Meet the bald Norwegians and other unknowns who actually create the songs that top the charts.
The biggest pop star in America today is a man named Karl Martin Sandberg. The lead singer of an obscure ’80s glam-metal band, Sandberg grew up in a remote suburb of Stockholm and is now 44. Sandberg is the George Lucas, the LeBron James, the Serena Williams of American pop. He is responsible for more hits than Phil Spector, Michael Jackson, or the Beatles.
After Sandberg come the bald Norwegians, Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen, 43 and 44; Lukasz Gottwald, 42, a Sandberg protégé and collaborator who spent a decade languishing in Saturday Night Live’s house band; and another Sandberg collaborator named Esther Dean, 33, a former nurse’s aide from Oklahoma who was discovered in the audience of a Gap Band concert, singing along to “Oops Upside Your Head.” They use pseudonyms professionally, but most Americans wouldn’t recognize those, either: Max Martin, Stargate, Dr. Luke, and Ester Dean.
Most Americans will recognize their songs, however. As I write this, at the height of summer, the No. 1 position on the Billboard pop chart is occupied by a Max Martin creation, “Bad Blood” (performed by Taylor Swift featuring Kendrick Lamar). No. 3, “Hey Mama” (David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj), is an Ester Dean production; No. 5, “Worth It” (Fifth Harmony featuring Kid Ink), was written by Stargate; No. 7, “Can’t Feel My Face” (The Weeknd), is Martin again; No. 16, “The Night Is Still Young” (Minaj), is Dr. Luke and Ester Dean. And so on. If you flip on the radio, odds are that you will hear one of their songs. If you are reading this in an airport, a mall, a doctor’s office, or a hotel lobby, you are likely listening to one of their songs right now. This is not an aberration. The same would have been true at any time in the past decade. Before writing most of Taylor Swift’s newest album, Max Martin wrote No. 1 hits for Britney Spears, ’NSync, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, and Katy Perry.
Millions of Swifties and KatyCats—as well as Beliebers, Barbz, and Selenators, and the Rihanna Navy—would be stunned by the revelation that a handful of people, a crazily high percentage of them middle-aged Scandinavian men, write most of America’s pop hits. It is an open yet closely guarded secret, protected jealously by the labels and the performers themselves, whose identities are as carefully constructed as their songs and dances. The illusion of creative control is maintained by the fig leaf of a songwriting credit. The performer’s name will often appear in the list of songwriters, even if his or her contribution is negligible. (There’s a saying for this in the music industry: “Change a word, get a third.”) But almost no pop celebrities write their own hits. Too much is on the line for that, and being a global celebrity is a full-time job. It would be like Will Smith writing the next Independence Day.
Impressionable young fans would therefore do well to avoid John Seabrook’s The Song Machine, an immersive, reflective, and utterly satisfying examination of the business of popular music. It is a business as old as Stephen Foster, but never before has it been run so efficiently or dominated by so few. We have come to expect this type of consolidation from our banking, oil-and-gas, and health-care industries. But the same practices they rely on—ruthless digitization, outsourcing, focus-group brand testing, brute-force marketing—have been applied with tremendous success in pop, creating such profitable multinationals as Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift.
The music has evolved in step with these changes. A short-attention-span culture demands short-attention-span songs. The writers of Tin Pan Alley and Motown had to write only one killer hook to get a hit. Now you need a new high every seven seconds—the average length of time a listener will give a radio station before changing the channel. “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore,” Jay Brown, a co-founder of Jay Z’s Roc Nation label, tells Seabrook. “You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge, too.”
Sonically, the template has remained remarkably consistent since the Backstreet Boys, whose sound was created by Max Martin and his mentor, Denniz PoP, at PoP’s Cheiron Studios, in Stockholm. It was at Cheiron in the late ’90s that they developed the modern hit formula, a formula nearly as valuable as Coca-Cola’s. But it’s not a secret formula. Seabrook describes the pop sound this way: “ABBA’s pop chords and textures, Denniz PoP’s song structure and dynamics, ’80s arena rock’s big choruses, and early ’90s American R&B grooves.” The production quality is crucial, too. The music is manufactured to fill not headphones and home stereo systems but malls and football stadiums. It is a synthetic, mechanical sound “more captivating than the virtuosity of the musicians.” This is a metaphor, of course—there are no musicians anymore, at least not human ones. Every instrument is automated. Session musicians have gone extinct, and studio mixing boards remain only as retro, semi-ironic furniture.
The songs are written industrially as well, often by committee and in bulk. Anything short of a likely hit is discarded. The constant iteration of tracks, all produced by the same formula, can result in accidental imitation—or, depending on the jury, purposeful replication. Seabrook recounts an early collaboration between Max Martin and Dr. Luke. They are listening, reportedly, to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”—an infectious love song, at least by indie-rock standards. Martin is being driven crazy by the song’s chorus, however, which drops in intensity from the verse. Dr. Luke says, “Why don’t we do that, but put a big chorus on it?” He reworks a guitar riff from the song and creates Kelly Clarkson’s breakout hit, “Since U Been Gone.”
Pop hitmakers frequently flirt with plagiarism, with good reason: Audiences embrace familiar sounds. Sameness sells. Dr. Luke in particular has been accused repeatedly of copyright infringement. His defense: “You don’t get sued for being similar. It needs to be the same thing.” (Dr. Luke does get sued for being similar, and quite often; he has also countersued for defamation.) Complicating the question of originality is the fact that only melodies, not beats, can be copyrighted. This means a producer can sell one beat to multiple artists. The same beat, for instance, can be heard beneath Beyoncé’s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” hits released within four months of each other in 2009. (The producer, in his defense, claimed they were “two entirely different songs conceptually.”) As Seabrook notes, although each song was played tens of millions of times on YouTube and other platforms, few fans seemed to notice, let alone care.
Once a hit is ready, a songwriter must find a singer to bring it to the masses. The more famous the performer, the wider the audience, and the greater the royalties for the writer. Hits are shopped like scripts in Hollywood, first to the A-list, then to the B-list, then to the aspirants. “… Baby One More Time,” the Max Martin song that made Britney Spears’s career, was declined by TLC. Spears’s team later passed on “Umbrella,” which made Rihanna a star. The most-successful songwriters, like Max Martin and Dr. Luke, occasionally employ a potentially more lucrative tactic: They prospect for unknowns whom they can turn into stars. This allows them to exert greater control over the recording of the songs and to take a bigger cut of royalties by securing production rights that a more established performer would not sign away.
But the masters of star creation remain the record-label executives. The greatest of them all, Clive Davis, whose career has run from Janis Joplin to Kelly Clarkson, is an avuncular, charming presence throughout The Song Machine. He tells Seabrook that the key to pop longevity is “a continuity of hits,” a phrase Davis imbues with the gravity of scripture, though it means only what it says: lots of hit songs. More telling is the record executive Jason Flom’s reaction to meeting a young Katy Perry: “Without having heard a note of music, I was sure that Katy was indeed destined for stardom”—a statement that says more about the nature of the industry than about Perry.
Most memorable—and instructive—is the story of the obese, oleaginous Orlando entrepreneur Louis Pearlman. A luxury-plane magnate, he met the New Kids on the Block in 1989 when they chartered one of his jets. Upon learning that they were earning more than Michael Jackson, Pearlman decided to cast his own boy group. After Pearlman hired Denniz PoP and Max Martin to write their songs, the Backstreet Boys went from playing in front of Shamu’s tank at SeaWorld to selling out world tours. Millennium, released in 1999, is one of the best-selling albums in American history. Pearlman then decided to start an identical boy band, performing songs by the same songwriters. “My feeling was, where there’s McDonald’s, there’s Burger King,” Pearlman tells Seabrook on the phone from the federal prison in Texarkana, where he is serving a 25-year sentence for defrauding banks and investors in Ponzi schemes. Pearlman was a poor businessman but a savvy promoter. ’NSync, led by Justin Timberlake, formerly of The Mickey Mouse Club, was even bigger than the Backstreet Boys. Next, seeking his own Debbie Gibson, Pearlman scouted another ex-Mouseketeer: Britney Spears.
Many of Pearlman’s strategies continue to dominate the construction and marketing of pop acts, particularly in the one pop market more delirious than the United States. Seabrook credits the Backstreet Boys’ 1996 Asian tour with helping to inspire a Korean former folk singer, Soo-Man Lee, to create K-pop, a phenomenon that gives new meaning to the term song machine. Lee codified Pearlman’s tactics in a step-by-step manual that guides the creation of Asian pop groups, dictating “when to import foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in particular countries; the precise color of eye shadow a performer should wear in different Asian regions, as well as the hand gestures he or she should make.”
In K-pop there is no pretension to creative independence. Performers unabashedly embrace the corporate strategy that stars in the United States are at great pains to disguise. Recruits are trained in label-run pop academies for as long as seven years before debuting in a new girl or boy group—though only one in 10 trainees makes it that far. This level of control may seem eccentric to American readers, but Seabrook reveals that the careers of stars like Rihanna and Kelly Clarkson are almost as narrowly choreographed.
By the end of The Song Machine, readers will have command of such terms of art as melodic math, comping, career record, and track-and-hook (a Seabrookian neologism). One term remains evasive, however: artist. In the music industry, the performers are called artists, while the people who write the songs remain largely anonymous outside the pages of trade publications. But can a performer be said to have any artistry if, as in the case of Rihanna, her label convenes week-long “writer camps,” attended by dozens of producers and writers (but not necessarily Rihanna), to manufacture her next hit? Where is the artistry when a producer digitally stitches together a vocal track, syllable by syllable, from dozens of takes? Or modifies a bar and calls it a new song?
Hitmakers today don’t only create hits. They create “artists.” The trouble comes when successful performers believe their press and begin writing their own songs, or when songwriters try to become stars themselves. Taylor Dayne—who, against Clive Davis’s advice, demanded to write her own songs, and bombed—is a cautionary example of the former. Ester Dean, who has had mixed success as a solo act, is an example of the latter. “To be an artist, that’s another story,” says Mikkel Eriksen of Stargate. “You can be a great singer, but when you hear the record it’s missing something.” Esther Dean, a prolific writer of melodies and lyrics, is an artist, but Ester Dean is not making it as an “artist.”
What is that ineffable something that separates pop stars from the rest of us? What is the source of Rihanna’s magical powers? Eriksen, trying to pin it down, describes it as “a sparkle around the edges of the words.” A K-pop star proposes another theory: “Maybe it is because of our great good looks?” Seabrook lands on a more subtle quality: an “urgent need to escape”—escapism as a matter of life or death. Rihanna was desperate to escape an abusive father; for Katy Perry it was her family’s repressive evangelical faith; for the Backstreet Boys it was Orlando. The perfect pop star creates a desire loop between audience and performer. We abandon reality together, meeting in a synthetic pop fantasy of California Gurls and Teenage Dreams. Only they are not really our teenage dreams. They are Karl Martin Sandberg’s.