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.
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.