:: Article

Abstract Journalism

By Trevor Quirk.

John Seabrook’s newest book is a plunge into an industry that is not unpretentious but anti-pretentious. This industry appeals to its audience through the very sensibilities it inculcates in them. It is tyrannized by a marketing mentality that it cannot recognize. It views “talent” as a commodity and its artists as obedient ciphers. Quaking before the Internet, this industry refuses to innovate until it is hit with a financial sledgehammer or spots too late the creeping mold of obsolescence. This old and stubborn industry is, in other words, American.

The book is The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory and the industry is that of American pop music. But I had another industry in mind. See, Song Machine is a paragon of today’s dominant form of narrative journalism, the longer stuff you can read in nonfiction books and magazines like The New Yorker, Wired, and The NY Times Sunday Magazine — what Robert Boynton called “The New New Journalism.” While Seabrook’s industry is less remunerative than pop music, no doubt, the two have more in common than you’d guess. The modern pop song and this kind of journalistic article are, as I see them, beset by rigid formulae and presumptions that are justified by the axioms of business and the hazy pretentions of “good art.”

The writers that follow the rules — internalized as “good writing” — will see the most success. Hence you have the meteoric careers of writers like Michael Lewis, Eric Schlosser and John Seabrook — pop stars of narrative journalism. Of course, the imposition of rules on an art form commensurately restricts its expressive capacity. ‘All pop music sounds the same.’ Yeah, it does. But could we not say the same thing about much of today’s narrative journalism? I think so, especially when it’s compared to the experimental “New Journalism” of the 60s and 70s. For anyone who recognizes the difference between these kinds of journalism, Song Machine makes for a fairly abstract read. But these are abstract times.

Here’s something that might seem obvious. The main character of Song Machine is an idea, one idea, that of the American pop hit and the cultural apparatus — the “Machine”— that produces it. For Seabrook, a pop hit is a song that reaches the top ten (often #1) of the Billboard rating system. Explosive success is a necessary condition, so you’ll likely recognize many of the songs that Seabrook includes: Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’, Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ and Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’, and others. This music is, as you know, peculiar: synthetic, rhythmic, formulaic, meticulously engineered and fantastically lucrative.

Seabrook sets out to explain why and how these songs are constructed this way. Enter the “Machine,” renowned production studios responsible for these hits, headed by “enormously influential culture shapers” that are “mostly anonymous” to the culture they shape. Most of them are apparently men, technocratic, wealthy, and somewhat litigious — also, many of them hail from Sweden. In exploring the “Machine,” Seabrook’s book falls neatly into the journalistic genre of “inside accounts” wherein our intrepid but self-effacing correspondent immerses himself in a particular industry, garnering the specialized knowledge, anecdotes and lore that fit the dimensions of his own “Big Idea” about that industry.

Seabrook’s main character — this idea — has a kind of life. It interacts with other ideas (like consumerism), it contemplates its past (in Europop and R&B), it encounters and overcomes obstacles (usually changes in culture or format), it travels to South Korea (literally), it savors its triumphs over villains (like Napster), it has an intricate psychology (see: Zapolean Music Cycle), and it obsesses over its impending demise (at the hands of Spotify, or something.)

The main character of Song Machine is not a person. This is again obvious, but perplexing, since the book contains a freakish nimiety of human beings (I lost count; there are dozens of them.) This bureaucratic sensibility is the defining feature of the journalism Seabrook et al. do: people, real people, are utterly secondary to ideas. Just as Seabrook writes that pop artists “occupy a central place in the songs, but more as vocal personalities than singers…” so it goes for characters in his narrative. They are mere “personalities,” authorial instruments. When characters are introduced, they are described visually, briefly and usually once. They are then lacquered in foreshadowing so obvious as to render their tale’s remainder superfluous — an effect that gets cringe-worthy in the cases of Rihanna’s nightmare of domestic violence and the early death of Denniz Pop. Characters speak mostly in monologue, addressing the reader for the purposes of conveying information or, as Seabrook writes of pop lyrics, “telling you what you are supposed to feel.” After completing their function, they are vacuumed into the exosphere of abstraction, awaiting their author’s call.

The true labor and talent of Seabrook’s storytelling is in its organization. Don’t mistake me, this kind of journalism is not easy to do, because, and this should surprise no one, it does not tell a story “just as it was.” Instead, by ignoring time, context and place, Seabrook undertakes a Herculean rearrangement to maintain a continuity of ideas — the smaller gears and screws of the Big Idea — which gives the narrative its simplicity. When Seabrook brings us to South Korea, we do not do so because an important character travelled there, or because it is next in a chronological sequence of events, or even because that country is integral to the history of pop music. We do so only to see the idea of the “Machine” take shape in a new context. The result is called “K-Pop.”

Unsurprisingly, journalism of this kind tends to read as artificial. For instance, Song Machine is shoe-horned into the perennial structure of a pop song — sections entitled “verse,” “chorus,” “bridge,” etc. — that does not reconcile at all with the book’s themes and hydra-like shifts in perspective. Doesn’t matter: the narrative is always tantamount to the idea. Song Machine’s prose is the generalized, breezy, editor-friendly kind that characterizes most magazine articles of a certain length. The passive phrase is shunned. Wordplay is relished. Adverbs are deployed skeptically. Concluding lines are literal and cloying, rarely thematic or expansive. This includes prosaisms like “The Secret—Ester the artist—was about to be revealed…” and (it’s best to intone these aloud LaFontaine-style) “February 8, 2009—the night [Rihanna’s] life would change forever…” These are the verbal equivalent of a pop song’s melodic hook. And if only palely, Seabrook understands this, as he concludes a chapter by explaining that a hook “like a snack food…leaves you feeling unsatisfied, always craving just a little more.” Sure does.

Transitions — of time, of place, of subject — are conceptual and dizzying. When an Atlantic record man tells Seabrook, “’The day we stop seeing hits is the day people stop buying records,’” the next words are, “That day has arrived.”

This is the light-headed logic that John Jeremiah Sullivan satirized in his underappreciated hoax article on the global rise in animal violence “Violence of the Lambs.” After perusing data on the phenomenon, Sullivan conveys his interest to a scientist (imaginary) who says, “‘Hey! You need to go to Africa with me!’” The next words are, “We were en route to a dry region in the northeast of Kenya…” This class of transition is omnipresent in narrative journalism, so it’s difficult to see why they’re so ridiculous. It’s as though the modern journalist were a superhuman ethnographer who took a day to study city culture by leaping rooftop to rooftop. To even try to summarize what he missed would be a joke, as Sullivan suggests.

You would think that no one could plumb the seamy business which Hunter S. Thompson called “a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free…” without a passing moral analysis on what its existence says about American culture. Pop music and its business are, if nothing else, fascinating cultural artifacts. You would think that, especially since the Thompson quote appears in Song Machine and its author is intimately familiar with the corrosive effects of marketing on art (Seabrook also wrote Nobrow: The Marketing of Culture and the Culture of Marketing.) But Seabrook ferries the entire book on a protracted interaction with his son, whom he calls “The Boy” (even his kin is abstracted!) Their conversations concern Seabrook’s “unnatural interest” in his son’s music, modern pop. The conceit lets him bracket his judgment about his subject throughout the book; presumably, out of love and generational humility.

Despite all its supposed “commitments” to social progress and truth, this allergy to the moral domain still infects much American journalism. If the reaction to the “stylized” journalism of the 1970s was that it smacked of “self-indulgence” and “subjectivity,” then what remains today is the plain, homogenous and “impartial” voice that excuses (or forbids) authors from thinking critically or divergently about their subjects. Objectivity at work. This has nothing to do with fairness, honesty or diligence, and its dangers, post-Judith Miller, are well established. The more a writer removes her own perspective, the more she becomes a vessel for the conventional attitudes of the spheres she covers — a point I’ll conclude on.

Here’s the truth of it, though. Seabrook’s book, as this particular kind of journalism, is quite good. His reporting is extensive and his attention is generous. His tone is humble and genial. His material can be, frankly, amazing. And the kind of work he aspires to — crudely, academic digests that don’t punish their readers — is socially beneficial and necessary. But it’s a mistake to confuse his project as literary, because although Song Machine presents a story, it does so only as a strategy, the same way pop music employs youthful exuberance and sexuality. Likewise, that story is mutilated beyond recognition as something human. I don’t fault Seabrook for this; it simply falls outside the rubric he’s adopted. Which would be fine, if that rubric weren’t seen as the staid progeny of the New Journalism of decades past.

In 1972 the angelically-tailored Tom Wolfe proclaimed that the New Journalism would supplant the novel as literature’s “main event.” That dream is dying, or already dead. The ubiquitous journalism exemplified in Song Machine — which I call Abstract Journalism — is not the “literary” journalism that Wolfe saw in Gay Talese, preceded by the innovations of Lillian Ross, John Hersey and Mark Twain.

Though it weathered much ridicule and shock, you could find this literary journalism in writers like Joan Didion, Ron Rosenbaum, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Terry Southern, Norman Mailer, Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Tom Wolfe himself, and others. In fact, the most interesting distinction of Abstract Journalism is that it is antithetical to literature.

If literature is interested in appropriate story structures, Abstract Journalism is dead-set on Freytag’s Triangle. If literature is interested in what is unknown and grey, Abstract Journalism is interested in what is known and absolute. If literature is interested in character, Abstract Journalism is interested in personalities as vehicles for ideas. If literature can be read more than once, Abstract Journalism is designed to be ruminated exactly once — like chewing gum. If literature is interested in perspective and voice, Abstract Journalism is interested in authority without trace of an author. If literature resonates only for a few (Norman Mailer is not for everyone), Abstract Journalism appeals to all. Ultimately, if literature is interested in what it is like to be alive as a particular person, in a particular place, at a particular time, Abstract Journalism presupposes or ignores all of those things.

Rather mystifying, then, that we get so queasy about the phrase “literary journalism,” because modern narrative journalism bears almost no resemblance to anything “literary.” And if this is all too categorical for you, simply compare Seabrook’s treatment of Denniz Pop (his most stable character) with John McPhee’s famous treatment of Carol Ruckdeschel in “Travels in Georgia.” That would be as grossly unfair as comparing Schönberg’s ‘Variations for Orchestra’ with Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’. But that’s my point. The aims of each project are fundamentally different.

Sure, there have been remarkable exceptions with whom the comparison would cohere, like John Jeremiah Sullivan, Geoff Dyer, Dave Eggers, Ted Conover, Leslie Jamison and William Vollmann. David Foster Wallace was singular, though much his work that magazines published was unrecognizable (instructively so.) Kathrine Boo resists categorization. Denis Johnson is rumored to have done some literary journalism, somewhere, I think.

But with these writers as epitomes, it would still be largely futile to sound a clarion call for another experimental phase in narrative journalism, because experimentation is much harder to get away with today. This has a complex causation, I’d say, but some of it has to do the financial turmoil of many “intellectual” magazines and publishing houses, and the relative nascence of online alternatives. It’s worth noting that today’s literary journalists — who are mostly novelists, foremost — are not innovating the genre but providing it life support. As I see it, this is mostly because today’s editor — increasingly young, overworked, undervalued, underpaid, inexperienced and occasionally arrogant — is just not equipped to recognize ingenuity, let alone the subtleties of promise.

This is depressing for any writer, plus it helps explain why it is such a thoroughgoing trip to read Wolfe describe the liberties of his greener years in The Birth of the New Journalism. The alterations of point of view, the attempts at telepathy, the wild onomatopoeia, the idioms, pleonasms and digressions, the profanity, the philosophizing, the mimesis, the self-consciousness and hyperkinetic dialogue, the revival of vulgar punctuation, the invention of new punctuation :::::::::: Do you remember these?! :::::::::: the overall impression of life on the other end of the line. The audacious, perhaps ultimately deluded notion, that nonfiction could be literary.

In the pop music industry, the hostility toward the creative impulse — toward control, toward expression, toward innovation — is definitely worse. Which makes sense, given its profitability. It’s a motif Seabrook unearths in the genesis of all his pop stars. Most industry executives resort to fantastic explanation as to why people like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Britney Spears and Kelly Clarkson make for such excellent cultural icons. They can never quite get their thumb over it, but this elusive and magical quality resides somewhere in the eyes, and only in women with a special kind of body — a rosy demureness, maybe. Seabrook corrects this idiocy, in the case of Rihanna: “No mere girlish desire for fame; it is more likely a much more urgent need to escape from the anxieties of a violent home life into the illusion of security and boundless love that a life onstage seemed to offer.” I believe that’s called desperation.

That’s hardly accidental, because desperate artists tend to be obedient. Still, even the brow-beaten will aspire to creativity, and it’s enlightening to see what happens when they do. Kelly Clarkson, in the wake of her success, gets some funny ideas about exacting control over her moodier, third album, My December. She is promptly “begged” to “reconsider” by her executive producer — the consistent and successful Clive Davis — and is “condescendingly” informed that her album sales will likely plummet by 85%. Admirably, Clarkson remains apathetic to that risk and proceeds. Davis was wrong; her album sales dropped 90%. Simply enough, Clarkson, on her fourth album, “obediently accepted the help of the pros.”

This fable occurs numerous times in Song Machine, and its lesson is obvious and crucial. Ingenuity, divergence and ambition — any form of risk — will always be punished in a business which conceives of its art as fundamentally commercial. My utmost sympathies to Kelly Clarkson; it’s quite a shock to realize how divorced your industry is from the creative impulse (of course, she could have accepted that creative freedom typically comes at the expense of financial reward.) But still, it could have been moving if Seabrook had treated Clarkson’s realization with artistry and care, instead of just giving us “each side” of the story (Clarkson’s and Davis’), sans analysis. That choice is perhaps understandable from a writer whose proclivities align with the industry in which he’s excelled; the “business of art” must seem like a meritocracy to him.

Obvious as this seems, it dawns on you rather late that Song Machine is about music. Music, you know, that mystical dialect of feeling we all instinctually value. And it’s telling, and disheartening, and aggravating, that Seabrook’s Big Idea about its industry conforms so readily to the ideas of the men who control it: cultural aristocrats, financiers, thought leaders, celebrities (you bet Sean Parker and Jay-Z make cameos.) They have ideas about what music is (a business), how we create it (like a product), why it matters (because it sells), and how we should share it (in a way that makes a few people very rich.) Some might disagree; but they barely count. Seabrook establishes the fringe of this plutocratic discourse in Chris Anderson’s argument that the better future of music is one dominated by an “artistic middle class,” musicians with “small but loyal followings.” Yet nowhere will you find the idea that public funding of artistic projects—through governmental arms like the NEA—is not as kooky as it seems to most Americans. Nowhere is the evergreen notion that perhaps music, and art generally, is not a business. Nowhere is the idea that the pop industry’s teeming horde of failures might matter just as much as the rare nova of success. No, if Seabrook’s Big Idea is about music, it is an idea sung by the insular chorus of the rich, the lucky, the privileged and the powerful. And I feel like we’ve heard that one before.

Trevor Quirk has written essays and journalism for Harper’s, New Republic, Five Dials, Texas Monthly, Boston Review and other publications. All of his work — some of which will be anthologized in a forthcoming edition of Contemporary Literary Criticism — can be found at trevorquirk.com. He studied physics as an undergrad and has a graduate degree in science journalism from Boston University. He lives in Salt Lake City and would like to write a book of some kind.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 23rd, 2016.