Review: The Song Machine

October 20, 2015 Uncategorized 12 ★★★

Review: The Song MachineTitle: The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory
Author: John Seabrook
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: This was an interesting book, but it needed to be more focused and organized, so it could do one thing well.

“Over the last two decades a new type of song has emerged. Today’s hits bristle with “hooks,” musical burrs designed to snag your ear every seven seconds. Painstakingly crafted to tweak the brain’s delight in melody, rhythm, and repetition, these songs are industrial-strength products made for malls, casinos, the gym, and the Super Bowl halftime show. The tracks are so catchy, and so potent, that you can’t not listen to them. Traveling from New York to Los Angeles, Stockholm to Korea, John Seabrook visits specialized teams composing songs in digital labs with novel techniques, and he traces the growth of these contagious hits from their origins in early ’90s Sweden to their ubiquity on today’s charts.”

Me being me, I was hoping this book would be about the technical details of designing a hit. What do people who make hits look for? Are there cool algorithms that people use to spot or design hits? Although the book briefly mentioned that hit-identifying algorithms exist, disappointingly few details were given. This was definitely more of a history of the music industry. That was interesting to me too, especially hearing about how artists and songs I know got their start. There were some fascinating fun facts and the analysis of individual songs were eye-opening. I could have loved this as a history, had it been done well.

What prevented this from working for me as a history was the lack of focus and organization. The story opens, closes, and has an intermission that focus on the author’s family. Large chunks of the book focus on individual artists; the history of specific companies; or the advent of music streaming. These sections didn’t connect well and the focus was far too broad for one book to offer a comprehensive history. I couldn’t figure out why the author chose to include the hits he did and not others. No generalized conclusions could be drawn. I often started a chapter and couldn’t figure out how it connected to the previous one. I hate when an a nonfiction author makes me feel lost!

It would have helped if the author had given us more of a map at the beginning of the book. I also think this was a nonfiction book that would have worked better if the author put more of himself into it. It seems as though he had some very cool experiences while researching this book, from going to Korea to learn about K-pop to meeting producers behind major hits. Had he organized the book as a timeline of his experiences, I think that might have given it the cohesive feel it was lacking. After finishing the rest of my review, I was going to post this on goodreads and saw another reviewer mention that this book is built around pieces the author already wrote for The New Yorker. Now that explains a lot! Had it been billed as a collection of short vignettes, I think it would have been better able to meet my expectations.

Have you ever read a book that an author put together from other pieces they’ve written? Did it work for you?

12 Responses to “Review: The Song Machine”

  1. Geoff W

    This is how I feel about quite a few of the nonfiction books I’ve read recently,

    This was an interesting book, but it needed to be more focused and organized, so it could do one thing well.

    especially the “creative” nonfiction.

    • DoingDewey

      I’ve had this experience a lot too! It’s made me think about how important picking the right topic and focus is for a good nonfiction book. I feel as though that was a big part of the problem with Schiff’s The Witches too. There just isn’t enough known about The Salem Witch trials to make a good story.

  2. Krysta @ Pages Unbound

    From reading the summary, I thought, like you, that the book would talk about the process of making a hit song. Now that I know that isn’t the case, I’m not really interested in reading it. But it seems like it could have been so good!

    • DoingDewey

      I think if the author had either sold this is a collection of essays about singers and the music industry or done a better job making it a cohesive story, I could really have liked it. The author did have a lot of essays about the people who come up with hits, but nothing about what makes a hit song and it just didn’t come together for me.

  3. Lindsey

    Hmm…that makes sense. I feel like compilations of earlier work sometimes work really well and other times, not so much.

    What an interesting premise, though!

    • DoingDewey

      I agree! I think I’ve more often seen the compilation thing fail, especially if it’s not presented as a series of disparate essays, but I’ve also seen it done well 🙂

    • DoingDewey

      Yep, that’s the era he covered, with more coverage of recent things and less further back, but Motown stuff was definitely referenced some. The collection of songs he specifically analyzed and artists he discusses extensively was pretty eclectic. The author put together some playlists that will give you a good overview, although this does include even songs that he just mentioned briefly

  4. Charlene @ Bookish Whimsy

    Hmm, I was thinking this would be a sort of scientific approach to what makes a song a hit, so it’s disappointing that it’s more of a history. The presentation of it, sounds iffy as well – it’s too bad. I don’t think I’ve read a book like this – with short vignettes pulled from other places, but I can see where it would be difficult to create a cohesive book out of that!

    • DoingDewey

      I was disappointed about that myself! I was hoping for some analysis of commonalities between different hits, the technical details of how people go about creating a hits, any algorithms used to try to predict hits, etc. Instead it was completely non-technical. And I do think I could have liked it on those terms, but you’re right – the presentation was iffy! If I’d paid for this, I’d be really annoyed that the author just pulled together things he’d already written and didn’t do a better job polishing it into something cohesive.

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