Breaking Down The Biz 3/3: The Song Machine by John Seabrook

This is part three of a three-part series of reviews, or at least summaries of books that document the history of the music industry from the 1950s up to the present day; intended, as the books are to be educational, informative and laced with my personal take. Take it for what it’s worth and hopefully you get something out of this. Parts one and two can be read here and here

We now know how the music industry used to be and what went on behind the scenes. We now know full well how the internet changed the industry and who the main actors were in its transformation. Still, there’s questions that remain when looking at the state of music right now, particularly with the songs that occupy the Billboard Hot 100. One of the main questions is: How did all this music get to sound the same? More so, Why did it get to sound the same, and why does it take so many people to create these songs? Isn’t this all done on computers? How hard could it be? 

The why of the question could be explained from a multitude of angles, ranging from the reasonable hypothesis that popular music has homogenized and got “dumber” overall to accommodate a population living in an increasingly complex and distressing world, to an intellectual critique viewing the music as a reflection of declining standards of art and civilization to even a conspiratorial angle that an elite cadre is attempting to make the masses stupid. Ultimately, it’s better to go with what’s for sure, and that’s where the how comes in: Despite how simple it may seem to the pedestrian listener, there’s far more of a science to making today’s cookie-cutter throwaway hits than anyone could imagine. There’s several cogs to this beast, all working (no pun intended) in concert to unendingly churn out product that will satiate the masses and ideally earn the creators, the performer and the label alike a handsome sum. 

The contemporary pop industry is what New Yorker journalist John Seabrook explores and exposes in full in The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory, shedding light on the lives of Top 40 radio’s biggest stars, most influential producers and most powerful executives. For Seabrook, the journey started by listening to numerous pop songs in the car with his son in 2009; some of which, Taylor Swift’s earlier material for example harkened back to the singer-songwriters he had grown up with as part of a long family legacy of music appreciation (and playing, on Seabrook’s part). Now, as a middle-aged rocker taking in the computer-made hits of the late aughts with his spawn, he couldn’t help but wonder how such songs came about, who made them, and why certain names recurred again and again in the production credits. 

Thus, Seabrook’s quest for knowledge began. Even as he set about putting the book together and tracking down all the relevant characters in the early 2010s, the story of modern pop, as he found had formally commenced over 20 years prior in Sweden. From the mid-1980s to early 1990s, Stockholm’s nightlife scene was home to a crew of DJs who collectively made up the record company SweMix, chiefly known for taking British and American records, remixing them with a Swedish spin then selling and playing them for the public. Chief among their roster was Dag Krister Volle, otherwise known as Denniz PoP, a lifelong music obsessive with a penchant for American funk and soul and a Peter Pan-esque approach to life. While the sale of twelve-inch remix records was making SweMix a fair fortune, Denniz wanted to branch out beyond the niche he and his fellow DJs had created for themselves and turn the tables, making his own hits out of his own studio for British and American artists and watching the riches and recognition flood in. 

Given that Sweden was nowhere near on the map as far as the music industry was concerned, PoP’s vision for Swedish omnipotence seemed outlandish at first. Nevertheless, he had an unshakeable vision and a clear, empirical plan to achieve it: take the rattling bass lines of reggae and hip hop, splash them against the gigantic choruses of 80s arena rock and throw singalong melodies overtop for a distinct national touch and there, in theory was your chart-topping Swedish pop song. Gradually he began to act on this plan with growing success, much to the chagrin of his SweMix colleagues. Eventually his work, specifically the song “Another Mother” by Swedish artist Kayo reached the members of the pop band Ace Of Base in the early 90’s, prompting them to trek to Stockholm to meet him and have their music produced. Denniz was out of the office when they reached SweMix, so they opted to leave a demo tape with him to listen to and promptly went on their way back to Gothenburg.

When Denniz returned and got a hold of the tape, he put it into heavy rotation in his car (the tape wouldn’t eject) to measure its merit, a practice later deemed the “L.A Car Test” by the producers that came up under him. The demo was an absolute mess, and this opinion didn’t change for a couple of weeks for either Denniz or his co-producer Douglas Carr who Denniz would drive to the studio each day. After listening to it for the umpteenth time in the car, however, something clicked in Denniz’s mind and he chose to give Ace Of Base a chance, a vivid concept having emerged in his mind about what to do with the ramshackle collection of songs. Soon after, Ace members Ulf Ekberg and Jonas Berggen called him up and asked him for his opinion on the tape, leading Denniz to enthusiastically invite them out to Stockholm to begin manifesting their potential.

After driving Ekberg and Berggen around in his car, as he did with Carr with his rearranged take on their demo playing on repeat, Denniz went to work with the twosome at SweMix shifting, simplifying and rearranging the tunes to further transform trash into treasure. He also pushed for more lyrics out of the boys in some cases, developing a key aspect of his wizardry in the process. In regard to lyrics, it wasn’t as important to Denniz whether the lyrics conceptually flowed or made sense (English was not his first language after all); what mattered more was such words, whatever they were working in tandem with the rhythm and fitting with the melody, a genre-breaking approach pioneered largely from his DJ’ing experience and dubbed “melodic math” by Denniz’s #1 understudy years later. After a long test of these math equations, Ace’s vocalists Jenny and Malin Berggen, Jonas’ sisters came to SweMix to lay their voices onto the newly made-over tracks, completing the sonic metamorphosis at last.

Now, with a presentable product, it was time to market. Danish label Mega Records released one of the tracks, “All That She Wants” to great commercial success around Europe between 1992 and 1993. It even topped the UK charts, fulfilling one part of PoP’s vision for commercial dominance. The Americans were the next step, but the U.S labels, caught up in the angst-soaked frenzy of grunge saw no point in attempting to sell a cheery Europop act that was in utter contradiction to their top product at the time. That is, with the exception of one Clive Davis, well into his Arista tenure and a seasoned connoisseur of pop music. The man with the platinum ear heard differently and sprung into action, flying Ace Of Base to New York and promising to distribute their album provided they tacked a couple more hits onto it for good measure. 

Davis suggested doing a cover, which Ace begrudgingly followed through on with their rendition of “Don’t Turn Around” by Albert Hammond and Diane Warren. That left one more single to round the record out, a void that Berggen (the male one) filled by presenting to Davis what would become Ace’s signature song and the name of their Arista debut, “The Sign”. Davis, sensing potential flung the song over to Denniz to apply the same magic to it that had grabbed him with “All That She Wants.” By this point, Denniz had finally split off from SweMix and started Cheiron, his own studio/label/publishing service in Stockholm with the financial assistance of Bertelsmann Music Group, Arista’s parent company. He had even picked up a new apprentice, a former hair metal vocalist named Martin Sandberg who would come to be known internationally as Max Martin. Amidst all these developments, Denniz swiftly set to work putting “The Sign” together, in the process creating the tightly coordinated snare-and-clap driven beat that would become his and Cheiron’s calling card.

The Sign, both the album and the song blew up upon release, with the title track topping the U.S charts and becoming the year’s best selling single. Despite their success, a number of impeding factors from fear of flying to damaging publicity snafus derailed them by 1995, leaving Denniz and Cheiron back at square one in terms of prospective talent. Across the water, what would be their next golden ticket was beginning to take flight, in the form of a rotund blimp tycoon named Lou Pearlman. A cousin of Art Garfunkel, Pearlman took to music just as much as he did to aviation, having been raised next to the Flushing Airport in Queens, New York. While his dreams of making it as an artist didn’t pan out, he built up a blimp enterprise that flourished into a charter air travel enterprise called Trans Continental Airlines by the early ‘90s. His luxury flyer empire ended up bringing him back to his passion for music, as several bands would use his aircraft for touring, including a boy band by the name of New Kids On The Block.

The product of Maurice Starr, the man who had brought the world New Edition, New Kids immediately piqued Pearlman’s interest and he took to carefully researching the secrets to their success. He first went to see them in concert, taking note of the fan interaction, the merchandise sold and the different personality each band member conveyed. He then went to Starr and the band’s manager Dick Scott to really get down to the hard science of the operation, finding out how catering to their main demographic of teenage girls equalled out to extravagant sales of merchandise along with records and tickets. While New Kids faced accusations that they, like Milli Vanilli lip-synced at their shows and eventually disbanded, Pearlman set up shop in Orlando and took note of the city’s wealth of young entertainers centred around its local theme parks- the perfect crop to cull from to make a world-famous boy band of his own. In short time after placing ads in a local newspaper, Pearlman auditioned a host of young male talent and whittled it down to 5 boys using the same marketing methodology that Starr and Scott used for New Kids. Then he gave them a name: Backstreet Boys.

Pearlman, by now rolling in dough from Trans Continental freely pampered his new group and greatly built their profile on his dime, booking them in festivals and amusement parks, including a performance at SeaWorld. His investment culminated in Mercury Records taking interest in the Backstreet Boys and signing them, with Pearlman continuing to splurge on the group by funding their first demos for the label. What came of the sessions didn’t excite Mercury brass in the least though, and the label dropped them in 1995. As luck would have it, they had another suitor in the other record guy named Clive, Clive Calder at Jive Records, who scooped up Backstreet as soon as Mercury showed them the door. It was an unorthodox choice given that Jive, Calder’s label counterpart to Zomba had built its brand on focusing on hip hop and R&B (All with Clive #1’s distributive assistance through Arista). The signing itself was a murky and telling affair, as “Big Poppa” Pearlman had hired the lawyer handling the paperwork (the lawyer had already signed off on it) and refused to give the group or their families any chance to review their contracts with a personal attorney before jumping on board.

With Backstreet set up with a record deal once more, Calder set about finding the right person to produce them. The prime candidate, according to his A&R man, Martin Dodd, was Denniz PoP, who by now had built himself a full, thriving team of producers at Cheiron including Max Martin, Andreas Carlsson and Jörgen Elofsson. With the newfound manpower and the work ethic that ensued, Denniz’s vision became more and more of a reality, placing Cheiron into a long line of “hit factories” extending from the Tin Pan Alley cornerstones of T.B Harms, Aldon Music and the Brill Building up through Motown, Philadelphia International and Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW). It was on that backdrop that Backstreet Boys entered to record at Cheiron, banging out “We’ve Got It Going On” and “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” before travelling on to perform in Germany. “We’ve Got It Going On”, as much a showcase of Max Martin’s production prowess as it was of Backstreet’s talent, earned the group more buzz across Europe and in Canada but failed to break through in their native soil in the U.S- MTV even issued an embargo against Backstreet videos after Jive relentlessly lobbied to have them played.

Of all possible elements in the media, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would turn the prospects for Backstreet around with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TRL would help too). Built to capitalize on the potential of the Internet through media deregulation, the act allowed the radio business to become massively centralized with Clear Channel (iHeart Media) and Infinity Broadcasting swallowing huge numbers of terrestrial radio stations in the U.S. Inevitably this lead to many radio formats, among them contemporary hits radio becoming far more musically homogeneous in the vein of the “Top 40” approach pioneered by Todd Storz and Bill Stewart in the 1950s. This new normal in radio was, for one, perfect for hit-makers like Cheiron and the groups they produced, as hundreds of stations marching in lockstep with their parent companies meant that a single that caught traction could blow up way bigger in the U.S than ever before. The other thing, for better or worse was that it wasn’t like the mass media decided what music to market to people and crammed it down their throats; homogenized programming was utterly subject to the whims of the people, and the sands were shifting.

 By ’96, grunge had long since died with the listeners and the artists alike. Nirvana was finished, Soundgarden was close to dissolving, and Layne Staley was too far gone with his heroin addiction for Alice In Chains to function. Britpop had started the change of course back to a more upbeat tune with records like OasisDefinitely Maybe shortly after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, as did pop punk with the likes of Green Day’s Dookie and The Offspring’s Smash. Coming into the late ‘90s, program directors were looking for something poppy, easy and down-the-middle to rescue the listeners lost in grunge’s death rattles, and that something, as Clive Calder saw it was Backstreet Boys. The Spice Girls and Hanson had set the ball rolling to make teen pop a viable force on the radio, now it seemed Backstreet’s time had come. Putting out “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” along with “As Long As You Love Me”, “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “I’ll Never Break Your Heart”, Calder struck when the iron was hot and Backstreet, at last, became larger than life.

As anyone who’s followed the careers of famous artists knows, it doesn’t take long after success hits before all manner of problems start popping up. The biggest problem for Backstreet after their breakthrough was one that wasn’t exactly unforeseen to the observant, that thing being Lou Pearlman and his unambiguously sketchy behaviour. Not only was he pocketing a huge portion of the group’s revenues under the premise of recouping the millions he’d invested in them, but he had gone and put together another boy band called NSYNC that stood in direct competition to Backstreet (they even had the same manager, if Pearlman didn’t already have enough gall). Unable to contain himself in his frothing pursuit of money, Pearlman moved to set up a girl group next called Innosense, which never really took off but briefly featured Britney Spears; Justin Timberlake’s mother Lynn Harless worked with Pearlman to put the group together and recommended Britney from the Mickey Mouse Club show that she had starred on with Justin. After escaping Pearlman’s clutches, Spears ended up on Jive with Backstreet and blew up with “…Baby One More Time”, produced by none other than Max Martin.

Eventually it became abundantly clear that Pearlman was an outright conman and a criminal fraud artist, as NSYNC soon found themselves in the same situation as Backstreet in regards to money. With Backstreet, they often found themselves in the company of several “friends” of Pearlman, who in actuality were investors in his business ventures he was using the band’s revenues to pay off his debts to. As it turns out, even people who did business with Trans Continental weren’t safe; his fleet of private jets was really only one jet and all the other advertised planes were deceptively-photographed model aircraft. NSYNC and Backstreet both ended up suing him, ending up each time in a settlement that resulted in a cut for Pearlman and a total severance in business between him and the two groups. (NSYNC’s landmark release No Strings Attached and its lead single “Bye Bye Bye”, released on Jive are said to be jabs at Pearlman after the litigation was over). Not learning his lesson, Pearlman spiralled out of control rolling the dice on more acts, buying more businesses, taking out bigger and bigger loans and branching into reality TV with the show Making The Band to stay afloat and pay his investors. Years later it all caught up with him and he ended up in prison for running a colossal ponzi scheme where he died in 2016.

The late 90s were the worst and best of times for Max Martin. The worst of it was Denniz PoP contracting stomach cancer and dying in 1998, taking the spirit out of the studio and leading his understudies to close up shop two years later. On the flipside, the momentum that Martin, Denniz and the rest of the gang had built up by that point had, true to Denniz’s vision, made Stockholm the worldwide epicentre of pop production and set the stage for Martin to launch into a gloriously decorated post-Cheiron career on his own. The timing couldn’t have been better, for the good or the bad. The early 2000s saw the beginning of a myriad of changes in music; for starters the boy and girl bands that had defined Cheiron and Jive were on the way out by 2001, an inevitable factor of any youthful pop act. The turn of the millennium also marked the absolute peak of CD sales and music industry revenues along with the beginning of mass music sharing with Napster; after Napster was shut down file-sharing sites proliferated and the long nosedive of album sales began. It was in this climate that Cheiron was shuttered despite its significant contributions to the industry’s pinnacle moment, and Clive Calder sold Jive off to BMG and never looked back, effectively ending an era.

The shift away from teen pop, like the shift away from grunge that lead to its rise was part of a continuous cycle in radio that renowned program director Guy Zapoleon has documented extensively. The cycle consists of three parts; the first, pure pop brings in the maximum number of listeners. Eventually pure pop grows stale and listeners grow tired, leading to the doldrums of an overall ratings decline. This in turn leads programmers to push to the extremes outside of pop to bring listeners back, after a while this leads back to pure pop again and the cycle restarts. In the early aughts, the prime extreme to the doldrums of teen pop was Eminem, who made it no secret how much he despised the boy and girl bands of the time. PDs like Z100’s Tom Poleman feared that Eminem would make the extremes too extreme for mainstream listeners, a worry that was quashed when the likes of 50 Cent, a rapper signed by Eminem emerged with a more commercially viable approach. 

There would be a factor that disrupted the Zapoleon cycle, but it wouldn’t come from radio. American Idol, conceived as a comfort program for Americans still shaken from the events of 9/11 mere months earlier was spawned from the British show Pop Idol; Simon Fuller created both shows and brought famed BMG A&R man Simon Cowell along with him as a judge. A large backbone of industry professionals would be needed, but many executives were skeptical of a talent show’s potential to generate lasting, legitimate stars. Leave it to Clive Davis though to play contrarian; he saw potential in the show to help slumping album sales and took the opportunity given to him to help by picking songs for the artists and ultimately signing the winner. Idol ended up catching with audiences, contrary to the belief of many-a-suit; ironically it was Cowell’s legendary harshness that got people watching rather than turning them away. A lucky few would be “going to Hollywood”, a phrase now firmly implanted in pop culture parlance; the rest would be relentlessly chopped down by Cowell and sent packing. The whole spectacle breathed new life into pop, and would soon breed its first pop star.

Kelly Clarkson, a 20-year old from Texas was one of the many contestants who tried out for season one of Idol, and one of the few to really succeed- So much so that she became the series’ first winner, clinching victory with her rendition of “A Moment Like This” by John Reid and Cheiron veteran Jörgen Elofsson. Clive Davis, now overseeing the RCA Label Group and heading his label J Records signed Clarkson to RCA and released her debut Thankful in 2003, which went 2x platinum in the U.S. While it was a decent success amidst the slow death of the CD, the next album had to be a breakthrough, leading Clive to seek out the best writers and producers he could find for the job- most notably Max Martin and his new protege Lukas “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. The only wrench in the plan was Clarkson herself- living up to the name of her debut single, “Miss Independent” pushed for more creative control, insisting on writing her sophomore album herself and piecing it together separate from Clive’s guidance. She even fought against using the proposed singles that came out of her session with Max and Luke, “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and “Since U Been Gone”. 

While he understood where she was coming from as a TV sensation trying to define herself as an authentic artist, Clive refused to concede to her requests and got her to stick to the script. Once again, the hit man proved correct- Breakaway, the second Clarkson album blew up off the strength of “Gone” and “Hazel” and sold 11 million units across the globe. Clive was further vindicated when Clarkson tried again and succeeded in doing her third album My December entirely her own way: the result was the album selling only 10% of what Breakaway had sold, a drop-off not even the single “Never Again” could have salvaged. With this lesson in mind, her fourth album All I Ever Wanted enlisted the help of Max, Luke, Elofsson and the rest of the pop apparatus to steer the record in the (somewhat) empirically right direction. While it didn’t bring her back to doing 11 million (no album at that point would), it did wield more hits, the biggest among them being “My Life Would Suck Without You”. 

A veteran record man with a long list of smashes under his belt is usually right, as is a studio team and/or producer that works hit making to a science. Emerging digital services like HitPredictor that mathematically detect the commercial potential of a song by different audio qualities perhaps even more so, but that’s just the song- what about the whole live performance, the whole appearance of the performers, everything? We fair residents of the Occident (assuming you reading this live in the West) are generally not as privy to the music industry of the East as are Easterners, but the K-Pop genre in Korea has come the closest to breaking through into the Western market in recent years. The K-Pop industry, based out of Seoul shares many similarities to the American music business but takes its pop-machine elements to extremes that those unfamiliar with Korean culture would find absurd. Where in the U.S there are the three major music conglomerates, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, there are three pop “agencies” in Seoul: YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and SM Entertainment; SM being the biggest and its founder Lee-Soo Man being the central pioneer of K-Pop. Lee is also responsible for the painstaking magic central to K-Pop, which he cultivated from Lou Pearlman’s mass-marketing strategies: Cultural technology.

C.T is every bit as rigid, robotic and methodical as it sounds and more (SM even created a manual for it): Everything from which clothes and eyeliners to wear on stage, which hand gestures and facial expressions to make in each country, which chords to use on each song, which angles to shoot at in videos and what producers to use and when is planned down to a tee. Every aspect of the artist’s career is controlled by their respective agency, who takes them in at a young age, throws them together into groups and trains them relentlessly in song, dance, video, press relations and the like with only a select number making it to the big-time. It’s a predicament that makes the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC with Pearlman look glorious, but the Koreans don’t seem to mind. It speaks to the vast differences in culture between East Asia and America, even in an age of vast globalization and American cultural influence: Where American Idol discovers talent, TV is where K-Pop groups practically live throughout their careers. Scandals can make an American star more endearing, a Korean star will see their career evaporate over puffing a reefer. Plastic surgery is far from uncommon for American celebrities, but cosmetic work for K-Poppers goes to such outrageous lengths that the operatees don’t even seem human.

Still, it works, at least in the Orient. Several nations in Asia came under the influence of South Korean culture starting in the ‘90s with the “Korean Wave”, years later SM took a crack at entering the U.S Market by touring the likes of Girls Generation, SHINee, Super Junior and EXO in America. Even overseas, the questions the press would ask the K-Poppers were pre-approved by SM; no risk of offending the Korean people, particularly the online “netizens” of Korea that follow the groups’ every move could be afforded. On stage, cultural technology is put into full effect, captivating the largely Asian audiences that come out to watch and intriguing the odd record man in the audience; at a show Seabrook attended in Anaheim he was accompanied by Interscope A&R man Neil Jacobson who at the time was brainstorming ways to cross Girls Generation over to American audiences, mainly by collaborating with American artists

To this day, it has proven an incredibly difficult task. PSY, whose viral hit “Gangnam Style” historically shattered the billion-view mark on YouTube has been the only Korean to come close to a breakthrough, and he ran far more against the grain of K-Pop than with it. K-Pop may never break through in the West, but whether they do or if the Seoul agencies govern their artists like their neighbours in Pyongyang do their populace, no one can argue that the K-Pop system is one of the most impressive and efficient hit machines in the world.

Not all foreign countries are hard to work with in regards to finding and breaking talent though. That certainly was the case with longtime R&B enthusiasts-turned-producers Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken when they discovered Robyn Rihanna Fenty while on a trip to Barbados in 2003. Both mens’ wives were from the Caribbean island, and Rogers’ wife had a friend with a daughter who sang in a group called Contrast. Rogers and Sturken invited them to their hotel to perform with young RiRi impressing them the most; they promptly invited her to come up to their studio in the New York area to work with them. Repeated trips up the coast ensued for Robyn and her mother, recording numerous demos at Rogers and Sturken’s studio in Bronxville and sleeping at Rogers’ house. After recording four demo tracks, including the future hit “Pon De Replay”, Rogers and Sturken sent out the word about Robyn, who they had now professionally named Rihanna to the majors. Two labels took the bait; J Records and the famed hip hop label Def Jam, run at the time by former LaFace co-founder L.A Reid. The first audition at J, which Clive himself was not a part of failed to impress the suits. The Def Jam audition, where Rihanna performed first for label president Jay-Z, then for Reid she knocked out of the park, leading to her signing with Def Jam that night after the paperwork was settled.

Now came the task of breaking- and defining- Rihanna the artist. Her debut Music Of The Sun, which included “Pon De Replay” and her follow-up A Girl Like Me featuring “SOS” and “Unfaithful” fell short as full-lengths but their singles took off. This wasn’t a sign of failure, in ’05-‘06 it made Rihanna the wave of the future as far as pop stars go. What was left was figuring out her identity as an artist, which two albums in still wasn’t entirely clear. “Umbrella” off her third album Good Girl Gone Bad did that and took Rihanna’s career to the next level, solidifying her brand as island-infused pop with an edge. Common to many pop songs, it was written for another artist, Britney Spears, who was by then crashing and burning in spectacular fashion before it came Rihanna’s way. The team behind the song- Kuk Harrell, Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Tricky Stewart of RedZone Entertainment were founded on the Stewart family’s work in the jingle-writing business, giving them a leg up in catchiness but certainly not preparing them for the success that “Umbrella” would bring them with Rihanna.

The single’s omnipotence, a consequence of both its hit-ness and Def Jam’s coordinating its rotation on radio won Rihanna Video Of The Year at the 2007 VMAs and Best Sung Collaboration (Jay-Z rapped on it) at the 2008 Grammys. Numerous others, some brought in through Red Zone would play key roles in Rihanna’s future hits, including “toplinerEster Dean who had a gift for turning mere melodic syllables into smash hooks, and the Norwegian production duo Stargate who produced Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” and worked with Dean after she left Stewart and co. in Atlanta. The use of top-liners like Dean (and Ne-Yo before Stargate gave him his breakthrough) was part of the track-and-hook method of songwriting that by then was customary in the pop world, an approach that combined with the fact that an overwhelming majority of pop songs were and still are made by the same few people made much of the Top 40 sound the same. The mass reduction of popular music to a simple handful of “vamps” didn’t stop Rihanna though, but something- someone– almost did after Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy party in 2009, when Chris Brown notoriously pummelled her in his car after she accused him of infidelity. Echoing disturbingly close to her dysfunctional upbringing, the incident didn’t end her, or Brown for that matter, but it did cause her innocence to give way to attitude from that point forward.

One may recall the name Dr. Luke being brought up earlier as one of Kelly Clarkson’s producers. By the late aughts, he had graduated from being Max Martin’s sidekick and built up an impressive resume of hits (often being accused of plagiarizing other artists to do so), creating a label, Kemosabe Records and a publishing company, Prescription Songs with Sony’s backing to expand his reach. One of his top clients was Katy Perry, who throughout the course of the 2000s had gone from being a Christian singer to working with Glen Ballard (the producer of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill) to getting signed by Columbia, dropped, then picked up by Capitol and breaking out with “I Kissed A Girl” in 2008 which miffed the gays and gravely offended her church-bound family. Another song that emerged that year, “Waking Up In Vegas” was produced by Cheiron vet Andreas Carlsson in 2003, and the studio’s torchbearer Max Martin worked together with Luke and his right-hand man Benny Blanco on Perry’s hit follow-up album (and song) Teenage Dream. As if the whole affair wasn’t evidence enough of pop’s complete centralization, her single “Firework” from the same album was produced by Stargate and toplined by Ester Dean.

The song-making circle Luke had assembled for himself was the epitome of the one-million-people-making-one-song trope that has dogged pop music in the 21st century; he employed lyric, melody and “vibe” people to get each song’s energy right beyond the standard writing and production team. Despite the machinery he had amassed, well beyond the songwriting camps held to make albums for the likes of Rihanna, Luke was yet to sign an artist of his own. That changed when he discovered Ke$ha, real name Kesha Rose Sebert from a demo tape and brought her to live and work with him at his beach house (the same one Seabrook interviewed him at). After a few years of getting nowhere, Ke$ha’s big break came from singing the hook on Flo Rida’s “Right Round”, a track masterminded by an A&R man at Atlantic named Aaron Bay-Schuck, the current CEO of Warner Records. At first, Flo Rida and his posse in the studio dismissed the track as too corny to rap over, prompting Luke and his collaborator Kool Kojak to overhaul the song and have Flo rewrite his verses. Still feeling the track was incomplete, Luke and Kojak tracked down Ke$ha and brought her in to round the song out. The hook she delivered immediately switched Flo and co.’s consensus on “Right Round”, and ultimately made it #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Then Ke$ha followed on her own. There was the song “Tik Tok”, then “Your Love Is My Drug” and “We R Who We R”, the latter two being produced by Benny Blanco and Joshua “Ammo” Coleman, a new addition to Team Luke. Despite her newfound success, Ke$ha soon found herself in a Clarkson-esque predicament: Wanting to do music that was more reflective of her, a pop resurrection of rock, but feeling pigeonholed into an unfairly limited lane by her superior. She set about changing course and worked with her mother, a songwriter, and former rocker Max Martin to make her vision a reality, but like Clive, Luke refused to let her veer from the course that had brought her fame (and him riches). As a result, her next album Warrior didn’t come out until late 2012, and the #FreeKesha fan petition sprung up the next year to let her gain artistic liberty. If allegations of iron-fisted artistic control weren’t damning enough for Luke, the death blow came in 2014. Kesha, fresh out of rehab claimed that Luke had not only degraded but drugged and raped her years prior, the lawsuit she filed saying he had boasted about similar behaviour with other women. Luke fired back to defend himself, and the case dragged on publicly to 2016 where she lost her bid to leave Kemosabe and eventually withdrew the lawsuit. Whatever ultimately transpired, the level of publicity the case received dealt incredible damage to Luke’s career and has kept him underground since then. 

Outside of a chapter on the pros, cons and future of Spotify and similar streaming platforms, the story ends there. Like Hit Men and How Music Got Free, The Song Machine is a superb education on the internal affairs of the popular music industry, particularly for anyone who religiously listens to hits radio and follows the pop stars that grace it. It’s also an invaluable resource to anyone wanting to get into the pop business as a performer, producer, writer, or any other of the plethora of roles to play as to what this line of work truly entails, who pioneered it and who runs it behind the scenes. It’s truly enlightening to see how only a few people can accomplish and create so much in a single field (not counting all the additional help), and how much wizardry goes into making a product that seems so simple and straightforward. Whether you’re a pop fan or not, what John Seabrook presents in The Song Machine is compelling and inspiring: Bringing a system that seems immense and larger than life down to humanity by showing the valves of its beating heart, and having imparted that knowledge making it seem possible for anyone to achieve great success within it themselves.