Reading - December 2018

The Guitar Magazine (January 2019 / Vol 30 No 4)
"Gear of the Year" edition; a bit disappointing since I've already read all those reviews during the year, and in any case I'm not in the market for anything new.
The Story Of Music by Howard Goodall (2013)
That this covers primarily Western instrumental ("classical") music doesn't stop this from being a concise yet comprehensive journey from its origins to the present day. He justifies the focus on Western music because it's the most complex and now the foremost musical form in the world - which rings true to me. Originally written to accompany the TV series of the same name (which I think I watched), this doesn't feel like a spin-off, but works well as standalone book, and is interesting and informative without being overly academic. Goodall has little time for labels (other than to point out how misleading many are) and the book is better for it. The main disadvantage of the book form is the lack of actual music, but the extensive Spotify playlists make that an advantage because you can explore at your own leisure. I've been listening to everything from plainchant to bebop this last week, and thoroughly enjoying it.
How Music Works by John Powell (2010)
This makes a nice companion to Howard Goodall's more cultural analysis, by focussing on the physics of, well, how music works: why certain notes go together while others don't, why scales are arranged the way they are and so on. It's written in a jocular way, which helps liven up what could be a somewhat dry subject, and although it's probably a bit longer than it needs to be, I definitely learned something.
The Song Machine: How To Make A Hit by John Seabrook (2016)
Breaking news: some people write songs in order to make money!


The Song Machine: How To Make A Hit

John Seabrook

Breaking news: some people write songs in order to make money!

On an internet forum I belong to, there was a discussion a few months ago about Ed Sheeran and the merits - or otherwise - of his songwriting. Views were split pretty evenly between those who liked the songs and admired his craft, and those who felt that there was something cynical and calculating about his approach. This latter group often acknowledged the quality of the songs while simultaneously claiming they they were devalued by Sheeran's openness about how he tries to write songs for specific occasions or groups - almost like it was a job.

In this overly romantic vision of songwriting, real songs, real art, comes from genuine feeling and life experience, written by one or maybe two people at most. The song comes to you, not the other way round. It's an oddly naïve viewpoint, which is ignorant of the simplest of facts of songwriting: it's hard work. Even something as personal, touching and sublime as Joni Mitchell's "Little Green" didn't just appear on a page; it probably took days or weeks of effort and, crucially, built on her years of previous work. It has graft, craft and technique, all used to make the song better, more listenable. And why not? Why wouldn't you want the song to be better?

Nevertheless, the theory of divine inspiration persists amongst many people. And of course, to them, the antithesis of real songs is "manufactured" songs, made by a "machine". It's a point of view that pervades this otherwise excellent book, from the title itself, through the ridiculously hyped-up jacket quotes ("unbelievable", "frightening", "unsettling"), to the heavy implication of manipulation and exploitation, both of artists and audience.

Unstated but accepted is the idea that this is not real music, not good music: it is successful because somehow it cheats, by being too addictive, too knowing, and too formulaic. And the people who make it! They'll try anything - like using many different combinations of people, or bringing in specialists in melodies ("topliners"), beats or lyrics. Don't they know that a song that has five people involved as writers isn't as good as one written by a single person?

Of course, any reasonable examination of the facts breaks down this somewhat silly idea very easily. Leaving aside the hit "machines" of yesteryear - Motown, say - from which many superb tracks emerged, the idea that pop music is worse because when you peer behind the curtain it turns out that there's lots of people working hard on making it as good as they possibly can, is clearly ludicrous. While there's money to made - and there still is, lots of it - there will be professional songwriters, and they don't operate by sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. They go out and find it. For every Cole Porter classic, there's a dozen average songs that no-one plays any more. But those classics are no less wonderful as a result.

Ultimately, the value of any art lies with those who consume it. All the women and girls for whom Katy Perry's "Roar" became an anthem are not wrong because it was the product of a collaborative, "factory-line" like system, that identified a need, a gap in the market. It doesn't matter: it means something to that audience; that's really all that matters.

Anyway, back to the book. Its slightly odd prejudices aside, this is still a fascinating insight into a particular segment of the pop music world - although, contrary to what it says, it is just a part of that world, so to say the producers are taking over is a little over the top. I knew the basics of a lot of this, but maybe it's a revelation to those who didn't (and hence the quotes on the jacket), and it's all described very well. Even better, the author has compiled Spotify playlists for each chapter - there's also a chapter about Spotify itself, which is a bit of an aside to the main subject, but worthwhile.