Review of Nonfiction Review of Reference Work

Your brain wants to be happy! The Song Machine, by John Seabrook (cont.)

As someone who has taken to making music using Logic Pro, John Seabrook’s book about song factories fascinated me. I read it while looking for an answer to my problem of not knowing much about the music industry, or what a hook is in music. To continue with my review, this is what I found out about Swedish music producers, melodic math, hits like Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, and hooks in songs.

The Swedes started it

The production of songs with hooks that won’t stop running around in your head, started in Sweden. Apparently the Swedes are “…a nation of songwriters endowed with melodic gifts, and who [are] meticulous about craft, but who [are] reluctant to perform their own songs.” (p. 38). Isn’t that a nice compliment? It helps that the Swedish state education system includes free music lessons. This provided a wealth of materials for ambitious artists and producers, and, particularly at Cheiron Studios in Stockholm, led to the birth of a new breed of pop music, rife with infectious Swedish harmonies and hooks. (Think ABBA, folks.)

Instead of simply stating that a song has a hook, Seabrook demonstrates in his book how hooks fit into the “track-and-hook” arrangements of those early productions. He does this by skillfully and evocatively describing how the music was structured and developed, which instruments were used, and how they were used.

As a result, every so often I had to haul out my headphones and go listen to a song that I thought I understood, to hear again those few bars of notes that made it a hit.

Go listen to “the Sign”

For example, this is how he describes the song that exemplifies the birth of the hit factory phenomenon: the Denniz PoP-produced the hit from the group Ace of Base, “The Sign”, which contains not one, but two hooks. (The text in square brackets is my insertion.)

“The track starts out with four bars of a dance beat made with a kick drum, hand clap, and snare, struck so closely together that the ear hears them as one sound; this would become Cheiron’s sonic signature. The sound incorporates fragments of a sample from ‘Shack Up’, a song by Banbarra, a US funk group from the 70s.

“A synthetic log drum plays on the off beats, making a woody thwoka thwoka sound. Mixed in with the electronically made music is a track of Carr [Douglas Carr, co-producer on the track] playing timbales and cymbals, to lighten the robotic feel. Then comes the first melodic hook, a wheedling synth flute made with an EMU vintage module that is out of phase – a mistake that sounded cool so they left it in. Underneath the flute is the bass, which is actually two sounds mixed together: a Moog sub-bass and a Korg M1 bass on top. […]

“Then the singing starts. A reggae rhythm guitar sound made on a Yamaha TG77 synthesizer plays a Nile Rodgers guitar riff. A dry tap of a snare, and then comes the hook:
I saw the sign
And it opened up my eyes
I saw the sign

with a silvery sound in the vocals. At the bridge, voices go up an octave, and the soaring, joyous Europop sound lets the ecstasy in. The song is a three-minute, thirty-second sonic thrill ride of Swedish funk.”

The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory, by John Seabrook, pp. 44 – 45

Listen and see if you can pick up the moment the hooks come in:

Completely made-up symbolism – it was whatever you wanted it to be. But that hook was/is to die for. (Official music video of Ace of Base, “The Sign“, 1993, rtrvd. 10-Aug-2021)

Clear, beautiful writing

Seabrook’s descriptions of songs, how they work and what made them the right fit for a particular artist and a particular moment, are exceptionally good. He understands music, but he can also express those ideas and feelings that the music evokes in the listener very well. He has no shortage of musical expressions and adjectives. He is quite the genius at linking ideas together into a single flowing narrative that is actually quite entertaining and easy to consume. Even a musical novice like me could understand it. Sometimes, just when I’d come across a new word or term, I’d think, oh, no, what’s this? Then, as if he were able to read my mind, he explains it just right in the next paragraph.

I really enjoyed reading it. I’m looking at it now – lying on my desk, all wrinkled and dog-eared from use, with markers and underlinings all over it. I’m not putting this one on the Bad Books Bookshelf!

The Backstreet boys, “We’ve Got It Going On”

The Backstreet Boys’ “We’ve Got It Going On” (1995) was engineered in Cheiron Studios, and was given all the features of a Swedish hit:

“The main riff, which also makes up the chorus melody and contains the hook, is made with synthetic trumpets (a nod to ‘The Final Countdown’), played at a startlingly fast tempo.”

The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory, by John Seabrook, p. 75

I went back and listened and, since I knew what to listen for, I could hear it, those trumpets ringing out with military precision. A trumpet section in a pop rock/R&B 1990s song? Unusual – but it worked. “We’ve Got It Going On” was the title track on the Backstreet Boys’ eponymous first album, and it was the group’s first big hit. The album was released internationally and became one of the biggest debut albums ever recorded – the sales figures are staggering.

The outfits! The earrings! The attitude! O.M.G.! A wee bit cheesy after all these years – but this is music history.
(Screenshot from the official music video of the Backstreet Boys, “We’ve Got It Going On”, 1995, rtrvd. 10-Aug-2021)

So that’s melodic math

Interestingly, the Cheiron Studios team did more than write hooks into their songs – they made the words of the lyrics fit the beats, but even more importantly, fit the melody, perfectly. In the process, they sacrificed meaning for danceability. Max Martin called it “melodic math”. Once you realize which songs came out of that studio, you might also recall that the lyrics to some of those songs really made no sense. Sometimes the melodic math led to the emphasis being placed on the wrong syllable in a word, other times it caused bad grammar, sometimes the meaning was just missing.

Dr. Alban, “It’s My Life”

As an example of melodic math in action, listen to the lyrics of “It’s my Life” by Dr. Alban, which was written by Max Martin and is addictively rhythmic. But it’s mostly just phrases slung together that just sort of make sense.

Show me signs and good examples
Stop telling me how to run your business
Take a trip to east and west
You find that you don't know anything
Every's getting tired of you
Sometimes you have to look and listen
You can even learn from me
Little knowledge is dangerous, it's my life
A growly-voiced, big, ebony-black rapper with muscles to die for and buckets of sex appeal. What he was singing made no sense but so what? Would you stop bothering him? No way. Too delicious. (Screenshot from the official music video of Dr. Alban, “It’s My Life”, 1993, rtrvd. 10_Aug-2021)

Another example of melodic math resulting in a delicious hook with awkward grammar is another song for Ace of Base, called “All That She Wants” (1992) which Denniz PoP produced. The refrain goes:

All that she wants
is another baby
She's gone tomorrow, boy
All that she wants is another baby, yeah

I had always believed, until I read The Song Machine, that these lyrics mean that this woman wants another child really badly, and doesn’t care who the father is – a serious case of broodiness. Actually, it means that she wants another boyfriend, and it will be a one-night stand – because the other lines go:

She's the hunter, you're the fox
The gentle voice that talks to you
Won't talk forever
It is a night for passion
But the morning means goodbye

To the Swedes, I guess the difference between “baby” as a proper noun (someone’s name) and a common noun (a child) was much of a muchness – the song was still a huge hit for Ace of Base.

Rihanna, “Umbrella”

Also, consider Rihanna’s massive hit, “Umbrella”, from 2007, in which the earworm/hook is the refrain: “You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh“. As Seabrook explains, Kuk Harrell, who wrote the song, was fooling around in Logic audio software, and found a hi-hat drum loop which he put to a beat, which went: “Cha chick cha bun tha smoth”. (Yes, really.) It sounded so right that he had to fit the words and syllables of the lyrics to the loop and beat. The result was ella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh. That’s not exactly poetry, but the beat and the lyrics go together perfectly, like…rain and umbrellas.

Would you, eh, eh, eh, like to share her umbrella-ella, ella, ella? Who wouldn’t? Still irresistible after 14 years.
(Screenshot from the official video of “Umbrella“, by Rihanna, 2007, rtrvd. 10-Aug-2021)

Comping the tracks

The precision engineering with melodic math and the introduction of powerful music software, led to the practice of “comping”. This refers to the practice of comparing the multiple recordings of the vocal tracks of a song, syllable-by-syllable, and then stitching together the most perfectly pitched and expressed syllables into the best possible vocal rendition. “Comping was so mind-numbingly boring,” writes Seabrook, “that even Dr. Luke couldn’t tolerate it. However, ‘Max [Martin] loves comping,’ Luke says. He’ll do it for hours.'” (p. 266)

Comping, as a later development, led to something fascinating that I had not known even existed: With the move to create music entirely electronically, the requirement arose for someone to create the hooks for the song tracks: they are the “topliners”, specialists, like Esther Dean, who are brought into the recording studio to create – seemingly out of thin air, those snippets of music – the hooks – which are worth their weight in gold. Chapter 16, on how Dean creates the hooks whilst freestyling, using just her creative genius, sounds almost surreal. Even super-talented people like her have to compete against each other for topline work, and have a hard time becoming recording artists themselves.

A competitive industry

In the music industry, artists and creatives are often set against the money-men. This becomes particularly clear when Seabrook explains the phenomenon of Korean Pop music, K-pop. I would not want to be a K-pop star, even if you paid me a gazillion dollars. He gives many examples of where the relationship between artists, studio executives and distributors have gone wrong. Depressingly, he explains what has happened to artists who used to write collections of songs on a theme or a unified aesthetic, which were then sold as multi-track albums, when iTunes and Spotify were launched. The next time you are on Apple’s music app and you are looking to buy an iTune from an artist, remember Seabrook’s explanation of why singles outnumber the albums.

Another sobering thought is Seabrook’s conclusion that we are attracted to formula-based songs, with chords, melodies, refrains and hooks in the expected places, because of how we are conditioned to expect these moments of pleasure. We anticipate what comes next, we can participate in a way – singing along, and it’s an enjoyable social activity. So, in actual fact:

“…the real controller of the song machine isn’t the labels, nor is it the radio stations or the hit makers. At the end of the day, the true puppet master is the human brain.”

The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory, by John Seabrook, p. 304

The soundtrack of our lives

Regardless of why or how it makes you happy, music is a wonderful thing. The more you understand about it the more wonderful it gets. Read Seabrook’s book – you will discover aspects to songs that you have known and loved, that you had never known. You will feel renewed appreciation for the artists and producers that have brought us the hits and the hooks that are the soundtracks to our lives.

Two criticisms – not about the writing!

I have two criticism of the book:

1) I really, really wish it had a playlist included, and I wish the playlist came with the book on a CD or a website, with those songs all lined up, so you can listen to the songs while reading about them. Having to switch between the book and my playlists and records, and YouTube, Spotify, and Soundcloud, etc., all the time was inconvenient. (Come on, Mr. Seabrook – how about it?)

2) There are no illustrations at all in the book. Not a one. Nada. For a book that is packed with references to artists and industry players, photos of their early days and of the studios that no longer exist, would have been interesting and useful. A book that is so well written deserves to be published with a bit of bling and a few extras, such as illustrations.

The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory, by John Seabrook (Publisher: W W Norton; reprint edition, Oct. 25, 2016 (originally published Oct. 30, 2015); paperback; 352 pages)

About John Seabrook

John Seabrook being interviewed by podcaster Michael Johnston for Johnson’s YouTube series “Writing F(r)iction”, #43 – John Seabrook, on June 11, 2021. This demonstrates why you should always take care about the background when you are on camera – it looks like Seabrook is speaking from an unattractively cluttered basement storeroom. Yikes. (Rtrvd. 12-Aug-2021)

The praise for Seabrook’s book is everywhere on the Internet, and is not over-stated. He knows his subject. Seabrook, now 62, has been a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine since 1993 (refer to the graphic above, showing a page of his contributions), and in his writing, he explores the intersection between creativity and commerce in the fields of technology, design, and music. He has taught non-fiction writing at Princeton University – the YouTube interview with him, above, is about writing non-fiction.

In the book he refers to “the Boy” and “the Girl”- presumably his son and daughter. On many websites it states that he lives in Brooklyn, New York City, with his wife and two children, and a dog and a cat. Personal data on him is scarce. Your best bet to find out more about him is to follow him on Twitter:

John Seabrook@jmseabrook
No idea why there is Cyrillic writing in the background of his Twitter profile pic.

He has also written Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing—The Marketing of Culture (2000), and Flash of Genius, and Other True Stories of Invention (2008). Both books were very well received.

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