I recently read The Song Machine, John Seabrook’s startling book about the state of pop music in the digital era. Among other topics covered in the book, Seabrook spends quite a bit of time talking about the process of making hit songs for chart-topping pop acts like Katy Perry and Britney Spears.
I’ll spare you the long version, but in essence, Seabrook describes the songwriting process now as an assembly-line system, where “beats” – intricate combinations of drum sounds – are created on computers, then emailed in batches to “hit factories” in California or New York, where another group of people – not the recording artists yet – are brought in to take the beats and add “lyrics.” These words are usually created to fit within the existing framework of the beats, with primary emphasis placed on rhyme and rhythm, not actual meaning.
In short, Seabrook explains, songs aren’t really written any more; they’re assembled from parts created around the world by people who might not even know each other.
Does that sort of process make you feel a little sad? Me, too.
Not just because it means letting go of the romantic notion of an artist toiling away to create songs that are deeply personal, yet still universally meaningful, but because it also means letting go of other things, like the connection between the artist and her art – the spark of inspiration Dorothy Sayers called “Idea,” which is that breathtaking moment at the beginning of a creative endeavor, when it seems the horizon opens up and anything is possible.
I guess I still believe that making things matters.