Monday, March 13, 2006

Baby, A Hit One More Time: Max Martin's pop-rock resurgence. Do you think that's a good title for the upcoming IASPM conference? They already think I'm some sort of clown - my previous papers there have included "Saying the Unsayable: The Non-Verbal Vocalisations of Michael Jackson" and "Acting Like Rock Stars: The Hollywood Hobby Band".

But please indulge me as I sketch a brief account of the recent works of writer/producer Max Martin. Despite the industry's mythologies of authenticity, producers have always been the true kings of pop, from Phil Spector to Timbaland. These days producers tend to be celebrities in their own right. Last night I read an interview with Stuart "Jacques Lu Cont" Price in the Herald Sun, for godsakes! (As an aside, I do enjoy the minor stamp I have left on Crikey in the form of my nickname for that paper, "The Hez".) They can't help performing on the tracks they produce (hello Pharrell!) and I would really be interested to know who inaugurated that (mostly hip-hop) practice of 'branding' the tracks through an obvious shout-out to the producer (eg "Just Blaze!" "Darkchild").

But back to Max. You may remember the Swede (born Martin Sandberg in 1971) as the writer of arguably the greatest pop song ever (and I am prepared to argue it), "...Baby One More Time" (1999). He was part of the Backstreet Boys production team - he worked on "Quit Playing Games With My Heart" (aka "Quit Shoving Things Up My Arse"), "As Long As You Love Me", "I Want It That Way" and "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)".

So he came to epitomise the "Swedish sound" of the boy-band explosion in the late 1990s and turn of the, ahem, Millennium. (As an aside, I would love to compare the "Swedish sound" with the contemporaneous "Norwegian sound" (Stargate Music) and "British sound" - think Pete Waterman (Steps) and Steve Mac, who wrote Human Nature's most awesome song, "He Don't Love You".) Martin's other co-written and co-produced songs speak for themselves. Just a few examples: "Show Me Love" for Robyn, "It's Gonna Be Me" for N'Sync, "Slam Dunk Da Funk" for 5ive, and of course, "I'm Not A Girl (Not Yet a Woman)".

But musical vogues change. I wrote an article in March 2003 about the rise of Avril Lavigne and other 'anti-Britney' pop stars who consciously perform 'authenticity'. Here, 'authenticity' mainly involves using more acoustic production sounds, giving artists 'co-writing' credits and styling them to look grungy and insouciant. Perhaps unfairly, Martin soon found himself pigeonholed as a producer of saccharine pop. But over the last year or so, he's had an interesting renaissance as a pop-rock producer; albeit one who favours SMS-influenced song titles. He wrote Kelly Clarkson's hit "Since U Been Gone" and the two Veronicas singles, "4Ever" and "Everything I'm Not". I have become obsessed with the latter song and play it a lot when there's nobody else in the office. In fact, this entire post has been inspired by the fact that I love that song and I don't even like the Veronicas.

Here we face a number of analytic possibilities. There's "producer as marketer", in which we see songs as products targeted to market segments. There's "producer as auteur", in which we see songs as texts revealing personal sentiments and tastes in musical style. There's "producer as affective engine", in which we can assess producers by their ability to generate or influence affects in listeners. These are all relevant to a discussion of pop music.

It is quite common to perform a close textual analysis on a song or music video and read social or political meanings in it. But that makes me uncomfortable because of the problem I've always had with semiosis: everyone reads texts differently and any one reading is only a possible meaning, which makes me think semiosis is more a parlour game than a means of making sense of culture. So, while you could make a case for the auteur approach when you're dealing with, say, the Neptunes, whose output is technically and stylistically consistent, it still doesn't explain why the formula is commercially successful and so compelling and enjoyable for the listener. Also, I think it's kinda silly to ascribe any deep significance to songs with titles like "4Ever", which are clearly ephemeral texts driven by the marketing requirements of the record industry.

So I guess that any extended analysis of Max Martin would consider his proven mastery of the pop song's formal requirements as a function of his success as a marketer. But I would be most interested in the affective state that this marketing is intending to instil in audiences. There I run into a different problem - how to consider affect without considering audience reception. This has been my conceptual stumbling block for some time, because I dislike audience research in the same instinctive way I dislike close semiotic analysis. I see them as ends on a continuum. Audience research relies on the assumption that people report what they really think and feel, and the epistemological problem of the researcher analysing a secondhand account of affect. However, to base an analysis on one's own affective response to the music has the same shortcomings as a semiotic analysis.

Anyone who has witnessed my struggle with the phenomenon of hipsterism would know that I have invented a neologistic conceptual framework called "corporealinguistics" to try to thrash these problems out. Corporealinguistics considers interactions in physical space as texts in the same way that linguistics considers conversations. But it can only account for actual 'songs-as-texts' if the song is 'read' in a physical context - in one's bedroom or car, or in a club or concert environment. So I am not sure how I would proceed. Any ideas?

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