Monthly Archives: February 2017

Appreciating Carly Rae Jepsen For Dummies Maybe

Hello! And welcome to “The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Appreciating Carly Rae Jepsen For Dummies Maybe.” It’s really great that you’ve chosen to click on this link, for whatever reason. Thank you. As a D-list celebrity Carly Rae Jepsen appreciator, I get a lot of questions via email and Twitter about my second-favorite Canadian pop star. Maybe you’ve got a little crush: “Trent, do you know if Carly Rae is single?” Perhaps you’re a “Call Me Maybe” structuralist: “What is the deal with this song?” Or maybe you’re just challenging the authenticity of my “like:” “Do you really like Carly Rae Jepsen?”

No matter what site you were browsing before you clicked on this link, welcome! If you’re a tl;dr kinda asshole, I’ll give you this (for everyone else: spoiler alert!): I really do like Carly Rae Jepsen, really, which, if you’re still reading this, begs the crucial question of the Guide: “How do you really like Carly Rae Jepsen, really?”

This Guide grew out of my simple and very personal passion for the holistic beauty of Carly Rae Jepsen and her hit song. Although I have been passionate about songs before and will certainly be passionate about songs in the future, I won’t write appreciation guides about them. There is something special about “Call Me Maybe,” it’s safe to say. Aside from being very popular, it is a litmus test for the presence of humanity, optimism, and warmth in the listener. It’s also the first and only music that can appropriately follow “Bizarre Love Triangle” on a wedding dancefloor while maintaining the high integrity of both songs.

Where is this Guide guiding you? With your open mind, it will take you down the path towards becoming more in tune with all around you, maybe. Where you go from there is a simple matter of time — the more of it you spend with the song, the more you will draw those around you towards enlightenment maybe like a moth to a flame.

Before the program begins, let’s answer the most primal of questions in this universe: “What is ‘Call Me Maybe?’” Watch it now, whether you’ve seen it or not, and no cheating! Watch all the way to the end. You trust me, right? 😉

Whether you know Carly Rae or not, you have probably already heard this song. If you haven’t already heard it, “Call Me Maybe” at least reminds you of something you’ve heard before — it oozes the universal familiarity inherent in all good pop songs. (If you haven’t heard it, by the way, you should get out more. At least change the channel from C-SPAN every couple of months maybe.)

The hitmakers behind Rihanna

On a mild Monday afternoon in mid-January, Ester Dean, a songwriter and vocalist, arrived at Roc the Mic Studios, on West Twenty-seventh Street in Manhattan, for the first of five days of songwriting sessions. Her engineer, Aubry Delaine, whom she calls Big Juice, accompanied her. Dean picked up an iced coffee at a Starbucks on Seventh Avenue, took the elevator up to Roc the Mic, and passed through a lounge that had a pool table covered in taupe-colored felt. Two sets of soundproofed doors led to the control room, a windowless cockpit that might have been the flight deck of a spaceship.

Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen, the team of Norwegian writer-producers professionally known as Stargate, were waiting there for Dean. Both are tall and skinny ectomorphs with pale shaved heads who would not look out of place in a “Matrix” movie. Dean, who is black, is neither skinny nor tall; she reached up to give them big hugs, which is how she greets almost everyone. They chatted for a while. Dean has a comical, Betty Boop-ish speaking voice, which will be featured in the upcoming animated film “Ice Age: Continental Drift.” (Sid, the giant ground sloth voiced by John Leguizamo, is finally getting a girlfriend, Dean’s Sloth Siren.) After ten minutes or so, she pronounced herself “ready to work.”

Most of the songs played on Top Forty radio are collaborations between producers like Stargate and “top line” writers like Ester Dean. The producers compose the chord progressions, program the beats, and arrange the “synths,” or computer-made instrumental sounds; the top-liners come up with primary melodies, lyrics, and the all-important hooks, the ear-friendly musical phrases that lock you into the song. “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore,” Jay Brown, the president of Roc Nation, and Dean’s manager, told me recently. “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.” The reason, he explained, is that “people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.”

The top-liner is usually a singer, too, and often provides the vocal for the demo, a working draft of the song. If the song is for a particular artist, the top-liner may sing the demo in that artist’s style. Sometimes producers send out tracks to more than one top-line writer, which can cause problems. In 2009, both Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson had hits (Beyoncé’s “Halo,” which charted in April, and Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” which charted in August) that were created from the same track, by Ryan Tedder. Clarkson wrote her own top line, while Beyoncé shared a credit with Evan Bogart. Tedder had neglected to tell the artists that he was double-dipping, and when Clarkson heard “Halo” and realized what had happened she tried to stop “Already Gone” from being released as a single, because she feared the public would think she had copied Beyoncé’s hit. But nobody cared, or perhaps even noticed; “Already Gone” became just as big a hit.

A relatively small number of producers and top-liners create a disproportionately large share of contemporary hits, which may explain why so many of them sound similar. The producers are almost always male: Max Martin, Dr. Luke, David Guetta, Tricky Stewart, the Matrix, Timbaland, the Neptunes, Stargate. The top-liners are often, although not always, women: Makeba Riddick, Bonnie McKee, and Skylar Grey are among Dean’s peers. The producer runs the session and serves as creative director of the song, but the top-liner supplies the crucial spark that will determine whether the song is a smash. (When I asked Tricky Stewart to define “smash,” he said, “A hit is just a hit; a smash is a life changer.”) As Eric Beall, an A. & R. executive with Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., a music publisher, puts it, “The top-line writer is the one who has to face a blank page.” Stargate works with about twenty top-liners a year, and creates some eighty demos. These are sent out to A. & R. departments at record labels, to artists’ managers, and, finally, to the artists, for approval. Around twenty-five of Stargate’s songs end up on records each year.

search data to predict which new songs will be hits

In 2000, a Stanford Ph.D. named Avery Wang co-founded, with a couple of business-school graduates, a tech start-up called Shazam. Their idea was to develop a service that could identify any song within a few seconds, using only a cellphone, even in a crowded bar or coffee shop.

At first, Wang, who had studied audio analysis and was responsible for building the software, feared it might be an impossible task. No technology existed that could distinguish music from background noise, and cataloging songs note for note would require authorization from the labels. But then he made a breakthrough: rather than trying to capture whole songs, he built an algorithm that would create a unique acoustic fingerprint for each track. The trick, he discovered, was to turn a song into a piece of data.

Shazam became available in 2002. (In the days before smartphones, users would dial a number, play the song through their phones, and then wait for Shazam to send a text with the title and artist.) Since then, it has been downloaded more than 500 million times and used to identify some 30 million songs, making it one of the most popular apps in the world. It has also helped set off a revolution in the recording industry. While most users think of Shazam as a handy tool for identifying unfamiliar songs, it offers music executives something far more valuable: an early-detection system for hits.

By studying 20 million searches every day, Shazam can identify which songs are catching on, and where, before just about anybody else. “Sometimes we can see when a song is going to break out months before most people have even heard of it,” Jason Titus, Shazam’s former chief technologist, told me. (Titus is now a senior director at Google.) Last year, Shazam released an interactive map overlaid with its search data, allowing users to zoom in on cities around the world and look up the most Shazam’d songs in São Paulo, Mumbai, or New York. The map amounts to a real-time seismograph of the world’s most popular new music, helping scouts discover unsigned artists just as they’re starting to set off tremors. (The company has a team of people who update its vast music library with the newest recorded music—including self-produced songs—from all over the world, and artists can submit their work to Shazam.)

How Auto Tune conquered pop music

Sebert, whose label did not respond to a request for an interview, has built a persona as a badass wastoid, who told Rolling Stone that all male visitors to her tour bus had to submit to being photographed with their pants down. Even the bus drivers.

Yet this past November on the Today Show, the 25-year old Sebert looked vulnerable, standing awkwardly in her skimpy purple, gold, and green unitard. She was there to promote her new album, Warrior, which was supposed to reveal the authentic her.

“Was it really important to let your voice to be heard?” asked the host, Savannah Guthrie.

“Absolutely,” Sebert said, gripping the mic nervously in her fingerless black gloves.

“People think they’ve heard the Auto-Tune, they’ve heard the dance hits, but you really have a great voice, too,” said Guthrie, helpfully.

“No, I got, like, bummed out when I heard that,” said Sebert, sadly. “Because I really can sing. It’s one of the few things I can do.”

Warrior starts with a shredding electrical static noise, then comes her voice, sounding like what the Guardian called “a robo squawk devoid of all emotion.”

“That’s pitch correction software for sure,” wrote Drew Waters, Head of Studio Operations at Capitol Records, in an email. “She may be able to sing, but she or the producer chose to put her voice through Auto-Tune or a similar plug-in as an aesthetic choice.”

So much for showing the world the authentic Ke$ha.

Since rising to fame as the weird techno-warble effect in the chorus of Cher’s 1998 song, “Believe,” Auto-Tune has become bitchy shorthand for saying somebody can’t sing. But the diss isn’t fair, because everybody’s using it.

For every T-Pain — the R&B artist who uses Auto-Tune as an over-the-top aesthetic choice — there are 100 artists who are Auto-Tuned in subtler ways. Fix a little backing harmony here, bump a flat note up to diva-worthy heights there: smooth everything over so that it’s perfect. You can even use Auto-Tune live, so an artist can sing totally out of tune in concert and be corrected before their flaws ever reach the ears of an audience. (On season 7 of the UK X-Factor, it was used so excessively on contestants’ auditions that viewers got wise, and protested.)

Indeed, finding out that all the singers we listen to have been Auto-Tuned does feel like someone’s messing with us. As humans, we crave connection, not perfection. But we’re not the ones pulling the levers. What happens when an entire industry decides it’s safer to bet on the robot? Will we start to hate the sound of our own voices?