There are a lot of Taylor Swift covers to be heard in New York City bars, but you won’t get them from The Sequoias, the band led by The New Yorker staff writer John Seabrook that includes the magazine’s editor David Remnick.
Well, they might make an exception to celebrate the launch of Seabrook’s new book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory.
“The rule is, we can’t suck,” says Seabrook. “Particularly since David Remnick joined.” The band usually plays songs by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones (a recent highlight was performing “Gimme Shelter” at this year’s White House Correspondents Weekend, joined by Chuck Leavell, who tours with the Stones), but maybe they should consider pop music, given the startling ground Seabrook covers in his impressive tome chronicling how the catchiest hits are made.
The Song Machine opens with Seabrook driving across the Brooklyn Bridge with his son, who he refers to as “the Boy,” on the way to school. When the Boy hijacks the radio, Seabrook is at first jarred by the strange thumping of Flo Rida’s 2009 hit “Right Round” (“Thumpa thooka whompa whomp…”), but soon, he is pleased. Describing music from today’s “song machine,” Seabrook writes: “Melodies are fragmentary, and appear in strong short bursts, like espresso shots served throughout the song by a producer-barista. Then, slicing through the thunderous algorithms, like Tennyson’s eagle—And like a thunderbolt he falls—comes the ‘hook’: a short, sung line that grips the rhythm with melodic talons and soars skyward. The songs bristle with hooks, painstakingly crafted to tweak the brain’s delight in melody, rhythm and repetition.”
Seabrook sees the music as an opportunity to bond with his son, and eventually their car rides together “were full of song talk. It was bliss…that’s how I started listening to this music,” he says. “I wanted to listen with him.”
Seabrook describes music as something that is easy to talk about and creates common ground between people: “Songs are such a craft, even more so than novels or movies. They are rigid in form: the bridge, the chords, it’s strict. There’s something about that template that makes for an easy analysis of songs. You can say, ‘Oh, that bridge is interesting.’ It’s a common language, even if you’re 40 years apart in age. Now [my son and I] have this whole thing to talk about that is a part of our lives we both value.”
Growing up, Seabrook’s mother played the piano, and though his father did not play an instrument, they loved to listen to music together. Frank Sinatra songs were often playing, along with early pop from the 1940s and ’50s, like the Andrews Sisters. “I came to like the sound of music playing in the house. It was happier than when it wasn’t,” he recalls. “It was like the furniture floated off the floor.” He wanted to create that same feeling in his household. “When the kids came along, I wanted that for them,” he says.
The Song Machine originated from a piece Seabrook was steered toward writing for The New Yorker by another staff member about Stargate, the production team behind several hit Rihanna songs. Talking with Stargate in turn led him to speak with Ester Dean, the songwriter behind the “hooks” of some of Rihanna’s biggest hits (Dean also appeared in the film Pitch Perfect). The article was published in March 2012.
“A lot of people read it and were kind of amazed that this is how songs were written,” he says. “The response warranted continued investigation.” As he learned more about how hits are made, he realized people “know the music, but not the history.”
One of the biggest discoveries for Seabrook was Denniz PoP, the Swedish DJ and producer who discovered Ace of Base and worked with the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, ’N Sync and more. He was “a pioneer in a whole new way of making music—electronically programmed sounds, tracks and beats.”
“I’m sort of attached to him even though I never met him,” he says. “He was this amazing man who had this amazing idea that Sweden could be a major source of hits for Europe and America. He saw what was possible.”
PoP, who had a premonition that he would die young, passed away in 1998 at the age of 35. “There was a childlike quality in him, and he has this haunting and powerful story, like a Grimm fairy tale,” says Seabrook. He recently returned from Sweden where he attended the Denniz PoP Awards for the first time. A photo he took of PoP’s face, projected onto a big screen during the awards ceremony, is saved on his phone.
“It was like my book coming to life,” he says.
To complete the book, Seabrook secured interviews with legendary music executive Clive Davis, Dr. Luke, Barry Weiss, and even Lou Pearlman, who spoke to Seabrook by phone from prison. The book also features Swedish producer and songwriter Max Martin (the man behind Bon Jovi’s comeback “It’s My Life,” Swift’s “Shake It Off,” and Ellie Goulding’s recent hit “Love Me Like You Do,” to name a few, and who continues to make so many hits it was a challenge to keep the book updated with all of them by publication).
His research took him from New York to Los Angeles, Stockholm, and Korea. He spent time with audio engineers “taking songs apart and understanding how they were made,” and identifying sounds. He logged hours on YouTube watching old American Idol auditions and listening to songs on Spotify, even creating playlists of songs featured in the book that readers can access. The Song Machine is punctuated with lyrics and descriptions of hooks and beats (so effective that readers risk having Ace of Base’s “The Sign” and the Backstreet Boys’ entire catalogue in their heads for days).
The music helped frame his writing. “I never really got stuck where to go next,” he says. “It’s like a musical: action, musical number, more action. It served as poles around which stuff revolved…there was a fixed point to build a turn in a narrative.” The Song Machine took about three years to complete. Now, unlike his other books (Flash of Genius: And Other True Stories of Invention; Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, and Deeper: Adventures on the Net) which gave him a sense of relief when they were finished, he reports, “I’m kind of sad it’s over. It was fun, it really was.”
“Something I learned is there is always something inside you that you must access, that’s unique and useful, and it’s about trying to figure out what that is,” he says. “This book was a revelation. Music is in the same places where writing comes from. I didn’t realize that.”
Courtney Allison is a former book publicist. She lives in Brooklyn.