"ORDINARY DOMESTIC LIFE needs its bliss points, those moments of transcendence throughout the day," New Yorker staffer John Seabrook writes in his new book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory.
He's describing the function of pop music, and I couldn't agree more. The number of times I've listened to Ariana Grande's "Break Free" is probably in the low hundreds, ballpark. I regard Justin Bieber's recent catalog, produced by Diplo and Skrillex, as objectively great. I consider Swedish songwriter Max Martin an elusive, Thomas Pynchon-esque genius of the highest order. And despite Top 40's reputation as a guilty pleasure, I don't feel bad about any of that. So I couldn't wait to read an entire book about pop hits of the recent past.
But despite his extensive knowledge of the music industry (which is SO FUN to read about), Seabrook's got one pretty damning blind spot. The unspoken through-line in The Song Machine is that hits are made by men, and channeled through women, who are treated as disposable conduits. Seabrook doesn't seem too concerned with questioning this obviously problematic dynamic. He attributes Britney Spears' early success to her innate trust of authority figures, but fails to mention how misplaced that trust would later prove to be. And when he does bring up the statistic that women make up less than five percent of the industry's producers and engineers, it's in parentheses, and doesn't appear until page 203.
Also troubling is Seabrook's framing of Kelly Clarkson's struggle for creative control of her music not as an artist's perfectly reasonable desire for autonomy, but as a misguided attempt to thwart the better judgment of "a record man," Clive Davis. And that's not even getting into Kesha's recent allegations that she was abused by producer Dr. Luke, which Seabrook dismisses without, it seems, any attempt to hear her side of the story.
Reading The Song Machine, it's hard not to view America's hitmakers as bottom-line-obsessed misogynists, even if Seabrook doesn't. I went into the book expecting the visceral, ebullient joy of an Ester Dean hook or a Max Martin chorus. Instead, it affirmed what's so often said of pop music in general: Maybe there are compelling reasons to feel guilty for listening to Top 40, after all—they just have nothing to do with music.