A pleasure, an annoyance, a digital marvel, a mass-market commodity, a cultural touchstone, a gimmicky cheap shot—a twenty-first-century pop hit can be all of those, often at the same time. Even for those who try to tune them out, the songs insinuate themselves. They pour out of radios, pulse loudly at stores, back up TV commercials, punctuate movies, provide walk-up music for sports stars, pump through exercise classes, leak from the earbuds of nearby subway riders. They are relentlessly and almost scientifically catchy. The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, a staff writer at The New Yorker, describes how they get that way.
For listeners whose tastes were shaped by the pop hits of earlier eras, with their hand-played instruments and naturalistic voices, the modern Top 10 sound especially artificial, almost post-human. The songs are full of synthetic sounds and unvarying programmed drumbeats, while voices—which are sometimes the last physical, human element—arrive with computer-tuned precision and a robotic buzz. The songs are constructed with software and played back through digital processors. Even as they aim for the visceral, real-world response of a dance or a sing-along, they sound almost entirely virtual, echoing in cyberspace. They are music for the current and next generations of digital natives.
In The Song Machine, Seabrook pulls together both how and why the craft of hit-making has revved up to Internet speed. In alert close-up reporting, with financial savvy and historical perspective, he explains how Top 10 songwriting has become industrialized—separated into component tasks that are assigned to specialists.
Top 10 pop, a peculiar subspecies of music shaped by the demands of radio, has sidelined the old, romantic songwriting archetypes of the lone troubadour with a guitar—like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell—and of the self-contained band, like the Rolling Stones or U2. Now, a newer kind of collaboration prevails: more atomized, more ephemeral. The songwriter and producer Dr. Luke (aka Lukasz Gottwald, the longtime guitarist in the Saturday Night Live band who went on to make hits with Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry) itemizes his workforce to Seabrook as “artists, producers, topliners, beat makers, melody people, vibe people, and just lyric people.” The book makes clear what all those jobs are, as Seabrook visits studios to observe hitmakers at work.
Pop music has always been a balancing act of art and commerce, and in the twenty-first century there are different thumbs on the scale. To become a Top 10 hit now, a song has to compete against an infinitude of rival possibilities for the ever more fragmented attention of its potential audience. It can’t waste a millisecond in getting attention, and its commercial performance is measured more precisely than ever. (The streaming service Spotify, gathering data from every click, tabulates not…
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