John Seabrook’s newest book is a synesthetic trip through the pop music of my formative years

In his newest bookThe Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, John Seabrook reports on what amounts to the last 25 years of pop music. Each chapter has Seabrook describing a song’s construction in one or two paragraphs, and each time I finish a passage, I’ll head to the writer’s web site, where he has built corresponding playlists. I’m reading this book now, and it’s slow-going.

Reading about and then listening to specific and memorable songs in this way is a fun exercise, and in the following passage lifted from the book, when Seabrook described the beginning of Britney Spears’s breakout hit with the words “Da Nah Nah,” I felt the earworm embed itself inside me, rendering me powerless, like it was 1999 all over again:

“Hit Me Baby (One More Time” is a song about obsession, and it takes all of two seconds to hook you, not once but twice, first with the swung triplet “Da Nah Nah” and then with that alluring growl-purr Britney emits with her first line, “Oh baby bay-bee.” Then the funky Cheiron backbeat kicks in, with drums that sound like percussion grenades. Next comes Tomas Lindberg’s wah-wah guitar lines, which signal to one’s inner disco hater that it can relax: it’s a rock song, after all. In terms of sheer sonic drama, “Hit Me Baby (One More Time)” belongs to the theatrical rock tradition of Queen, mixed with Mutt Lange’s work with Def Leppard. It marries melody and rhythm in a way that Denniz PoP had been seeking since his DJ days—a catchy pop song that doesn’t stop the dancing.

Here’s the song:

Visit John Seabrook’s web site

MGM Stories On The “You Must Remember This” Podcast

Today I recommend listening to the podcast “You Must Remember This.” It’s on its fifth season right now, and focusing on stories of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. So far Karina Longworth and cast have covered:

  • The genesis of MGM as a merged studio after Marcus Loew (of Loews theatres) took control Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer studios.
  • The relationship between silent star Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, and the inspirations behind Citizen Kane.
  • Buster Keaton’s move to MGM from an independent studio.

A number of these MGM stories discuss the transition from silent films to ones with sound. MGM was one of the last studios to make the transition, and the podcast implies that it was because they waited for all the technical glitches and bugs to get sorted out by other people. 

In another episode it’s posited that many film stars began their descendency during the transition to talkies because for audiences, actors were ciphers, empty vessels into which moviegoers poured their own dreams and ideals. Once heard, a movie star could no longer serve as a projection, and became finite or diminished in a way. Because of these episodes, I’m developing more of an appreciation of the art of silent cinema, and some hindsight-sympathy for those who didn’t quite make it into the sound era.

In 1977, the New York Times writer Guy Flatley wrote a piece on the 50th anniversary of sound in film. Here is Flatley on the way sound changed the visuals of film:

Most important of all, perhaps, was the drastic change in the look of movies. Cameras could no longer move freely, since the cameraman was now cramped into a huge soundproof booth, his camera robbed of almost all action.

And on the actors who didn’t make it:

Actors and actresses who shared the industry’s disdain for sound paid the highest price, especially those cursed with crude dialects or vocal idiosyncrasies that made a mockery of their meticulously manufactured personalities. It was tragically late in the game for these stars to begin the awesome task of learning elocution, the tricky chore of mastering their native tongue.

It’d be neat to find the story of an elocutionist during the advent of talkies, hired by the studios to teach actors an entirely new kind of acting. In the meantime, I can watch The King’s Speech, or Pygmalion. “You Must Remember This” is a very good podcast, well-researched and wrought with care. I recommend it.

Please go subscribe to You Must Remember This

Further listening: Host Karina Longworth on the Longform Podcast in an episode about finding your way out of an inert career and into a viable passion project.