Musical Machinations

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Everything changed when John Seabrook’s son got to ride shotgun. Seabrook had always controlled the car radio, but then his son switched the channel to Contemporary Hits Radio—formerly known as Top 40. Instead of changing the channel again, Seabrook decided, as a bonding exercise, to listen to pop music with his son. This interest led to various articles published in The New Yorker, now gathered with new material as a book titled The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (W.W. Norton).

Seabrook describes how most hits are like industrial products “manufactured” by star producers who engineer rhythmic tracks or beats as the basis for a song. Then “top line” singers are called in to create melodic hooks even before complete lyrics are drafted. A star singer finally swoops in to contribute the vocal track.

The book traces the current “song machine” to Sweden and to a former DJ known as Denniz PoP, who managed to blend “beat-driven” music played in European dance clubs with radio pop music. As one commentator noted, Denniz gave us “ABBA with a groove,” a style followed most notably by Max Martin, the Swedish producer who has had scores of number-one hits with singers such as Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.

Seabrook’s book made me think of how contemporary pop music has invaded my music-listening life. The problem is I can’t remember exactly when that process began.
Was it the Jason Derulo song my son asked me to buy with my iTunes account? Or when the kids all pleaded to switch from my favorite independent radio station (“folk, blues, jazz, rock, and world beat”) to “all the hits, all the time”? Or the moment I realized half of the presets on the car radio had been changed? Maybe it was the entire season of American Idol the family watched together.

I also wondered why I listen to pop music, even when I know it’s neither musically deep nor poetically profound—and even when I am in the car without my children.
Hit music, explains Seabrook, is like “snack food” that provides a moment of bliss, but “leaves you feeling unsatisfied, always craving for more.” Through repeated listening, you become emotionally attached to a hit, and “it doesn’t matter what you think of the song.”
Like Seabrook, I will try to cultivate a more critical approach to hit radio’s engineered beats and hooks, a critical approach that can also be applied to contemporary country, rap, and Christian pop. Overall, I am resolved to maintain a more balanced musical diet.

About the Author

Otto Selles teaches French at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and attends Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.

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