Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Song Machine

. . . that vile element of competition in music. Surely that’s soul destroying in itself?
 (John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten)

Thank goodness John Seabrook’s The Song Machine is sprinkled throughout with quirky trivia about the music industry.

Did you know, for instance, that Lou Pearlman (convicted felon and impresario behind such turn-of-the-century boy bands as the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC—plus a lot of similar fare you probably have never heard of) is cousin to Art Garfunkel? Or that Barry Manilow hated “I Write the Songs,” the recording that probably made his career? Or that the “lyrical concept” for Katy Perry’s “Firework” came from, of all places, a famous bit in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (the paean to those who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”)?

Don’t get me wrong: Seabrook’s book is first and foremost a journalistic examination of the songwriting assembly line that has produced the most lucrative music of the new century—things like “Right Round” and “Umbrella”—and of the “mysterious priesthood of musical mages” (as he calls them) who operate it behind the scenes, under cheeky pseudonyms like Denniz PoP and Dr. Luke. But ultimately, the throwaway nuggets were what enabled me to work my way through. The rest, if I’m being honest, was too damned depressing.

Depressing . . . but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t because of the music—even though, as you have probably guessed, “Firework” and its ilk are not my cup of tea. Nor was it because of the mechanistic creative processes Seabrook describes—even though the phrase “the song machine” could be construed as a kind of dog whistle, riffing on longstanding cultural anxieties about technology’s influence in art.

Consider, for instance, the weeklong “writer camps” now routinely convened by mega-artists. From the outside, these seem like musical spam-factories—dozens of writers and producers collaborating in endlessly rotating pairs until someone generates a potential hit through sheer abundance of effort. Or what of the various attempts to harness creativity with science, signified by oxymorons like “melodic math” and “cultural technology”? One could be forgiven for finding these absurd, too.

But are such practices and philosophies all that different from those that produced music I actually like? Are the writer camps different in kind from, say, the industrial ethos of the Brill Building, or Motown, or Tin Pan Alley, or the Wrecking Crew? After all, the latter were “rock and roll’s best-kept secret” (to use Kent Hartman’s felicitous phrase) for a reason. As for “melodic math” and the like, consider just one precursor: Irving Berlin’s subjectively objective “Nine Rules for Successful Songwriting,” published in 1920. (“The lyric must be euphonious: simple and pleasing to the ear,” Berlin tells us—as if those adjectives mean the same thing for all listeners.)

One could summon other examples, but the point is the same: the mechanisms may be more robust now, but pop has always required an assembly line, or at least an assembly-line mentality. More importantly, given its intended listeners, music is music, no matter the time period or technology.

The real insight of Seabrook’s account is that the “machine” he refers to isn’t the assembly line or its products at all; rather, it’s the demeaning, dehumanizing juggernaut of industrial capitalism itself, taken to the ugly extreme it currently enjoys in the Top 40. As in most other sectors of twenty-first century American life, the musical rich are getting richer, and their numbers are shrinking, while everyone else (the musicians in the so-called long tail) receives ever-smaller shares of an ever-smaller pie. “77 percent of the profits in the music business,” Seabrook points out, “are accumulated by 1 percent of the artists”—a statistic that is even more lopsided than income inequality figures in the broader culture. Focusing on the quality of one form of pop over another (or the quality of pop over some other genre) is almost like saying this situation would be acceptable if more “deserving” artists were getting the piles of dough. The truth is that it doesn’t matter who is getting the piles of dough; it is the piling that is the problem.

In music, this situation is usually excused as some necessary apotheosis of the rock-n-roll dream. Yes, it inspires cruelty and masochism, evident everywhere from American Idol to the troubled relationship between Rihanna and Chris Brown to the fame-facilitated death of Scott Weiland (or Amy Winehouse, or Michael Jackson, or whoever). But it obscures those things with a playful marketing veneer; as, lately, in a flurry of ads (featuring many current pop stars) “that wistfully evokes the opulence of the ancien régime of the deposed French Bourbon monarchy.” Indeed, it caters to listeners’ desire to be pop royalty, too.

Thus we might grow jealous at Seabrook’s description of a typical Clive Davis industry soiree, with its survival-of-the-fittest seating-chart hierarchy (current hit-makers sit close to the dais, while has-beens are consigned to the corners of the room). We might be awed by tales of music-biz excess, like the one Seabrook tells of the producer Dr. Luke, who had to buy Miley Cyrus a ten-thousand-dollar toilet when “Wrecking Ball” went to number one. (Apparently, they had made a bet.) We might be astonished at the obscene cost of promoting a single record, and the carpet-bombing mentality that “justifies” such profligacy. (One insider puts it this way: “The reason it costs so much is because I need everything to click at once. You want them to turn on the radio and hear Rihanna, turn on BET and see Rihanna, walk down the street and see a poster of Rihanna, look on Billboard, the iTunes chart, I want you to see Rihanna first. All of that costs.”)

But as easily as we turn away from the onramp indigent, we might also dismiss such things as part of the game, choosing from a set of ready-made rationalizations. High stakes drive artists to be more creative. Financial reward enables charity. Labels need some way to bankroll less lucrative acts. And so on. Ultimately, in the rock-n-roll dream as in the American one, individuals have to make a bargain with power and wealth, validating the system’s inherent unfairness in order to participate at all. And increasingly, aesthetic battles only seem to obscure the struggle we are continually losing. We get tangled in the surface scrub of vague signifiers—words like “genre,” or “beauty,” or “art”—ignoring the thick bedrock underneath it all: class.

In their brilliant new book, The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski describe what the kind of materialism we’re facing here really means. “Amassing wealth,” they write, “marked the beginning of an ancient transition from relatively egalitarian seminomadic hunter-gatherer communities—in which people were valued for their actual abilities—to agricultural and industrial societies, in which people were measured less by actual achievement and more by prestige, which itself was largely based upon the acquisition and exhibition of wealth.” We’re not going back to the seminomadic hunter-gatherer way of life any time soon. The question is whether we can get back to something at least “relatively egalitarian,” and whether music will help us get there, or—unconscionably and unbelievably—prevent us from doing so.

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