Thursday 29 September 2016

Music - It's a hit: in praise of manufactured pop

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

Gender imbalance: The book examines how male producers have been writing about female empowerment for stars like Katy Perry.
Gender imbalance: The book examines how male producers have been writing about female empowerment for stars like Katy Perry.

It was a jammed car cassette that helped change the course of pop music for the last 25 years. A Swedish DJ and producer called Dag Krister Volle used to get reams of taped demos and he would make the decision whether or not to work with certain acts after listing to their efforts while driving around Stockholm in his Nissan Micra.

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It was in the summer of 1990 when a demo song called 'Mr Ace' managed to get stuck in the car's tape deck. Volle - who went by the stage name Denniz PoP - had listened to it once and decided he didn't like it, but as there was nothing else to play he started to listen to it over and over on his morning and evening commutes.

Several listens later, he decided there was a germ of a good song there, after all, so he decided to work with the band - a Gothenburg quartet called Ace of Base.

PoP was learning the ropes of how to fashion a hit - but already he understood that if the basic elements were there, he could accentuate the beat and melody. And that's what he did with 'Mr Ace' - which was renamed 'All That She Wants', and became one of the biggest selling hits in the world in 1992.

Who knows what would have become of Ace of Base if PoP's car stereo had simply spat out the tape as normal, but it's debatable if they would have found a producer capable of moulding their sound into one quite as popular. Their first album, Happy Nation, would go on to sell 23 million copies - making it one of the top selling debuts in pop history.

The mangled tape story is just one of many anecdotes in an absorbing new book which looks at the business of manufactured pop. Written by New Yorker journalist John Seabrook, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory does a very good job in making the case for this most maligned of genres. Seabrook, a rock fan who used to despise manufactured music, has not just had a change of heart but believes that mavens like Denniz PoP are the gifted heirs to the acclaimed writers of The Brill Building - one of the most significant of all songsmith factories, from the mid-20th century on.

Sadly, PoP would not live to see how his work with Ace of Base (and New Kids on the Block a few years later) would live on in today's biggest stars. He died of stomach cancer in 1998, aged just 35.

But one of his songwriting and production protégés, another Swede Max Martin, would take some of PoP's principles about building a catchy song - and add some of his own, including the most meticulous approach imaginable when it comes to recording, and become one of the most successful songwriters of all time.

Martin - who had fronted a frankly awful metal band called It's Alive - got his big break when he wrote '...One More Time' - a song eventually picked up by Jive Records for their new signing Britney Spears. The song would be recorded by Spears in PoP's Cherion Studios in Stockholm a month before his death.

I wrote about Martin a couple of months ago when another of his co-writes - The Weeknd's 'Can't Feel My Face' - teetered on the brink of a US number one. It duly reached the top of the charts, giving Martin his 21st number one in the Billboard Hot 100 leaving him third in the all-time list behind Paul McCartney (with 32) and John Lennon (27).

Martin would not agree to be interviewed by Seabrook, but the author gets an invaluable insight into his working ways thanks to his songwriting right-hand-man Savan Kotecha. One of the techniques that Martin has made into an art form is 'comping' - vocals essentially meshed together, syllable by syllable, from multiple takes. It takes remarkable discipline to persevere with this style of production, but it appears to be something the Swede adores, not least because he has long considered the studio to be his second home. Incidentally, Martin's 22nd US number one may not be far away - he has written a song on the hugely anticipated new Adele album which is out this week.

A contemporary pop writer that Seabrook does get significant access to is Lukasz Gottwald - aka Dr Luke - a New York-native who used to be a member of the Saturday Night Live house band. Luke has lent his talents to everyone from Katy Perry to Rihanna and from Flo Rida to Beyonce and what's especially intriguing about the author's time with him is a sense of the huge songwriting operation he runs, employing numerous people to work on beats and melodies.

It's a surprisingly similar scenario in Seoul - which, thanks to such enormously popular K-pop hits as 'Gangnam Style' - has become one of the world's leading cities in the pop-making business.

Meanwhile, Seabrook examines the curious scenario where most of the top songwriter-producers are men writing for young female popstars. Despite this gender imbalance, many of the songs that have emerged - not least Katy Perry's 'Roar' and Kelly Clarkson's 'Since U Been Gone' - have been anthems of female empowerment.

The impressarios and studio bosses also tend to be men and Seabrook pays special attention to a pair of them. Lou Pearlman was a veritable star-maker who created New Kids on the Block and *NSYNC and was instrumental in helping to turn Spears from another wannabe into a global chart-topper. And Clive Davis was the studio boss with an unerring ability to hear a brand new song and figure out if it was going to be be a success or failure.

It was Davis who signed Ace of Base for a US deal despite the pop quartet being turned down by one label after a next amid concerns that they would not make an impact in the US then obsessed with grunge on one side and R & B on the other.

As a behind-the-scenes account of the pop business today, The Song Machine is an utterly captivating read. You'll never listen to Taylor Swift or Rihanna in quite the same way again.

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