Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

John Seabrook, _The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory_

THIS SUMMER I read two books by New Yorker staff writers concerning small, narrowly-focused bands of like-minded individuals who were exercising a disproportionate and not very happy influence over the hearts and minds of the United States.  This was one of them; Jane Mayer's Dark Money was the other.

Max Martin and Dr. Luke are doing less damage to the culture of our dear republic than the Koch brothers are, to be sure.  Seabrook himself, despite having grown up with the same rock and roll classics that I did, finds the whole Britney-Backstreet-Ke$ha-Katy Perry spectrum embraceable. Daily drives with his son led to a kind of Damascus moment during Flo Rida's "Right Round," and  he discusses Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and Rihanna's "Umbrella" with the relish of an enthusiast.

He's not alone. Joshua Clover's occasional Nation column takes contemporary pop as seriously as Dylan was ever taken, and a recent issue of n+1 had a long piece on Drake.  Carl Wilson's book on Celine Dion takes for granted that the art/commerce distinction, as it affects pop music, deconstructed itself ages ago.

It's just never going to work for me, though.  Having started listening to the radio when "Like a Rolling Stone" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" were normal fare, having signed on for the Velvets, Bowie, the Stooges, and punk in my twenties, having claimed the Smiths and the Replacements in  my thirties, I was just plain immune to the strains of Britney and Spice Girls that seeped out of the kids' rooms during my forties.

Nonetheless, I devoured The Song Machine, a gracefully-written triumph of reporting that gets behind the scenes and explains lucidly and unjudgmentally just how the current purveyors of pop go about their business. For me, the real sonic landscape of our time is elsewhere than in Katy Perry and Taylor Swift (an elsewhere populated by Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, P. J. Harvey, Johnny Marr, Courtney Barnett, and Anton Newcomb, among others), but I was grateful for the tour offered in Seabrook's book of the sonic landscape that most of the country inhabits.

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