I just fin­ished read­ing The Song Machine: In­side the Hit Fac­to­ry by John Seabrook, which taught me that the big hits be­ing pumped at us via the big di­vas with the great thighs are most­ly the out­put of a re­pro­ducible mech­a­nized pro­cess, and the me­chan­ics are Swedes. No, re­al­ly.

The Song Machine

I like most kinds of mu­sic; dur­ing the decades since I first fell un­der the spell of blues chords and back­beat­s, I’ve man­aged to ride the pop-music waves with plea­sure, find­ing some­thing to like in most months’ ra­dio. In the car, when the song ends and the ads start, I switch pre­sets more or less at ran­dom and reg­u­lar­ly find some­thing fresh and tasty.

But for some years I haven’t had a pre­set on the “All-Hits” for­mat sta­tion be­cause so many of ’em leave me cold. After read­ing The Song Ma­chine I think I may know why: The songs aren’t ac­tu­al­ly writ­ten by song­writ­er­s, and they’re not ac­tu­al­ly played by mu­si­cian­s.

Here’s what hits are: Tracks made by Swedes us­ing Pro Tools plus hooks made by toplin­ers us­ing booth­s. If you want to know what that means and how it work­s, you should read the book, and along the way you’ll meet some re­al­ly in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, one or two of whom ac­tu­al­ly seem to be mu­si­cian­s, sort of, and many of whom are reg­u­lar­ly on mag­a­zine cov­er­s.

Those Swedes are cool guys and I’m glad I read about them; I just wish they’d quit fuck­ing up pop mu­sic.

Now, ev­ery gen­er­a­tion sneers at its offspring’s mu­sic but I don’t and I’d like to not be GrandPaw here. And while I plead to lis­ten­ing to lots of weird mu­si­cal nich­es, I al­so like plen­ty of main­stream schlock; I’m tak­ing the fam­i­ly to Muse’s Drones tour, and I reg­u­lar­ly melt lis­ten­ing to Adele.

So I’m not say­ing that the Swedes-&-divas mech­a­nism couldn’t pro­duce great mu­sic. But I have a few spe­cif­ic gripes: First of al­l, there’s this thing called ru­ba­to that re­al mu­si­cians use, you hit­mak­ers ought to check it out. Se­cond, some­times in a song it’s a good idea to shut up and let an in­stru­ment join the con­ver­sa­tion. Third, you keep us­ing that word “hook”, I do not think it means what you think it mean­s. Seabrook claims that Rihanna’s Rude Boy is “virtually all hooks”. Um, no. When Paul Si­mon sings “I’m go­ing to Grace­land, Graceland”, that’s a hook. When Jack White sings “Steady as she goes”, that’s a hook. When Adele sings the ti­tle line from Ru­mor Has It, that’s a hook.

I sus­pect that at some point a re­al mu­si­cian is go­ing to get his or her hands on what Seabrook calls the “Track-and-Hook” ap­proach and find a way to twist or dirty it in­to some­thing not un­like art. And it’s not as though song­writ­ing or mu­si­cian­ship is dead; let me leave you with a cou­ple of videos of re­al mu­si­cian­s, young mu­si­cians I hadn’t heard of a month ago, per­form­ing re­al songs in re­al time. First, Jes­si­ca Her­nan­dez and the Deltas do­ing Sor­ry I Stole Your Man. Se­cond, Gul Pan­r­ra and Atif As­lam per­form­ing Man Aa­madeh Am with the as­ton­ish­ing Coke Stu­dio house band. So, at least some of the Kids are All Right.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: John Cowan (Nov 01 2015, at 12:40)

After reading your first sentence, and knowing you, I thought you were talking about *opera* divas rather than *pop* divas. That left me in the state of "You think you understand, but really you understand nothing!" until almost the end of the piece.


From: Nick (Nov 03 2015, at 09:26)

Thanks for the recommendation, really enjoying the book, unfortunately wasn't available from Amazon through your link (I'm in the UK)


From: mihailik (Nov 03 2015, at 12:05)

Thanks for the music references. Here's a bit of the stuff hope it makes it sunny :-)

Saigal Blues


Feminine devices



From: len (Nov 16 2015, at 05:06)

It only matters to people who actually get their music from people who make music that way. The business is full of pithy sayings (memememmememes?) that any versatile musician laughs at:

"Friends don't let friends clap on one and three.:

Really? Play a bossa.

"All hits are four chord songs."

Really? Really??? Play Misty for Me.

"The only American music IS black music."

Really? See Eric Whitacre.

The problem is amateur pundits, people whose depth is to music what script kiddies are to code dominate the web, itself a bad design that spawned an industry about to be under attack in ways it could not have imagined tend to dominate "the conversation".

And it's time.

And that South of Our Border bit? You might want to get your head down. It's a new world this week. The conversation just changed topic. The wahabists are looking for soft targets and there are none softer than Canada.


From: Gavin B. (Nov 17 2015, at 00:50)

Hi Tim

your fav. mag reviews your chosen book




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