Given today’s top-40 musical landscape, I find myself getting into disagreements with people about the merits of pop music. This week’s New Yorker features an article on the writing of pop hits (John Seabrook: “The Song Machine“) that will make serious musicians cringe & lose hope simultaneously. Basically, a small number of writer-vocalists (mostly female) and a small number of producers (mostly male) are responsible for the majority of smash hits by singers like Rihanna, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson and Nicki Minaj. They convene every once in a while to share tracks and vocal lines with each other. They go through hundreds of simple ideas in a week (all generated by software, not real instruments), and the artist is hardly ever involved in the process. In fact, Rihanna records many of her singles over the phone or from on her tour bus (the image of pop stars brainstorming in recording studios for weeks on end is rapidly fading away – the majority of revenue is generated by tours, so artists spend most of their time and energy learning dance moves, traveling, and fitting into elaborate costumes.)
To some people, this contrived process signals the demise of music, but I admire these producers and writers. It is truly a gift to know exactly what the public is going to want. The latest hits have catchy hooks in the chorus, pre-chorus, intro and outro, because audiences are becoming less patient and people change the radio station after 7 seconds if they’re not happy with what they hear. The writers who invent these hooks and the lyrics that will suit them are not trying to move people emotionally in any deep way, and they’re not trying to have a lasting impact. They want to make music that will invite future listens, and that can serve as a social currency among young people. And so, to this end, they are successful.
I am intrigued, though, by the trend that many of the most famous pop producers are Swedish (Max Martin, Dr. Luke) or Norwegian (Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen). I think that Scandinavia’s location provides a clue to unraveling this mystery*. You see, the crux of creativity is making the familiar seem unfamiliar, and vice versa. Creativity is drawing upon existing elements and making them surprising. For example, the success of film montages in the art world is founded on the fact that people enjoy searching for familiar clips, but they are also fascinated by the new way that these clips are arranged. The Scandinavian producers (esp. Eriksen, who is profiled in the article) lived in a world that was fairly dominated by Euro-pop, but they somehow gained exposure to American urban music – R & B and hip hop. They were hired by a British company to incorporate urban elements into Euro-pop to make it edgier, and to make American urban music more accessible to Europeans, by putting a catchy pop twist on it. The most famous non-rock songs of the ’90s and 2000s are hits because they succeed in achieving these goals. And it took the ear of someone who was not submerged in either musical milieu to make this happen.
Environment drives the way creativity manifests itself. With the rise of the internet and globalization, physical environment will start to mean less and less, but that’s no matter. With increased travel, and increased record-keeping, we can actively search for ways to make our art more fresh across the world and across time.*
*Likewise, the British revolution of the ’60s and ’70s probably emerged because of Britain’s unique position to interface between American R & B and European pop.
*Non-Scandinavian producers like Timbaland excel for this reason; some of his songs feature South Asian pop samples!