“The Song Machine (The hitmakers behind Rihanna)”, John Seabrook, The New Yorker, 3/26/2012.
At one time, we tuned in each week to Your Hit Parade to hear what the top ten pop songs were, although we had a pretty good idea from listening to WIBG or Grady and Hurst on WPEN after school.
But times sure have changed. Mainstream pop has long since splintered into adult contemporary, easy listening, and urban, among others. Rock split off on its own and subdivided into classic, modern, and alternative. The pop’s Top Forty, developed in the early 1950s, thrived in the 1960s, then faded in the 1970s with the rise of album-orientated rock. It never totally disappeared and has come back stronger than ever in the past decade. It is what today’s teenagers dance to at their parties and download onto their iPods. Pop really is again popular.
Today’s Top Forty songs are almost entirely of computer-generated sounds, a kaleidoscope of overlaps and cut-ins of beats, loops and synths. The familiar beats of guitars and piano chords are gone (sorry, Ed). And the queen of this new urban pop, where personality is more important than quality, is the young Barbados-born Rihanna, who delivers songs with that all-important attitude and swagger, or “swag” as they say in the industry.
Your can hear her on YouTube. One typical example is her song, “Rude Boy” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQtf-rVy0Q4, a posting that also displays the lyrics, which otherwise may be hard to understand. But be warned—the lyrics would make a burlesque comedian blush, although I find their naivety more funny than shocking. They are only about sex and get right to it. Yet this is mainstream. Her songs on YouTube have hits in the hundreds of millions. (A portion are from me. The driving, repetitive beats are addicting to the musically unsophisticated.)
The New Yorker article by John Seabrook is about how these songs are written, also wildly different than what we once knew.
Pop songs today are mainly generated by a relatively few, small production companies. The companies compose the chord progressions, program the beats, and arrange the synthesized instrumental sounds on what are called “tracks.” They then bring in one of a fairly elite group of “top-liners” who fills in the melody, lyrics, and the hooks—those short catchy phrases that grab your attention (and work so well on me). Finally, the demo, a working draft sung by the top-liner, is shopped out to record companies, recording artists, and their agents. Often, the producers will send the track alone to an artist who will compose their own top-line (the combination of lyrics and melody that was previously written first, but now last).
The Internet allows the whole process to be split into parts. The top-liners most often work at home from tracks sent by email. Rihanna records her part wherever she happens to be—often on her travel bus or in her hotel room. Even rock bands are often scattered and record their individual parts separately. All now use Auto-Tune processors between the microphones and speakers that automatically and in real time adjust a singer’s every note to be spot-on pitch.
Did we ever listen to Montovani and his strings? Did street kids with no instruments ever gather on a corner and work out a hit rhythm-and-blues doo-wop song? Hard to believe.
Rude Roger Roger