© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The advent of computerised music software in the 1970’s made virtuosic instrument-playing or singing redundant: producers could obtain any sound they wanted synthetically, and string together vocals by using the best individual syllables from a large number of takes ("comp-ing") and running them through a pitch corrector. Subsequently, the advent of internet downloading shifted the primary unit of musical consumption from the album to the single. That sharply increased demand for melodic hooks, to lock listeners in within the seven seconds before they are likely to turn the radio dial.
“These inventions shifted the balance of power from performers to production teams.”
- The Economist Magazine
Try as I might, I have a difficult time understanding today’s popular music. And it’s not much better when it comes to music that accompanies television shows and movies.
I mean, I’m not expecting The Great American Songbook, The Jazz Standards, Classic Rock, or the likes of Pete Rugolo-Jerry Goldsmith-Hank Mancini to reappear anytime soon, but I need something to get my ears around so that my mind can follow this new, so-called “music” in a linear fashion.
The logic of a 32-bar AABA tune or a 12 or 16-bar blues would be nice or even a sequence of chords or modes to serve as the basis for following the music would be helpful.
But instead, what I get are fragments, sound effects and noise.
However, all is not lost because after reading the following review of John Seabrook’s The Song Machine I’ve have come to the realization of what the root of my problem is - today’s music is not composed, it’s manufactured!
Welcome to the world of “... industrial, music production” made possible by “… the advent of computerized, music software.”
Does anyone out there know what a “... funky Cherion back beat is”?
The Story of How Pop Was Made - And Who Made It
The Song Machine
Reviewed in The Economist,
November 14th, 2015
“EVERY musical genre has its canon: Bach and Mozart for classical, Armstrong and Parker for jazz, Dylan and the Beatles for rock, Biggie and Tupac for hip-hop. Only pop music - the "bubble gum" or "teeny-bop" tunes played on nightclub dance floors and Top 40 radio - lacks similar critical analysis and acclaim. True, Michael Jackson has been given his due. But it took an early death for the public to value his contributions fully. And no one would mention today's "manufactured" stars, such as Katy Perry (pictured) or Miley Cyrus, in the same breath as the King of Pop.
John Seabrook takes another tack. "The Song Machine", a history of the past 20 years of pop music, takes for granted two assumptions, both convincingly demonstrated via a highly engaging narrative. The most basic is that modern "earworm" pop is a high art form, as worthy of appreciation as any other: he calls Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" "magnificent", for example, and the "hooks" (catchy, repeated snippets of melody) in Rihanna's "Umbrella" are "wonderful" and "lovely". The second is that the public unfairly dismisses such masterpieces, because its expectations of the creative process were set during the rock 'n' roll era, when singer-songwriters were the norm. In fact, the 1960’s and 1970’s were a historical aberration, and what may seem like a soulless new wave of industrial music production is a return to the "hit factories" of years gone by.
During the first half of the 2Oth century, many of the biggest names in popular music were not performers but songwriters, based on the stretch of West 28th Street in New York known as Tin Pan Alley. Whether solo composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin or inseparable duos like George and Ira Gershwin or Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, these hitmakers remain far better known than the singers who performed their work. Much of early rock, including many Elvis Presley classics, was written by teams in or around the Brill Building in midtown Manhattan. And even after folk rockers and the Beatles established a precedent that performers should write their own material, Motown maintained a musical assembly line that would have made Henry Ford proud.
The protagonists of "The Song Machine" are not headliners like Taylor Swift, but rather the men (they are indeed mostly men) behind the music. Mr Seabrook sees their ascent as the product of broader social trends. One thread that runs consistently through his tale is technological disruption. The advent of computerised music software in the 1970’s made virtuosic instrument-playing or singing redundant: producers could obtain any sound they wanted synthetically, and string together vocals by using the best individual syllables from a large number of takes ("comp-ing") and running them through a pitch corrector. Subsequently, the advent of internet downloading shifted the primary unit of musical consumption from the album to the single. That sharply increased demand for melodic hooks, to lock listeners in within the seven seconds before they are likely to turn the radio dial.
These inventions shifted the balance of power from performers to production teams.
Today, the process starts with producers laying out beats and chords. They then recruit "topliners", who are often women, to try out melodies and vocal snippets and see what sticks. Lyrics are an afterthought. The finished product is shopped around to star singers, who do their best to "preserve the illusion" of authorship. "I get this feeling of a big painter's studio in Italy back in the 1400’s," one Swedish artist says in the book. "One assistant does the hands, another does the feet ...and then Michelangelo walks in and says, That's really great, just turn it slightly ...Next!'" The book is full of cautionary tales of singers whose careers went off the rails when they rebelled against their labels and demanded creative control.
The second engine of change in "The Song Machine" is cultural globalisation. The Cole Porters of today hail primarily from Scandinavia: Max Martin, a Swedish uber-producer, has written more chart-topping hits than the Beatles. Mr Seabrook thinks it is no accident that American listeners have become hooked on tunes from abroad. Although white artists borrowed from African-American blues in the early days of rock, by the 1990’s black music had moved on to spoken, beat-focused hip-hop, while white bands like Nirvana screeched with dissonant grunge rock. I
By contrast, Sweden, the country that produced ABBA, never lost its appetite for soaring melodies. Its government offered free music education. Moreover, its artists were not constrained by racial boundaries in American music, and could produce "a genre-bursting hybrid: pop [white] music with a rhythmic R&B [black] feel". And because English was not their first language, they were free to "treat English very respectless", as Ulf Ekberg of Ace of Base, a band, says, "and just look for the word that sounded good with the melody".
Mr Seabrook clearly enjoys writing about pop music. He walks readers through the hits measure by measure. Britney Spears's single "...Baby One More Time", he writes, "is a song about obsession, and it takes all of two seconds to hook you...first with the swung triplet 'Da Nah Nah' and then with that alluring growl-purr...Then the funky Cheiron backbeat kicks in, with drums that sound like percussion grenades." He paints vivid pictures of his protagonists; Ms Spears was "scared" the first time she saw Mr Martin's "lank hair, a fleshy grizzled face...and the sallow skin of a studio rat.” And he brings little-known stories to life, from the con man who developed the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync and is now in prison for fraud, to a singer who delivers a laugh-out-loud funny, profane tirade against Ms Perry for ripping off her song title "I Kissed A Girl".
"The Song Machine" will not lead anyone to confuse Mr. Martin and his partner, Lukasz "Dr Luke" Gottwald, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney - even Mr. Seabrook makes clear that his first love remains classic rock. But getting clubgoers out of their seats and drivers bopping in their cars is its own rare kind of genius. “