The se­crets of mod­ern pop-song writ­ing ac­cord­ing to John Seabrook

Want to have a long ca­reer writ­ing pop songs? Lan­guage skills don’t mat­ter, it’s best to be from Swe­den, and know how to genre hop, au­thor John Seabrook tells Jim Car­roll

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

If Tay­lor Swift, Ri­hanna, Katy Perry or Bey­once walked into the room you’re in right now and said hello, you’d know who they were. Of course, you’d be sur­prised and won­der just what th­ese glitzy pop stars are do­ing in your kitchen, of­fice or cafe, but you’d recog­nise them.

They’re in­ter­na­tional su­per­stars, singers who’ve be­come stand­alone brands be­cause of the way songs like Shake It Off,

Um­brella, Roar and Ir­re­place­able have res­onated with au­di­ences world­wide and be­come the sound­track to their av­er­age day. The stars sing the songs, front the show and get all the ac­claim.

Take away those singers, though, and bring in a pair of Swedes named Karl Schus­ter and Martin Sand­berg, or a brace of Nor­we­gian dudes called Tor Her­mansen and Mikkel Erik­sen, or even a bunch of Amer­i­cans like Christopher Ste­wart, Terius Nash, Kuk Har­rell, Ester Dean and Lukasz Gottwald.

What would your re­ac­tion be now? Would you recog­nise them? Would you call the guards to say there are strangers stand­ing in your kitchen or of­fice?

But Swift, Ri-Ri and Perry would not be where they are to­day with­out the work of those Swedes, Nor­we­gians and Yanks.

They’re the hard-work­ing su­per­star pro­duc­ers and song­writ­ers who’ve had a sig­nif­i­cant hand, act and part to play in ev­ery sin­gle hit record which makes it onto your ra­dio or radar.

When Shell­back (AKA Schus­ter), Max Martin (Sand­berg), Star­gate (Her­mansen and Erik­sen) Dr Luke (Gottwald) and the oth­ers clock in to go to work, their job is to write and pro­duce hits and they do this again and again and again.

Songs which stick

Th­ese back­room fig­ures are the he­roes of The Song Ma­chine: In

side the Hit Fac­tory, John Seabrook’s fas­ci­nat­ing book about the peo­ple be­hind the hits and what’s re­quired to turn a bunch of ideas, melodies and hooks into a song which sticks.

The New Yorker jour­nal­ist’s trav­els take him to Swe­den, South Korea (where the lo­cal pop fac­to­ries churn out K Pop stars) and var­i­ous US stu­dios in search of the se­cret sauce.

So, is there a se­cret sauce? When it comes to the pro­duc­ers and song­writ­ers who work best, Seabrook notes record la­bels and pop acts grav­i­tate to­wards peo­ple with cer­tain qual­i­ties.

“You want to go with some­one who has a great track record and you don’t want to f*ck around with peo­ple who are try­ing to fig­ure out how to write hits and want to do that on your dime.

“You prob­a­bly don’t want heart­felt singer-song­writ­ers ei­ther. You want peo­ple who can get in, do it fast and get out.”

It was his son’s fond­ness for mod­ern pop tunes on the ra­dio dur­ing car jour­neys to school which first piqued Seabrook’s in­ter­est.


“While lis­ten­ing to what my son was lis­ten­ing to, my views on mod­ern pop mu­sic went from dis­dain and dis­like to ad­just­ing to it and start­ing to find things to really like,” he ex­plains. “When I went re­port­ing it, I found that while it is a fac­tory sys­tem, there is a lot of ex­cit­ing cre­ativ­ity and in­ter­est­ing peo­ple in­volved. I came around, I sup­pose I’m a bit of a pop-timist.”

Pop fac­to­ries are noth­ing new. In the 1950s, you’d the Brill Build­ing, where song­writ­ers and pro­duc­ers turned out oo­dles of songs to be recorded and plugged within the one New York space.

A few years later, Berry Gordy’s Motown hit fac­tory turned Detroit into the home of the hits. Bri­tish pro­duc­ers Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Water­man’s col­lab­o­ra­tions led to more than 40 mil­lion record sales dur­ing the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The dif­fer­ence now, says Seabrook, is the artist has the up­per hand. “Even if they’re not the cre­ative song­writ­ing force, the artist has this ex­tra­or­di­nary power of brand­ing. It al­lows them to use so­cial me­dia to con­stantly sell them­selves. It’s a lot dif­fer­ent from the Phil Spec­tor and Berry Gordy days when you’d the pro­ducer boss­ing the act around and telling them what to do.”

The fac­tory op­er­a­tors have also mas­tered the trick of hang- ing around longer.

“Most of the hit fac­to­ries used to only last six or seven years and then they’d col­lapse for var­i­ous rea­sons,” notes Seabrook. “The Swedish thing that the book is based on, and Max Martin in par­tic­u­lar, has been go­ing on for much longer.

“Max Martin has had an 18-year run of num­ber ones from Hit Me Baby One More

Time to I Can’t Feel My Face and that’s un­prece­dented. He has an in­cred­i­ble knack for com­ing up with not just a hook, but a melodic phrase that the song is built around.

“He’s also part­nered with dif­fer­ent peo­ple over the years. Un­like Len­non and McCart­ney or Jag­ger and Richards who stuck with each other, Martin switched from his men­tor Den­niz Pop in Stockholm in the 1990s to Dr Luke in the 2000s to Shell­back now, who he’s writ­ten with for Tay­lor Swift. He’s re-in­vented him­self with each new part­ner and has stayed on the edge rather than get­ting tired and stale sound­ing.”

Be­sides longevity, the Swedes have other ad­van­tages when it comes to the pop busi­ness. Seabrook notes how melodic their na­tional an­them Du gamia, Du

fria is and also cites a great mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and ease with tech­nol­ogy.

Mixes and blends

“Their gift for melody means you get th­ese in­ter­est­ing R’n’B/pop mixes and blends within songs that you wouldn’t get with white Amer­i­can or Bri­tish or Ir­ish song­writ­ers.”

Then, there’s the lan­guage. “They speak English but they’re not that good at English so they don’t get all that caught up on witty phrases and dou­ble en­ten­dres and metaphors.

“They put in the words which fit with the melodies based on the sound and they fig­ure out the mean­ing later. Like Hit Me

Baby One More Time was not in­tended as an ode to do­mes­tic violence, which is what it sounds like if you speak English, but the Swedes were try­ing to use up-to-the-minute lingo for call me up or some­thing and not get­ting it quite right.”


It’s not just the Swedes who have in­ter­est­ing ways with words. One of the best scenes in the book de­scribes song­writer Ester Dean work­ing in a stu­dio with Star­gate on a new track. Dean’s im­pro­vi­sa­tions move from sounds which are like grunts and groans on to words (taken from a list she keeps on her phone) and fully formed lines.

“Her song­writ­ing method is a minia­ture version of a baby learn­ing how to speak,” notes Seabrook. Yet this method has helped to cre­ate hits like Rude

Boy for Ri­hanna, Su­per Bass for Nicki Mi­naj and Fire­work for Katy Perry.

De­spite the rel­a­tive longevity of the cur­rent sys­tem, Seabrook feels the cy­cle is bound to end.

“There has al­ways been a back­lash against the fac­tory sys­tem – punk, grunge and early 2000s hip-hop with Eminem were all back­lashes. We haven’t had that now for a decade and I won­der when and whether it’s go­ing to come and who’s go­ing to bring it in.

“It might be EDM but con­tem­po­rary hits ra­dio is the prime driver of what I’m talk­ing about in the book in the US and I can’t see EDM making it there.”

Hit Me Baby One More Time was not in­tended as an ode to do­mes­tic violence. The Swedes were try­ing to use up-to-theminute lingo for call me up and not get­ting it quite right

Taay­lor Swift worked with Shell­back and Max Martin for 18 months on 1989.

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