Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was the apex of my popular music connection. In a weird adventure of late childhood I attended Winterland's (San Francisco) last-but-one performance — featuring Springsteen.
These days my kids control the radio. So I hear a lot of country-pop and pop-pop. I assumed that music was made more or less the same way that Bruce did his work 30 years ago.
I couldn’t be more wrong. This month’s Atlantic Magazine included a short article that was the most surprising thing I’ve read in years [emphases mine]. It’s a review of John Seabrook’s book ‘The Song Machine’...
The biggest pop star in America today is a man named Karl Martin Sandberg. The lead singer of an obscure ’80s glam-metal band, Sandberg grew up in a remote suburb of Stockholm and is now 44. Sandberg is the George Lucas, the LeBron James, the Serena Williams of American pop. He is responsible for more hits than Phil Spector, Michael Jackson, or the Beatles.
After Sandberg come the bald Norwegians, Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen, 43 and 44; Lukasz Gottwald, 42, a Sandberg protégé and collaborator who spent a decade languishing in Saturday Night Live’s house band; and another Sandberg collaborator named Esther Dean, 33, a former nurse’s aide from Oklahoma who was discovered in the audience of a Gap Band concert, singing along to “Oops Upside Your Head.” They use pseudonyms professionally, but most Americans wouldn’t recognize those, either: Max Martin, Stargate, Dr. Luke, and Ester Dean.
Most Americans will recognize their songs, however. As I write this, at the height of summer, the No. 1 position on the Billboard pop chart is occupied by a Max Martin creation, “Bad Blood” (performed by Taylor Swift featuring Kendrick Lamar). No. 3, “Hey Mama” (David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj), is an Ester Dean production; No. 5, “Worth It” (Fifth Harmony featuring Kid Ink), was written by Stargate; No. 7, “Can’t Feel My Face” (The Weeknd), is Martin again; No. 16, “The Night Is Still Young” (Minaj), is Dr. Luke and Ester Dean….
… The illusion of creative control is maintained by the fig leaf of a songwriting credit. The performer’s name will often appear in the list of songwriters, even if his or her contribution is negligible. (There’s a saying for this in the music industry: “Change a word, get a third.”) But almost no pop celebrities write their own hits. Too much is on the line for that, and being a global celebrity is a full-time job. It would be like Will Smith writing the next Independence Day.
… We have come to expect this type of consolidation from our banking, oil-and-gas, and health-care industries. But the same practices they rely on—ruthless digitization, outsourcing, focus-group brand testing, brute-force marketing—have been applied with tremendous success in pop, creating such profitable multinationals as Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift...
.... “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore,” Jay Brown, a co-founder of Jay Z’s Roc Nation label, tells Seabrook. “You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge, too.”
Sonically, the template has remained remarkably consistent since the Backstreet Boys, whose sound was created by Max Martin and his mentor, Denniz PoP, at PoP’s Cheiron Studios, in Stockholm. It was at Cheiron in the late ’90s that they developed the modern hit formula, … Seabrook describes the pop sound this way: “ABBA’s pop chords and textures, Denniz PoP’s song structure and dynamics, ’80s arena rock’s big choruses, and early ’90s American R&B grooves.” ... music is manufactured to fill not headphones and home stereo systems but malls and football stadiums. … Session musicians have gone extinct, and studio mixing boards remain only as retro, semi-ironic furniture.
The songs are written industrially as well, often by committee and in bulk. Anything short of a likely hit is discarded. The constant iteration of tracks, all produced by the same formula, can result in accidental imitation—or, depending on the jury, purposeful replication….
… Hits are shopped like scripts in Hollywood, first to the A-list, then to the B-list, then to the aspirants. “. The most-successful songwriters, like Max Martin and Dr. Luke, occasionally employ a potentially more lucrative tactic: They prospect for unknowns whom they can turn into stars. This allows them to exert greater control over the recording of the songs and to take a bigger cut of royalties by securing production rights that a more established performer would not sign away...
… K-pop, a phenomenon that gives new meaning to the term song machine. Lee codified Pearlman’s tactics in a step-by-step manual that guides the creation of Asian pop groups, dictating “when to import foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in particular countries; the precise color of eye shadow a performer should wear in different Asian regions, as well as the hand gestures he or she should make.”
In K-pop there is no pretension to creative independence. Performers unabashedly embrace the corporate strategy that stars in the United States are at great pains to disguise. Recruits are trained in label-run pop academies for as long as seven years before debuting in a new girl or boy group—though only one in 10 trainees makes it that far...
Of course it’s hardly surprising that pop songs have evolved to match the most common interests of the biggest audience. What fascinates here is the fusion of the modern corporate model with the peculiar talents of three Scandinavians and one American, and the purity of “star power” required of the modern pop performer.
I wonder when the nsAIs (non-sentient AIs) will displace those Scandinavians. Apple is famously vertical and AI-pop is the obvious next step after K-pop.
I’d love to read a Madonna essay on the topic, she seems now a bridge between the old world of Springsteen and the new world of Katy Perry.