Inside the song machine: the secrets behind pop music's biggest hits

John Seabrook’s latest book looks at the songwriters who work behind the scenes

If Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Katy Perry or Beyonce walked into the room you’re in right now and said hello, you’d know who they were. Of course, you’d be surprised and wonder just what these glitzy pop stars are doing in your kitchen, office or cafe, but you’d recognise them.

They're international superstars, singers who've become standalone brands because of the way songs like Shake It Off, Umbrella, Roar and Irreplaceable have resonated with audiences worldwide and become the soundtrack to their average day. The stars sing the songs, front the show and get all the acclaim.

Take away those singers, though, and bring in a pair of Swedes named Karl Schuster and Martin Sandberg, or a brace of Norwegian dudes called Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen, or even a bunch of Americans like Christopher Stewart, Terius Nash, Kuk Harrell, Ester Dean and Lukasz Gottwald.

What would your reaction be now? Would you recognise them? Would you call the guards to say there are strangers standing in your kitchen or office?


But Swift, Ri-Ri and Perry would not be where they are today without the work of those Swedes, Norwegians and Yanks.

They’re the hard-working superstar producers and songwriters who’ve had a significant hand, act and part to play in every single hit record which makes it onto your radio or radar.

When Shellback (AKA Schuster), Max Martin (Sandberg), Stargate (Hermansen and Eriksen) Dr Luke (Gottwald) and the others clock in to go to work, their job is to write and produce hits and they do this again and again and again.

Songs which stick

These backroom figures are the heroes of The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, John Seabrook's fascinating book about the people behind the hits and what's required to turn a bunch of ideas, melodies and hooks into a song which sticks.

The New Yorker journalist's travels take him to Sweden, South Korea (where the local pop factories churn out K Pop stars) and various US studios in search of the secret sauce.

So, is there a secret sauce? When it comes to the producers and songwriters who work best, Seabrook notes record labels and pop acts gravitate towards people with certain qualities.

“You want to go with someone who has a great track record and you don’t want to f*ck around with people who are trying to figure out how to write hits and want to do that on your dime.

“You probably don’t want heartfelt singer-songwriters either. You want people who can get in, do it fast and get out.”

It was his son’s fondness for modern pop tunes on the radio during car journeys to school which first piqued Seabrook’s interest.


“While listening to what my son was listening to, my views on modern pop music went from disdain and dislike to adjusting to it and starting to find things to really like,” he explains. “When I went reporting it, I found that while it is a factory system, there is a lot of exciting creativity and interesting people involved. I came around, I suppose I’m a bit of a pop-timist.”

Pop factories are nothing new. In the 1950s, you’d the Brill Building, where songwriters and producers turned out oodles of songs to be recorded and plugged within the one New York space.

A few years later, Berry Gordy’s Motown hit factory turned Detroit into the home of the hits. British producers Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman’s collaborations led to more than 40 million record sales during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The difference now, says Seabrook, is the artist has the upper hand. “Even if they’re not the creative songwriting force, the artist has this extraordinary power of branding. It allows them to use social media to constantly sell themselves. It’s a lot different from the Phil Spector and Berry Gordy days when you’d the producer bossing the act around and telling them what to do.”

The factory operators have also mastered the trick of hanging around longer.

“Most of the hit factories used to only last six or seven years and then they’d collapse for various reasons,” notes Seabrook. “The Swedish thing that the book is based on, and Max Martin in particular, has been going on for much longer.

"Max Martin has had an 18-year run of number ones from Hit Me Baby One More Time to I Can't Feel My Face and that's unprecedented. He has an incredible knack for coming up with not just a hook, but a melodic phrase that the song is built around.

“He’s also partnered with different people over the years. Unlike Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards who stuck with each other, Martin switched from his mentor Denniz Pop in Stockholm in the 1990s to Dr Luke in the 2000s to Shellback now, who he’s written with for Taylor Swift. He’s re-invented himself with each new partner and has stayed on the edge rather than getting tired and stale sounding.”

Besides longevity, the Swedes have other advantages when it comes to the pop business. Seabrook notes how melodic their national anthem Du gamia, Du fria is and also cites a great music education system and ease with technology.

Mixes and blends

“Their gift for melody means you get these interesting R’n’B/pop mixes and blends within songs that you wouldn’t get with white American or British or Irish songwriters.”

Then, there’s the language. “They speak English but they’re not that good at English so they don’t get all that caught up on witty phrases and double entendres and metaphors.

"They put in the words which fit with the melodies based on the sound and they figure out the meaning later. Like Hit Me Baby One More Time was not intended as an ode to domestic violence, which is what it sounds like if you speak English, but the Swedes were trying to use up-to-the-minute lingo for call me up or something and not getting it quite right."


It’s not just the Swedes who have interesting ways with words. One of the best scenes in the book describes songwriter Ester Dean working in a studio with Stargate on a new track. Dean’s improvisations move from sounds which are like grunts and groans on to words (taken from a list she keeps on her phone) and fully formed lines.

"Her songwriting method is a miniature version of a baby learning how to speak," notes Seabrook. Yet this method has helped to create hits like Rude Boy for Rihanna, Super Bass for Nicki Minaj and Firework for Katy Perry.

Despite the relative longevity of the current system, Seabrook feels the cycle is bound to end.

“There has always been a backlash against the factory system – punk, grunge and early 2000s hip-hop with Eminem were all backlashes. We haven’t had that now for a decade and I wonder when and whether it’s going to come and who’s going to bring it in.

“It might be EDM but contemporary hits radio is the prime driver of what I’m talking about in the book in the US and I can’t see EDM making it there.”