier alias, Kasz, Seabrook notes that the track “combines the Chemical Brothers’ techno sounds with the more lyrical electronic music made by Fatboy Slim,” which is like saying that a band combines Nirvana’s rock sounds with the more lyrical guitar music made by Local H. Seabrook also says that on Nevermind, “Butch Vig’s production magic is well hidden behind the real instruments,” as if Vig’s (and, even more to the point, mixer Andy Wallace’s) ministrations weren’t being done to the instruments. Elsewhere, he notes that Hit Predictor, an Web-based tester of songs’ impact that compresses a tune into a two-minute chunk that repeats its 30-second core three times, “was only one of a variety of different approaches to anticipating hits that became popular following the publication of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, in 2003.” Not only is it a stretch to suggest that record people needed to read a sports book to apply hard math to hit-making, but Hit Predictor and its parent website Promosquad launched in 2002.


All of this would be a lot less wearying if Seabrook weren’t such a plodding stylist. When Justin Guarini hugged Kelly Clarkson at the climax of American Idol’s first season, “it was pure TV magic”; after Napster changed the digital landscape, “Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, stepped into the breach with a cool proposal—the iTunes music store.” (Why not go all the way and call it “neato”?) When Katy Perry started out, she “accompanied herself on the blue acoustic guitar her church gave her when she turned thirteen, a color she would later adopt for her hair.” Granted, this is better than the risible paragraph Seabrook dedicates to the topic of Perry’s breasts, but not by much.

Seabrook clearly likes the music he’s writing about; he makes that plain in the book’s intro and outro, in which he re-connects with modern pop after his young son begins commandeering the car radio. “Singles are the pop world,” Greil Marcus wrote at the end of 1986, adding: “Pia Zadora could make the best record of 1987, and we’d all (those of us honest enough to admit it) be scurrying to figure out what that meant. It wouldn’t mean anything, other than that the radio is still a good, weird machine.” That short paragraph contains more perception than Seabrook manages over 300 pages.


Michaelangelo Matos is the author of the The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (Dey Street), and contributes to Rolling Stone, NPR, Red Bull Music Academy Magazine, and more. He lives in Brooklyn.


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