Popular music was changed forever when a Swedish producer’s in-car cassette machine broke, and he found himself unable to listen to anything other than a song called “All That She Wants.”
It was 1992. The producer’s name was Dag Krister Volle. Some people knew him as “Dagge,” but he went about his musical business under the name of Denniz PoP. He apparently had a “childlike wonder” about him, and loathed music that was in any way anodyne or boring. As he saw it, “every note, word and beat had to have a purpose, or be fun.” The song that got stuck in his tape deck was an early version of the eventual breakthrough hit for a quartet called Ace Of Base, who were led by a musician named Ulf Ekberg. At that stage, it was called “Mr Ace,” and its creators obviously knew it lacked a certain something. Having heard what Denniz PoP had achieved with a minor Swedish hit entitled “Another Mother,” they had sent it to him in the hope that he might help.
At first, Denniz PoP was not impressed at all. But as he drove his car each day and listened repeatedly, familiarity began to melt his scepticism and suggest that something could be done. Having met the group, he then took out half the instruments on the recording, and moved the whistled melody that closed the song to its introduction. Denniz PoP also pushed Ekberg to add more lyrics.
What resulted was seemingly gauche, clunky and devoid of much sense. The reggae-ish music sounded synthentic and flimsy; the vocals were so treated with effects that they seemed almost inhuman. Ekberg later claimed that Ace of Base had an advantage in not being native English speakers, because he and his colleagues were able to treat the language “very respectless [sic], and just look for the word that sounded good with the melody.” But even on that basis, the stuff they came up with was pretty awful:
When she woke up late in the morning light And the day had just begun She opened up her eyes and thought Oh what a morning It’s not a day for work It’s a day for catching tan Just laying on the beach and having fun She’s going to get you
The chorus was even worse: it was built around a refrain of “all that she wants, is another baby,” which suggested the condition medical professionals know as secondary infertility, but was actually meant to refer to a quest for a lover. To rock snobs like me, this was the kind of fleeting hit that one occasionally hears on European holidays, safe in the knowledge that such tripe could never be successful back home. What I chose to ignore was the fact that the song lodged itself even in my self-denying brain for keeps after a single hearing.
“All That She Wants” went to number one in 10 countries, including the UK. In the United States, it reached number two on the Billboard charts, and was certified platinum, denoting sales of one million copies. Denniz PoP and some of his Swedish associates were suddenly in demand, and about to push music somewhere new. If the cultural period running from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s was the rock age, we now live in the era of pop, and “All That She Wants” is the song that began it.
In a new book entitled The Song Machine, the New Yorker writer John Seabrook forensically tells the story of “All That She Wants,” and what it set in train: a new kind of industrialised popular music in which every last nuance is carefully considered, instant impact is all and songs are filled with enough sonic punch to monopolise people’s attention.
The story moves from the watershed success of Ace Of Base, through such international boy-band sensations as the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, on through the rise and fall of Britney Spears and on to the modern pop aristocracy: Rihanna, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. The speciality of the songwriters and producers who work with such artists, Seabrook says, is music “made for malls, stadiums, airports, casinos and gyms,” which is metaphorically “vodka-flavoured and laced with MDMA.” If you want a illustrative flavour, listen to Swift’s frantic 2014 masterpiece “Shake It Off”: as exciting a pop record as I have ever heard, and so addictive that having it buzzing around your head produces an anxious, unfulfilled feeling similar to needing a cigarette. The only cure is to listen to it again and again.
Seabrook calls tracks like this “industrial-strength products.” And self-evidently, they are made in an industrial kind of way. On the face of it, this is nothing new. Going back as far as the New York of the late 19th century (the home of the cluster of songwriters and publishers based in Tin Pan Alley), a lot of popular music has always been the product of calculating hackwork. In the 1960s, there was Manhattan’s Brill Building, where songwriters such as Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Gerry Goffin and Carole King worked at pianos squeezed into small cubicles. In Detroit, Tamla Motown’s creative model ensured that harried writers and producers had to have a keen understanding of popular musical appetites. As the American author Nelson George put it in his definitive history of Motown, Where Did Our Love Go?, “if your music was constantly deemed inferior, ridicule and dismissal were the consequences.” Paul McCartney has talked of sitting down with John Lennon with their minds on financial reward rather than self-expression, and trying to “write a swimming pool.” But even compared to these examples, modern pop is created on a much more calculated, almost neurotic basis.
The sophistication of digital recording means that the fine details of a piece of music can be endlessly assembled and reassembled, on a whim. Sounds that may have begun as drums and guitars —or rather, their simulations—can easily take on novel, disorientating textures. This trickery applies even to the human voice, often treated with a modern device called Auto-Tune, which tends to make singers sound like mellifluous androids. The overall sound of a song is also frequently subject to a technique called “dynamic range compression,” which ensures that a close-miked whisper can be as head-turning as a cranked-up keyboard solo, and a track’s component parts combine to produce something impossibly loud. Modern pop, in other words, has cut-through: even in the noisiest environments—shopping centres, family cars, crowded bars—it demands to be listened to.
The fact that pirated music and online streaming has so squeezed music industry profits means that singers are, more often than not, on tour. Their sometimes relatively lowly role in the creation of recorded music fits with a new model in which producers, writers and executives are clearly in charge—and besides, studio-quality vocals can now be recorded at breakneck speed in hotel rooms and on tour buses, in between live performances. If that part of the process often seems to be rushed, the standard at which everyone now aims is that of the “one-listen” record, which can catch the listener’s attention as they whizz through Spotify and YouTube. That may sound like an impossible demand, but thanks to technology, quite apart from the music’s writing and recording, there are sophisticated means of increasing the chances of coming up with an instant hit.
In 2002, two American entrepreneurs, Rick Bisceglia and Guy Zapoleon, began marketing an online market-research system—now called HitPredictor—that would play music to carefully-selected panels of listeners in order to assess its commercial potential. The idea was so popular among record labels that the pair soon sold out to the US media giant Clear Channel. “We pick songs and play a significant amount of the core part of the song, usually about a minute and a half… and then get [people] to vote,” Zapoleon explained. In the past, songwriters usually had to depend on gut instinct alone—or, if they were lucky, the advice of a record company’s Artist and Repertoire (A&R) department—before presenting their work to the public. By contrast, when you hear a 21st-century hit, there is a reasonable likelihood that it has been nipped and tucked in line with detailed consumer feedback.
What decisively separates 21st-century pop from what went before is its geographical and psychological heartland: Scandinavia. Among the most successful modern writing and production teams are Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen. They trade as Stargate and are based in New York today, but they began making music in their hometown of Trondheim, in Norway. Their musical backgrounds are steeped in American hip-hop and R&B, but they owe their success to their fusion of these genres with what Hermansen calls “choral, melodic music.” In Seabrook’s book, Hermansen recalls that “when we first got here, American pop music was linear and minimalistic, with few chord changes, and no big lift in the chorus.” As evidenced by huge Stargate hits by Beyoncé and Rihanna, this has now changed, thanks to a very unlikely culture clash: what Seabrook calls “a perfect hybrid of Nordic and urban.”
As the story of “All That She Wants” attests, modern pop’s birthplace was Sweden: thanks not just to Denniz PoP (who died of stomach cancer in 1998), but also a gaggle of other musical svengalis who worked alongside him at a Stockholm set-up called Cheiron Studios. The most successful is Martin Sandberg, the one-time singer with a Swedish heavy metal band called It’s Alive. He was persuaded by Denniz PoP to reinvent himself as Max Martin, and in that guise he wrote a worldwide 1998 hit that served notice of the crisp, clinical music that would increasingly dominate the global mainstream: Britney Spears’s “… Baby One More Time.” In the UK and US, its pay-off—“Hit me baby one more time!”—triggered a controversy about double-meanings and violence against women. In his Swedish innocence, Martin had thought he was using a harmless synonym for “Call me.”
Martin has written or co-written 54 songs that have featured in the American charts, which places him ahead of Madonna and the Beatles. His early oeuvre includes the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” as well as songs recorded by Celine Dion and Westlife. More recently, he has co-written Katy Perry’s vast hit “I Kissed A Girl,” Jessie J’s “Domino” and the aforementioned Taylor Swift hit “Shake It Off.” He could walk down the main streets of any world city and go completely unrecognised—for what it’s worth, he has lank, centre-parted hair and an uneven, dark-brown beard, and has a fondness for V-necked T-shirts —but he is as central a player in the popular music of our age as Lennon, McCartney, Brian Wilson, David Bowie and Marc Bolan were in theirs.
Though he specialises in what we now know as “pop,” Martin’s talent is partly traceable to his background in rock music and in particular, the influence of Def Leppard. The band emerged from Sheffield in the early 1980s as an orthodox heavy metal group and achieved huge transatlantic success thanks to music whose processed sounds and commercial sharpness owed much more to pop. Much of Martin’s work fuses lessons learned from this stuff with the rhythms and pace of black American R&B, otherwise known as “urban” music. Indeed, as with Stargate’s productions, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that its global reach is down to a crafty mixture of contrasting sensibilities and musical genres: rock and pop, black and white, American and European.
Some of these elements are quintessentially Scandinavian. One is “Schlager music,” a catch-all term for the highly melodic, often sentimental stuff (ideally suited to lachrymose singalongs) that has national variants all over Europe, but which, in the continent’s far north, has long seeped into pop music in general. Its influence was there in the music so successfully made by ABBA, which sometimes suggested a kind of pop in which the influence of the US had purposely been toned down. Later on, when an ingrained love of Schlager-esque music collided with latter-day dance and R&B records, the potential for something hugely commercial was clear.
Though “Shake It Off” runs it a close second, the single that shines most light on Martin’s talent is probably Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”, another worldwide hit, released in November 2004. Clarkson had won the first series of American Idol, the US equivalent of The X Factor, in September 2002, and released a debut album. Her career was being overseen by Clive Davis, the renowned US music executive who played a key role in the careers of Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart, Whitney Houston and others, and who had introduced Ace Of Base to the US and made “All That She Wants” a huge American hit. He was also one of the first enthusiasts for the kind of obsessive market research offered by HitPredictor.
For Clarkson’s second album, he needed a lead-off hit. When Martin played Davis a demo recording of a new song, without vocals, he thought he heard it. The piece had been written by Martin and Lukasz Gottwald (aka “Dr Luke”), a sometime guitarist in the house band on the US TV show Saturday Night Live. Clarkson was instructed to travel to Stockholm and record with the two of them. Apparently she hated every minute. As Seabrook writes, apart from anything else, Martin’s “obsessive ‘comping’ of the vocals—comparing multiple takes of the vocal parts of a song to find the perfectly sung syllable in each take, and pasting all of them back together into a complete vocal take—drove her mad.”
“Since U Been Gone” is a remarkable piece of work. It’s a pop song partly built on rock elements: the incessant, buzzing intro (what Gottwald knowingly calls his “bad guitar” sound) with which the song begins, and a thrashing chorus presaged by a hint of feedback. Its title may or may not have been stolen from “Since You Been Gone,” a 1979 hit for the hard-rock band Rainbow.
In the video, as well as trashing her fictional ex-boyfriend’s apartment, Clarkson delivers the song in front of a moshing crowd of young people, backed by indie-rock musicians straight out of central casting. But what they are miming to is not really a rock song at all. From her android-ish vocals, through the metronomic electric percussion, to the fact that most of the guitars do not really sound like guitars, it represents what the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard called “hyperreality”: simulation so removed from what is being simulated that it rockets off into a space all its own.
Martin and Gottwald had come up with the initial idea for “Since U Been Gone” after listening to “Maps,” a 2003 single by the New York indie-rock trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, something evidenced by a guitar solo they lifted wholesale from it. “Maps” is a beautiful song about heartbreak, split between music and vocals that evoke emotional fragility and desperate upset, and volcanic explosions of noise. But Martin thought it lacked something.
“I said, ‘I love this song!’” Gottwald told Seabrook. “And Max said, ‘If they would only just write a damn pop chorus on it.’” What Martin couldn’t understand, perhaps, is that some songs become a soundtrack to life’s most profound moments precisely because of such absences. However one might choose to evoke the end of a relationship in music, a “damn pop chorus” may not be most suitable vehicle.
“Maps” reached number 87 on the US charts, and number 26 in the UK. “Since U Been Gone”, by contrast, climbed to number two in the US, and was a top five hit in Austria, Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK. Industrially-created music begets industrial-scaled success, which may be why, over 20 years after it started, the new pop age shows no sign of ending.