John Seabrook’s The Song Machine—an investigation of the system that creates many of today’s top 40 hits—arrives at a timely moment. Today’s listeners are more aware of the behind-the-scenes players than ever before: look at documentaries like 20 Feet From Stardom and The Wrecking Crew, the key role played by writers on the popular show Nashville, and the debate over Quentin Miller’s role in Drake’s recent output. But ideas about creativity are closely linked to anxiety over authorship, and a book about the distance between those who sing the hits and those who compose them seems primed to reignite debates about the nature of artistry in pop music.
The Song Machine started as a series of pieces Seabrook wrote for The New Yorker. The book follows a few different threads, but the central character is Max Martin, the Swedish mastermind who has written and produced for Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Miley Cyrus, and most recently, Taylor Swift and the Weekend.“In both volume of hits and longevity, Max Martin eclipses all previous hit makers, including the Beatles, Phil Spector, and Michael Jackson,” he writes. Seabrook traces Martin’s roots to his mentor, Denniz PoP, another Swede. PoP had success producing Ace of Base, and he put together a team of like-minded, musically-gifted countrymen who would go on to have a remarkable influence on the American top 40 through writing and production.
PoP died in 1998, and Martin’s first wave of chart dominance—with Britney, the Backstreet Boys, and ‘N Sync—came to an end in the early ‘00s, so The Song Machine takes a brief detour to examine the production of K-Pop stars in South Korea. After this section, the book tracks Rihanna just as her career is getting under way, before returning to Martin and his protégé, Dr. Luke. A short coda on Spotify and the impact that it is having on the pop industry and the hitmaking process brings the volume home.
Seabrook provides a personal context for his project as a way to connect with his son who enjoys the music that he finds on top 40 radio. But the larger historical context for a discussion of music-making sometimes slips out of his picture. “I was fortunate enough to have lived my peak music-loving years during the glorious ‘70s and ‘80s up through the ‘90s with Nirvana and grunge,” he writes. His framework coincides with the peak time for rock’s romantic ideal of the combined singer/songwriter, an ideal that still holds an outsized place in the cultural consciousness.
But the genius singer/songwriter is an aberration in the history of western music. Look at pre-rock formats: in classical music, hardly anybody plays or sings their own compositions; nobody would think of telling a virtuoso pianist or opera or jazz singer that she is not a real artist. There’s no shame if a saxophone player or vocalist performs a tune she didn’t write.
In fact, the traditional division of labor between composer/writer and performer continued as a very successful norm. Motown is the classic and universally-beloved example of industrialized sound production. In David Ritz’s biography of Marvin Gaye, Divided Soul, the singer remembers, “Berry [Gordy, who founded the label] thought like an oil man…Drill as many holes as you can and hope for at least one gusher…Berry’s way was to get the artist into the studio—that afternoon, within the hour—and strike while the iron was hot…we flooded the streets and filled the charts.”
And Motown was far from alone: Detroit’s southern counterparts, Stax and Muscle Shoals, also involved stables of writers and instrumentalists working with a rotating cast of vocalists, many of whom did not write the songs they took up the charts. In the ‘70s, Gamble & Huff helmed another engine in Philadelphia; Jam & Lewis and Babyface emerged in the ‘80s to help a slew of performers. (Seabrook picks up more recently with Timbaland, Pharrell, Tricky Stewart, and the Dream.) And of course, country music has long thrived—and achieved impressive levels of crossover success—by separating writing from singing. Though Nashville barely earns mention in Seabrook’s book, the system in Music City has allowed someone like Reba McEntire to earn top 25 country hits in five different decades, a remarkable feat.
Seabrook acknowledges that mechanization has always been an integral part of popular music, but he suggests that the workings of the assembly line have changed over time, mostly for the worse. “By the mid-2000s,” he writes, “the track-and-hook approach…in which a track maker/producer, who is responsible for the beats, the chord progression, and the instrumentation, collaborates with a hook writer/topliner, who writes the melodies—had become the standard method.” He adds, “It is common practice for a producer to send the same track to multiple topliners, and choose the best melody from among the submissions.” He concludes: “as a working method, track-and-hook tends to make songs sound the same.”
But many forces work to make songs sound similar. Basic supply and demand, for one—as soon as a sound becomes popular in a marketplace, other artists will promptly imitate it until they can’t make money doing so. Studios repeated the same formulas back in the good old days as well: cycle through The Complete Motown Singles and you’ll find a few templates recycled over and over. And the same songs too: Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye both gloriously recorded and had hits with “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”
Though rock prides itself on eschewing song machines, it is hardly immune to repetitiveness. Countless groups Seabrook’s “the glorious ‘70s and ‘80s” cycled through the rhythmic and melodic language of the Velvet Underground; in the ‘90s, the airwaves were packed with bands emulating the grunge sound that brought Nirvana success. Sameness is often in a rock band’s best interest: modern groups like the Strokes or The War On Drugs are applauded for making songs that sound like other songs made by a previously-loved rocker.
While no one suggests that the latest riff-heavy band lacks artistry when it recycles decades-old formulas, pop stars are never given the same free pass. Nathaniel Rich, writing recently for The Atlantic, allowed that Max Martin and co. are talented, but decided that the singers of his hits don’t qualify as artists: “Can a performer be said to have any artistry if, as in the case of Rihanna, her label convenes week-long ‘writer camps,’ attended by dozens of producers and writers (but not necessarily Rihanna), to manufacture her next hit?”
The answer, of course, is yes. Writing your own songs is not a prerequisite for artistry: if it is, what do we do with, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, George Jones, and most of Michael Jackson?
Rich is not alone in this line of thinking, and the anxiety he exhibits about authorship plays a strong role in conversations about creativity. When Beck beat Beyoncé to win “Album Of The Year” at the 2015 Grammy Awards, a smug graphic circulated showing that Beck had written all of his own songs, while Beyoncé had worked with an army of co-writers. This says absolutely nothing about the quality of their respective albums—only that one involved teamwork. The graphic depended on the idea that a singer/songwriter is inherently superior to a mere “performer.”
Our fixation on authorship is strange: it makes singing and delivery—putting a song over—less important than the process of writing. In this formula, authenticity equals authorship, as though the listener can only have a direct, linear relationship to what he or she hears when the singer performs her own songs. But as Ben Ratliff wrote recently in The New York Times, “Authenticity isn’t a sound or a style. It’s an impulse.”
In the world of hip-hop, rappers are allowed to shop for the most exciting beat, but the prejudice against outsourcing your lyrics remains a touchy subject. This is particularly mystifying because the roles of producer and rapper aren’t that different from the pop-world split between writer and singer. You can argue about degrees—maybe Rihanna has a melody girl, a track guy, and a words girl, whereas Kendrick Lamar just has a roster of beatmakers and instrumentalists—but this is just another version of the specialization that has created music for decades, if not centuries. If it’s fine to rely on someone else for beats, why not for words? In August, the producer DJ Dahi—who has produced for Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Dr. Dre among others—observed dryly on Twitter, “some of these rappers need ghost writers.”
Seabrook’s investigation of pop writing practices adds some valuable details to the discourse around the top 40. But his book doesn’t consider its basic premise, that a singer/songwriter is always superior to a performer. The connection between authorship and artistic value is tenuous. As Questlove wrote in his 2013 memoir, “only effective and ineffective matter.”