Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mapping the Earworm's Genome

Think of John Seabrook's The Song Machine as a sequel to his annoying but entertaining work of middlebrow cultural theory, 2001's Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing/The Marketing of Culture. Unsurprisingly, the keyword "Nobrow" is seriously fuzzy around the edges, so I'll merely indicate what it symptomizes: Seabrook's fascination with the ongoing shifts in concepts of value that have been disrupting aesthetic pleasure and meaning ever since modernism began crumbling in the '60s. What is art and what isn't--and even worse, what is good art and what isn't? If you're as hung up on the au courant/hip/cutting-edge/whatevs as Seabrook, such conundrums can drive you to dream up your own cultural theory. But if you hang that theory off sharp pieces on George Lucas, David Geffen, and your father's clothes closet and fold it all into a memoir of Tina Brown's New Yorker, you've repaid your debt to society.

A clearer, subtler, and more skillful reassessment of Seabrook's ongoing anxiety about aesthetic worth, The Song Machine traces circa-2010 radio pop back to the '90s and forward to its Spotify tipping point. Framed by a memoiristic device that has him conversing with his son fore and aft, the first half is new, the second built from New Yorker reports on Spotify, Seoul K-pop, and superproducer Dr. Luke. As a music historian, Seabrook is the dilettante you'd figure--especially as regards hip-hop, the book is riddled with errors. But he knows how to write a profile, and on the surface this is an informed, witty, effetely unpretentious celebration of what Seabrook sees as an altogether new way of creating pop music. Yet if you care enough about popular music to ride the swells of his narrative, you'll feel undercurrents he knows are there.

In this context, "pop" and "popular" aren't nearly synonyms. By "popular" I mean the full panoply of non-classical music, including death metal, gospel, Celtic revival, hiplife, kroncong, New Age, and countless other variants. "Pop," on the other hand, indicates music aimed squarely at radio airplay and the singles chart. The Song Machine gives short shrift to the popular. That can be annoying, too. But it's less annoying than the way fans of other popular genres dismiss the spectrum of today's radio music as unlistenable unless it catches them unawares on the dance floor--a testing ground half these prunes seldom get near. There's never been a time when this attitude hasn't been ipso facto philistine, and it's hit a nadir. Denying the attractions of Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" is for ostriches only.

Nobrow's opening scene describes the cognitive dissonance that beset Seabrook on January 20, 1997, as he listened to the Notorious B.I.G. unfurl penis metaphors on his Discman while watching Bill Clinton taking the oath on the Times Square Panasonic Astrovision LED. That kind of putative ambivalence haunts the book--in an especially annoying scene, he declines to buy a well-made coffee table at Pottery Barn ("cheap" at $299 in 2000, sez he) on the general theory that "mass-produced furniture" is "tacky." The Song Machine, however, begins with Seabrook overcoming just such ambivalence; although put off at first by the repetitiveness of a radio format that features closer to 10 songs than 40, he finds that "the initially annoying bits . . . become the very parts you look forward to most in the song."

Less concept-driven than Nobrow, The Song Machine profiles song technician after song technician, although "technician" is too modest and concrete a word to suggest how conceptual their work is--and also, to be clear, how creative. These are gifted, obsessive, music-mad eccentrics whose well-told tales are worth the attention of anyone who cares about postmodern aesthetics or short, catchy songs with a good beat. Ditto for the artists, almost none male, who Seabrook believes are more "vocal personalities than singers," and the businessmen, not one female, whose mania for music has nothing on their affinity for money.

The technicians include Swedish DJ turned remixer turned hitmaker turned fountainhead Denniz PoP; classically trained Swedish metalhead and math whiz Max Martin, now one of the bestselling songwriters of all time; Stargate's Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen, once "the only two guys who listen to urban music in Norway," who become Manhattan fixtures after a single audience with Jay-Z; and guitarist turned superproducer turned scary monster Dr. Luke. Featured artists include icebreaking Swedes Ace of Base, American Idol rockist Kelly Clarkson, backsliding Christian Katy Perry, "teenage nightmare" Kesha, and Rihanna, whose charisma only caught up with her ambition when Chris Brown slammed her into a scene from her parents' abusive marriage. The bizzers include forever magniloquent Clive Davis, Backstreet Boys Svengali and imprisoned felon Lou Pearlman, digital false saviors Daniel Ek of Spotify and Steve Jobs of you-know-where, and happily retired Clive Calder, who sold Jive Records for $2.3 billion just as the biz was going bust.

The Song Machine bears its title because Seabrook believes all these people except the digital-music guys are deeply invested in a 21st-century songwriting method that recalls Motown's Holland-Dozier-Holland not much more than it does Tin Pan Alley's Irving Berlin and is utterly alien to the rock-era free-for-all normalized by Bob Dylan and Lennon-McCartney. Anyone paying attention senses this, but Seabrook is onto something major and explains it well. There are glimmers of what he calls track-and-hook songwriting in the circa-1985 rise of the "song doctor" and hip-hop sampling's evolution into hip-hop beatmaking. But he's right to trace its formalization to Denniz PoP's Stockholm studio.

Traditional pop songwriting usually came tune first, with words molded to melodic contours that might then be retrofitted to accommodate the words--although sometimes the lyric got things started, and Dylan and his lessers often devised music for pre-existing songpoems. Either way, melodist and lyricist split the royalties. Since rock was beat-driven by definition, this Eurocentric formula has long seemed worse than old-fashioned--just ask yourself how many songs draw their life from the clave mojo Bo Diddley worked on the old shave-and-a-haircut beat. And now that kind of Eurocentrism is biting the dust.

One good thing that's come of track-and-hook is that finally rhythm creators are getting their financial due. Less good is that they hog the proceeds almost as much as the ASCAP elite once did. In track-and-hook, songs begin with beats that producers construct digitally with zero input from live musicians unless the producers' own instrumental skills come into play. Once a beat is created--generally many at a time, most ultimately discarded--"topliners" are asked to lay on not one but several hooks. Since Berlin himself, hooks have been what Seabrook calls pop's "bliss point," a marketing term he sampled from the snack food industry, and radio hits have sported multiples for decades. Track-and-hook hits, however, bristle with them, spiffing up an underlying beat that vamps seductively yet repetitively, at least a hook apiece for "intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and outro." If the beat is promising enough, as many as 50 topliners may be emailed the MP3, and several of them may wind up with a composer credit for one bit or another. "Producers," Seabrook notes, "generally speak of a song's 'melodies.'"

As for the words, well, occasionally a lyrical idea or even a verse will get the party started, but usually lyrics are afterthoughts at which some topliners are better than others, just as some specialize in verses or bridges. Often they're just scraps of language pieced together--Seabrook's favorite topliner, the irrepressible Ester Dean, travels with a scribbled notebook of them. I know you're appalled, so let me agree that absolutely it's depressing and then add that sometimes it isn't. If you don't believe revitalizing the colloquial is one of popular music's signal accomplishments, read Christopher Ricks on Bob Dylan, and if Ricks doesn't think that means what Max Martin did for "I want it that way" or, hell, what The-Dream did for "umbrella," he's an arriviste anyway. Seabrook himself, however, doesn't worry much about what some might regard as the end of true song, or indeed, about the music he as an old Nirvana fanatic grew up with. Sure he feels Clarkson's commercially doomed struggle to express herself. But she didn't have what it takes to write "Since U Been Gone," and if the end of the rock model she loves is what it takes to keep such bliss points coming, that's the historical reality and he's down.

Only then comes the K-pop chapter. Korean pop is so prefab it makes One Direction look like a vanguard hidden in plain sight, and Seabrook begins by hinting excitedly that this "cultural technology" might just explode the "distinction between real and manufactured music--which is fraught with so many logical inconsistencies and built-in biases." But as his praisesong runs up against the regimented vapidity of a teen-idol-in-training pipeline that holds thousands of young hopefuls in glamorously robotic servitude, he starts asking himself why American kids would prefer this "overproduced, derivative" stuff to the "more original" homegrown variant. Capper: "In the end, as Denniz PoP used to say, sometimes you have to let art win."

And for the rest of the book, art shows signs of doing just that. Jay-Z signs Rihanna because "her eyes--her determination" convince him she's "a star." Having chortled impolitely when Clarkson failed to turn her earnest outcries into hits, Seabrook likes the ribald up-from-nowhere sparkplug Ester Dean so much that you can feel his dismay when, like almost every topliner with an eye on the prize, she can't make her star-time dreams come true. Agog at first at the compulsively ambitious Dr. Luke, Seabrook ends up making him look like the abusive tyrant his radically untrustworthy protégée Kesha tells the judge he is. And when the now 14-year-old son whose enthusiasm for Flo Rida's "Right Round" kicked off this saga tells his dad he's getting into the Smiths, one senses that the fickle Seabrook may be headed for a retro bliss point.

For all its willful gloss and off-putting mannerisms, The Song Machine performs an important news function and does useful cultural work. Streamed from the Spotify playlist they deserved, the songs he homes in on did indeed engender the earworms the hypersensitive despise and I think of as pets--but significantly, not all of them. Seabrook acknowledges one reason for this--track-and-hook still isn't an exact science, and not every release the song machine slots as a sure shot gets over. The other he acknowledges but sidesteps--not only did Jay-Z sign Rihanna because he thought she was more than a "vocal personality," she had to suffer in public before her full allure shone through. Star power remains difficult to calibrate, and for me, Kelly Clarkson is too cloddish to ever be much more than "Since U Been Gone." Not so with serial sinner Katy Perry or track-and-hook skeptic Pink, whose self-conceptions and -presentations remain unpredictable works in progress. And what about dance-oriented rock chick Lady Gaga, who breached the charts without track-and-hooking at all? Machine-processed or not, these women blur the distinction between popular artist and pop star, as the best pop stars always have, yet Perry fan Seabrook barely mentions the other two. Let me add, too, that in the midst of a ruinous economic downturn, popular music continues to generate more quality albums than anyone can fully absorb--almost all of them there for the streaming on, you know, Spotify.

Seabrook must get all this. But beyond the once-in-a-lifetime chance to turn a 14-year-old Smiths fan on to the music of his youth, beyond even the dilettante's compulsion to move on, the root of his disquiet comes clear in the Spotify chapter. It starts by praising how Daniel Ek broke down "traditional genres" so that "the song is once again king." But then it discusses economic matters, not with Spotify-boycotting Taylor Swift but with two artist-activists known for the kind of quality albums referenced above: art-country icon Rosanne Cash and avant-pop guitar god Marc Ribot, who for a total of 668,000 Spotify streams between them have been paid a total of $291. Well, Seabrook rationalizes, at least they can still tour. But believe it or not, due to the way Spotify negotiated its label permissions, its songwriter payouts are even skimpier. So Seabrook does the math and concludes that if this trend continues, "the whole hit-making apparatus of the song machine is doomed."

Uh-oh. No wonder he's on the lookout for a new bliss point.

Barnes & Noble Review, November 11, 2015