In this week’s New Yorker, John Seabrook embeds himself in the world of pop-music mercenaries, specifically the Norwegian production duo Stargate (“Irreplaceable,” “Black and Yellow”) and the singer-songwriter Ester Dean (a whole bunch of Rihanna singles). Technically, what he uncovers is not anything we didn’t already know. Namely: a large chunk of chart toppers are churned out by the same small cabal of behind-the-scenes hit makers; these chart toppers are ground out in long, blunt sessions, and then doled out to the highest bidder; and the obsession with smash hits is so great that nothing less than the catchiest damn song of all time is acceptable. As Roc Nation president Jay Brown explains, “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore. You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.” What makes Seabrook’s article so great, then, is that he actually shows us the meat-and-potatoes of the songs’ production, and it's fascinatingly mundane. At one point, the Stargate guys throws on one of the many prerecorded beats they’ve come into the studio with, and Dean heads into the vocal booth to start mumbling gibberish:
The first sounds Dean uttered were subverbal — na-na-na and ba-ba-ba — and recalled her hooks for Rihanna. Then came disjointed words, culled from her phone — “taking control never die tonight I can’t live a lie” — in her low-down, growly singing voice, so different from her coquettish speaking voice. Had she been “writing” in a conventional sense — trying to come up with clever, meaningful lyrics — the words wouldn’t have fit the beat as snugly. Grabbing random words out of her BlackBerry also seemed to set Dean’s melodic gift free; a well-turned phrase would have restrained it. There was no verse or chorus in the singing, just different melodic and rhythmic parts After several minutes of nonsense singing, the song began to coalesce.
Fast forward through some growing pains, some iced coffee, and more mumbling, and it’s time to bring in the shekels.
When it was over, everyone cheered.
Then [manager] Danny D. said, “Let me just interject one word. You know who’s looking? Pink.”
“I’m keeping that one for myself,” Ester said, firmly.
“I know. I’m just saying. Pink’s looking for an urban song with a contemporary beat.”
“Kelly Clarkson’s supposedly looking. And Christina!”
All of which is a long-winded way of pointing your attention to this new Katy Perry video for her new single, “Part of Me,” which is batting leadoff on her Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection re-release, out next week. Ever since Perry performed it at the Grammys, the breakup jam, understandably, has been perceived as a Russell Brand-targeted kiss-off. For the video, Perry acts out her split in not so literal terms: Here, she dumps a regular Joe with a wandering eye, not an androgynous comedian, and she follows it up by — yep! — joining the Marines, and then twirling, in fatigues, under a giant flag, while singing her heart out. But as long as we’re still thinking about this as “Katy Perry’s Russell Brand song,” it’s at least worthwhile to remember its anger and passion and tearful regret was most likely born out of its songwriter, Bonnie McKee, mumbling nonsense to herself in a vocal booth.