NY Magazine has an illuminating profile of Dr. Luke, the current songwriter with the golden touch, who has built such hits as “TiK ToK,” “Right Round,” “Since U Been Gone,” and “California Gurls” (all of which hit No. 1). Although it does include some fun anecdotes (“Once, while producing with Avril Lavigne, he asked her to pepper-spray him, just for fun.”), the most intriguing bit to me was the way in which his production process works. For a songwriter, he does not follow at all the sit-down-and-write-a-song mentality at all. The process is much more fluid:
Dr. Luke wrote “Dynamite”—sort of. It’s not entirely correct to say he writes his songs, at least not in the romanticized sense of a lonely dude scratching notes while strumming away on an acoustic guitar. Rather, he assembles songs. He curates them. He hears a song before it exists, then he figures out who can best help him bring that song into existence.
In this case, he created a basic beat track with his fellow producer Benny Blanco. (Dr. Luke has a slate of producers signed to his company, Prescription Songs.) The track was originally intended to go to the rapper Flo Rida, but it wasn’t a good fit as a rap song, so Luke sent it to Sweden, to Max Martin, who wrote half of a hook for the chorus. Luke wrote the other half, then sent that track to Bonnie McKee, a lyricist. Then Luke started looking for the right vocalist to attach.
He plays me a few different early versions of “Dynamite.” In one, a singer laid vocals over the beat around the theme of “double it up,” but it fell flat. Another vocalist tried the song in a reggae-dancehall style, which Luke hated. A producer wrote a melody over the original track, but it was weak; listening to it, Luke grimaces. “I would call this a failed-hook attempt.” He seems almost offended by weak beats. He can’t exactly explain why one groove “moves” while another falters. He just knows by listening. “Certain people are amazing songwriters. I don’t really know that’s my skill,” he says. “It might be more knowing what song is right for which artist and what to do—like, don’t do it like that, do it like this. Making the right judgment calls.”
This is practically song-writing by committee, or song-writing as a project in a major corporation. You have your project manager, and you have your various suppliers, support staff and whatnot. The “songwriter” is Dr. Luke — the man in the chair, spinning and relistening and judging. The “lyricist” on the other hand, Bonnie McKee, is just another cog in the process, rather than an essential piece.
What the story immediately brought to mind, though, was not the contrast with singer-songwriter types, but the similarity to the Motown process of songwriting with Holland-Dozier-Holland, as well as the army of arrangers, musicians and lyricists who punched up each other’s songs like a comedy script.
“How Sweet It Is” results from a communal effort, where the true skill comes from matching the talent (Marvin Gaye) with the right arrangement (Holland-Dozier-Holland) with the right sound (the Funk Brothers). This is not to diminish the work of Gaye or Holland-Dozier-Holland, or any one piece of the process. Each piece is essential, and getting them all right is a rare occurrence. It’s worth mentioning that after 1967, when H-D-H famously fell out with Berry Gordy over royalty disputes, they would never make songs quite as good as those they made at Motown. Even the maestro, without the right tools and talent, can’t make the machine work quite right.
We’ve moved into an age of Dr. Lukes, with songwriting teams curating songs in the same way (Max Martin, The-Dream, Espionage). And as much as I appreciate the craftsmanship of building such diabolical earworms as “Baby” and “Your Love Is My Drug,” I do wonder what this means for the idea of personal expression in art. Is corporate art less artistic because it’s corporate? Is a pop song less of an artistic achievement than a 12-minute noise rock assault, simply because of their intentions (one is “fun,” the other is deliberately “artistic”)?
Although their message and polished veneer seem unsophisticated, pop songs and their production are among the most complicated machines of our time. Woody Guthrie famously wrote on his guitar: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” I don’t know what the Pop Music Machine does, but it does it very well.