Elle Magazine’s ‘Women in Music’ & The New Yorker’s ‘Song Machine’

I have to give a little applause for Elle Magazine pulling together a music issue every year, though it is pretty mainstream. That being said, there are always a few speed bumps in reading the issue that send me pulling over from what I was reading and thinking, ‘what?!’.

I also have to give a hand to John Seabrook on the great article The New Yorker published in its March 26 issue. There were no surprises in there for me, but it served as reinforcement as to what drives some nuts about pop music. I encourage you to read it.

Put these two articles in a blender and there were more reading speed bumps than ever!

Photo taken by Carter Smith for Elle’s Women in Music 2009

In 2009, Elle Magazine featured Gwen Stefani on the cover of their Women in Music issue. In 2010 it was Rihanna. In 2011 it was Gwen Stefani. This year it is…take a wild guess. Following any basic, pattern based word problem from my elementary math classes, I would say Rihanna. Oh, look. It’s Rihanna.

Granted, these two women are very involved in the music industry and have great voices. However, Stefani’s last single was in 2008 (‘Early Winter’) and, as much as I do enjoy her…are there really no other women in music that can be featured? Perhaps a woman who has had a musical breakthrough relevant to this year. Again, I am not saying that Stefani is not relevant. I believe her to have been a major influence on my generation and for female vocalists. I just find it unfortunate that Elle keeps regurgitating the same cover girls, despite the many talented female musicians out there. I understand that Gwen Stefani and Rihanna are both gorgeous and interesting, and putting them on the cover is a sure way to sell magazines, but if we are celebrating women in music, come on!

Photo by Tom Munro for Elle’s Women in Music 2010

Aside from the fact that I feel featuring the same individuals is redundant when the array of musicians is so vast, this is scraping the surface of women in music.

That being said, it’s a HUGE topic to squash into one magazine issue, so I understand that. I’m not trying to undermine Elle Magazine’s efforts in bringing these artists to our attention.

I did say it was scraping the surface, and I guess that means I have to back that fact up! (You’re a fine fact checker when you back that fact up!)

More than once, Elle has featured instruments in these music themed issues. Instruments like…designer guitars. May I ask who, as a musician, cares if a Chanel logo is on their guitar? Does it improve the acoustic quality of the guitar? I don’t think so. My sister wrote Elle a letter about this, and I’m not sure it was well regarded. It certainly was not published. I think it would have been more pertinent to showcase different guitars that some of these female musicians use.

In addition, Seabrook’s article for The New Yorker reinforced how I feel about some aspects of pop music: disheartened. For decades, musicians have performed other people’s songs. Elvis did it. The Beatles did it. It’s nothing new to see songwriters hired to write for specific musicians. What bothers me is the method, if what is written here is true, and the image portrayed to fans.

Ester Dean is showcased in this article as songwriter, and I encourage you to read up about her, as she is the driver behind many of these pop hits. An excerpt from the article, ‘The Song Machine’, declares:

“Dean’s preferred method of working is to delay listening to a producer’s track until she is in the studio, in front of the mike. ‘I go into the booth and I scream and I sing and I yell, and sometimes it’s words but most time its not,’ she told me. ‘And I just see when I get this little chill (…) and then, I’m, like, ‘Yeah, that’s the hook’.’ If she doesn’t feel that chill after five minutes, she moves on to the next track, and tries again”.

Why give up? If I am writing a song, and I get stuck on a part, I don’t give up. I take a break, come back later, save what I have. But the difference may be attachment to the song and care. This is exactly as the article title states: a song machine. Eating up random words, hooks, tracks produced to the point of no return, and crapping out a song that sounds an awful lot like the last pitch corrected, drum machine laden song. Don’t even get me started on the lyrics.

The few beefs I had with this article are with the display of pop music as the newest, creative venture in the world of music. Yes, Dean has to be creative and clever with these hooks. But how are we putting this musical mad libs above those who spend the time to compose the song from the bottom up themselves? I could be wrong, but this whole process sounded very detached. Not listening to the track beforehand, chugging through it if it doesn’t come to you quickly…and shouting out random lines until you get one that sounds catchy enough for Top 40 may work, but it doesn’t seem genuine to me. How much thought went into that line? Though, when the lines are the lyrics to ‘Rude Boy’, I can’t wonder too much about the thought of the song.

This article insinuates that Ester Dean wrote the song, ‘Rude Boy’. Though it is sited that on an episode of ‘Alan Carr: Chatty Man’, Rihanna speaks about the song as if she wrote it herself. When ‘Man Down’ came under fire, Rihanna had to defend the lyrics. Trouble is, did she write them?

Seabrook states that the public’s ‘appetite for hits’ and Top 40 is bigger than ever, which may be the case. I would argue that it’s also taking over a lot of other options in the radio world. When WBCN signed off and 104.1 was taken over by pop, much of the community around me declared their discontent, and many cited that the same was occurring in New York.

Seabrook also questions how mainstream rock became robotic and predictable, while pop music is now creative and experimental.

Speed bump! Ouch.

Are we sure that the rock being referred to here is not mingling, dangerously, with pop? If we are talking rock like Doughtry and Fall Out Boy, I think we are still in Pop Land. Just because it quacks like a duck, doesn’t mean it isn’t a man doing a great duck call. And I’m not about to jump in and declare the current state of pop music as experimental and creative as ever. Let’s not forget the producers, too.

Why do I say that? It is noted in the article that Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic) created some tracks that ended up as different songs. I had already learned this fact and was certainly not surprised. The article claims that nobody cared or noticed. I’ve picked out a Ryan Tedder song from miles away (Ok, sitting on a couch and hearing the song on the TV) and said to myself, ‘That must be a Ryan Tedder song’.  Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Already Gone’ and Beyonce’s ‘Halo’ always sounded suspiciously similar to me. Turns out they were created from the same track. However, One Republic’s ‘Secrets’ also sounds awfully similar, as well as the ‘All I Ever Wanted’ (Faith Hill), which I thought was ‘Secrets’ when I first heard it.

So, yes, I am hesitant to declare ALL pop music the new frontier in creative music when it is being processed through this Song Machine. Chicken McNuggets, move over!

What does this have to do with Elle’s ‘Women In Music’ ?

With the facade of pop music, and the lack of involvement some artists have in the creation of their hits, it seems like a teeny slap in the face to those women who compose, write, and perform, and are not featured as prominently. Yes, Rihanna is very relevant to today’s music, but she is a great performer. She has been described by some as a ‘manufactured artist’. Why are we showcasing her again? Was Florence Welch not available? Janelle Monae?

Hmm. Perhaps I need to do my own 2012 Women in Music post. What do you think?


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