Thursday 27 July 2017

The journey may vary but the song remains the same

Music: The Song Machine, John Seabrook, Vintage, pbk, 368 pages, €10.99; Anatomy of a Song, Marc Myers, Grove Press, hdbk, 336 pages, €22.99

Michael Stipe, whose 1991 hit with REM was the most recent song to be featured in Anatomy of a Song
Michael Stipe, whose 1991 hit with REM was the most recent song to be featured in Anatomy of a Song
Janis Joplin who wrote the lyrics to 'Mercedes Benz' on the back of a napkin
The Song Machine by John Seabrook
Anatomy of a Song by Marc Myers
The Marvelettes who won over the world with 'Please Mr Postman'

Hilary A White

From Janis Joplin to Ace of Base, two books chart the contrasting styles of writing a hit.

The only certainty when it comes to assessing contemporary pop music is that it was always so much better back in your day. Most music lovers reach a point in their life where they spend more time wincing at what the younger generations are grooving to than actively grooving along. Around the same time, they also begin to find that if music is still to play a starring role in their day-to-day lives, it is the soundtrack to less complicated years that they turn to. Middle-aged forays into more esoteric realms of jazz or classical will never compare to the wonder years.

Two titles released just in time for the Christmas-nostalgia rush serve to map out the creation of gold-standard hits in rather different ways. Combined, they pull back the curtain on the songwriting assembly line which planet earth sometimes feels reliant on to keep it turning.

For Marc Myers, an eminent music scribe from The Wall Street Journal, it is all about historical context (changing social attitudes, audio technology developments and dramatic cultural paradigm shifts) and strikes of lightning in the bedsits and studios that led to the great 20th century songbook. While iconic, Myers' cherry-picked selection finds room for less obvious tracks that may serve to illustrate a point. He begins with Lloyd Price's 1952 proto-R&B standard 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy' and sees no reason to go any further than 1991, when REM's mandolin-led smash 'Losing My Religion' pushed alt-rock into the chart stratosphere.

Janis Joplin who wrote the lyrics to 'Mercedes Benz' on the back of a napkin
Janis Joplin who wrote the lyrics to 'Mercedes Benz' on the back of a napkin

Running parallel to Myers' scholarly approach is John Seabrook, who digs with a sharp journalistic trowel into the titular machine that rumbles away in the background of the modern pop landscape. This is a place of songwriting by committee, marketing men, tastemakers and Svengalis second-guessing the trends of a huge and insatiable teenage market throbbing with complex hormones. Seabrook is a staff writer at The New Yorker but has also lectured in narrative non-fiction at Princeton. This probably explains the silky manner in which he joins those dots of the pop family tree that we may be too busy tapping our feet (or searching for the mute button) to consider.

"Familiarity with the song increases one's emotional investment in it, even if you don't like the song," Seabrook tells us. This concept is confirmed by Myers in one of his nugget-sized chapters. In discussing the environment out of which The Marvellettes' 1961 dinger 'Please Mr Postman' won over the world, he talks about record promoters bribing disc jockeys knowing full well that only repeated airplay would cause addiction to set in and result in hits.

In a world of Spotify, iTunes, X Factor and an industry taking in half the amount of revenue that it had at its peak almost 20 years ago, Seabrook's investigation is perhaps more timely than that of Myers, who takes a more rosy, archivist's approach. Sweden in the 1990s is the starting point as Seabrook introduces us to Stockholm's Cheiron Studios. It was from here that, along with Max Martin, DJ and studio founder Denniz PoP churned out a production line of world-beaters for the likes of Ace Of Base, Backstreet Boyz, N'Sync and Britney Spears.

Across the Atlantic, suits chomped on cigars while they strategised, projected and wielded the calculators.

Oceans of teenagers were helpless and still largely are. Why is this? What does the pop song do to them? For anyone who thinks it is all just a slick marrying of confessional poetry and comely melodies is in for a rude awakening by Seabrook, and to a lesser extent, Myers. The Song Machine spells out, without any particular cynicism, just how calculated and mathematical creating a pop song has now become. The science of timing the tune's "bliss point" and the role of "topliners" (drafted in to put the finishing vocal touches to a pop song before it is presented to the artist) are just some of the clinical realms revealed in Seabrook's buoyant but rigorous examination.

It paints a mood at odds with the one conjured by Myers' work, an alternate dimension where Janis Joplin doodles the lyrics for 'Mercedez Benz' on a napkin because the bar jukebox was blasting 'Hey Jude' too loudly. In the brief but insightful interviews with artists and/or producers that accompany each song chapter, we are given images of Cyndi Lauper, Michael Stipe, Keith Richards or Otis Redding getting "into zones", searching and seeking for the essence of an infant song and even trying to inhabit it through physical movement.

The Marvelettes who won over the world with 'Please Mr Postman'
The Marvelettes who won over the world with 'Please Mr Postman'

Are Myers' 45 subjects, here compiled from his column of the same name in the WSJ, telling the truth or was popular songwriting energised by starkly different forces back then? Comparing both books, it appears that, yes, actual songcraft was indeed an altogether earthier and more organic formula even if the industry itself was vastly more moneyed than it finds itself today. There are now so many variables at work at that top tier of airplay and that is even before you take into consideration the huge losses by the major labels and their all-fours scramble to belatedly embrace a streaming culture that has left artists skint and disgruntled, and many others questioning the format's long-term durability.

And yet, perhaps the moral of the twin accounts is that the song does, in fact, remain the same, whether it is beaten into shape by Ray Manzarak while the other three members of The Doors go for chips and beer, or it has its eighth notes arranged with cold precision by production teams such The Matrix or Stargate. One man's Denniz PoP is another's Joni Mitchell, you start to believe. All that is different is that one route involves full-frontal ownership and delivery of the composition while the other requires a corporate midwife. As long as the package finds its way to the ears of the love-sick, carousing and angst-ridden, it probably doesn't matter that much.

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