Justin Timberlake Has a Cold
Caren winces. “You have another six weeks to come up with a summer jam.”
Beneath the high darkened dome of the Staples Center in Los Angeles stands Ken Ehrlich, who has directed the Grammys for the past thirty years. Potbellied, balding, in a gray sweater vest, he is part of the race of show-business elves who make things work. “You can sit there if you don’t say a fucking word,” he growls after my whispered plea. He nods toward the stage, where the bass players are finding a groove and the horn players are hitting high notes, in preparation for the next hour or so of rehearsals.
Ehrlich checks the action onstage against the minute-by-minute script contained in a fat three-ring binder that lies open on the long table in front of him. Strictly for kicks, someone has outfitted the director’s table to resemble an Italian red-sauce joint, complete with red-and-white checkered plastic tablecloth, cheese platter, loaf of rustic semolina bread, wicker-clad bottle of Ruffino Chianti, and scattered tea lights atop the two ancient nineteen-inch Sony monitors, which allow the director to see the stage the way that the Grammys audience will see it from their sofas.
“OK, guys. So we’ll take it from the top,” Ehrlich says, surrounded by a mix of old guys, fat guys, and younger women, one of whom kindly rescued me from Justin Timberlake’s bleary-eyed goons when they tried to throw me out of the arena for using my iPhone to photograph the setup. JT is a stone perfectionist, and so it is odd that he is not yet onstage, more than ten minutes into his scheduled rehearsal time. In his absence, a backup dancer hits the star’s marks at three-quarter speed so that the cameraman can track the routine. All at once, the band falls silent mid-phrase, as if someone pressed pause, opening a path for a lean sweatshirted figure who looks like a software engineer, or some other kind of educated geek, with a navy wool mugger’s cap pulled down low over his close-cropped hair.
The news that Justin Timberlake has a head cold on the eve of the Grammys is as close to a scoop as I am likely to get, I am thinking, as JT’s goons give me their best wait-till-we-catch-you-after-school glare. The band starts up again with a Brazilian pop-funk groove. “Show ya how to do this, hah!” the star says, feeling out the dynamics of the vocal in the high-roofed arena. The drum pops. Pop! Pop! Pop! It’s Vegas-casino-hotel-lobby party-time music, with a wink. JT moves like a dancer onstage, slowing down to create lacunae in the vocal, then speeding up again to further emphasize his unique sense of time. The music stops, and two stand-ins read from a cue card behind my head: “A real Grammy moment to remember, featuring [some actor].”
Like Italian film stars of the 1960s, or English soccer players of the ’80s, rock stars are a quaintly dated category of celebrated person. I sympathize with rock stars because of the sense of isolation that is, or was, inherent in their antiquated mode of stardom. Having grown up in a family setup that might be generously described as bunker-like, I also find myself drawn to people who were sick as children, or suffered from allergies, or buried themselves in books, or moved around a lot, or grew up in cults led by preachers and gurus, or on military bases and other remote or highly regimented places, which are getting ever harder to find thanks to Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp and the buzzing hive of selfies and chats and tweets and chatter and casual surveillance in which no man may speak from a burning bush or a shimmering mist, or be uncamera-ready, or cranky, or worse still, out of touch.
It also occurs to me that maybe the age of instant communication that killed off the rock stars is all one big misunderstanding. What the techies missed was that the person Mick Jagger was just a contributor to the invented character of Mick Jagger, rock star, who represented a collective investment of x amount of imaginative capital and hard cash by record companies, art directors, and fans. Mick Jagger, the person, could hardly have created Mick Jagger, the rock star, alone in his bedroom using Instagram and Pro Tools, let alone programmed the contingent and chaotic human and creative interactions with Keef and the late, great junkie producer Jimmy Miller that went into the recording of Exile on Main St. and Let It Bleed. Disdaining the wasteful, elitist space where bands hankered after record-company expense accounts that would pay for hookers and villas in the South of France, Silicon Valley presented itself as the tribune of average-Joe air guitarists who never got their shot at the American Dream. It was easy to stoke resentment against the perks enjoyed by the pros while spreading the easy gospel of democratic cultural production. Every boy and girl could be Virginia Woolf and Keith Richards and David Foster Wallace depending on what day of the week it was, thanks to fun new digital software that ushered in a freshly branded universe of frictionless self-gratification in which all movies and books and music would be free, because they should be free, because they were made to be free, because paying for stuff is an unconscionable rip-off in a world where stuff was meant to be free, and who else does art belong to if not to the people, right? And so, the tech moguls could pose as liberators and revolutionaries who would cut out the middlemen while sucking up the market cap of the music business, the newspaper business, and other sadly benighted industries.
The paradoxical result of these acts of creative destruction has been the elevation of a handful of recording artists like Beyoncé, Kanye West, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber to previously unseen levels of wealth and fame, in the same moment that the product on which their fame is, or was, based—namely, music—has been rendered worthless. With a flick of the wrist that any old-school three-card-monte dealer would admire, the value that once inhered in the creative product was moved to the bottom line of Silicon Valley companies with smiley interfaces.
Those old-fashioned types who still haven’t heard of WhatsApp or Grindr are left with the Grammys, whose folksy-sounding title conveys an accurate impression of the age bracket at which the made-for-television event is pitched. Broadcast in early February, the Grammys are the music business’s half-assed version of the Oscars, an industry-sponsored shindig whose aim is to encourage an ever-shrinking fan base to keep buying CDs, downloads, or whatever music-related product people might spend their pennies on. My favorite thing about the Grammys is the odd time warp that the broadcasts still somehow manage to generate; they are like transmissions from a distant planet on which rock stars still dance and sing like Mick.
My specific excuse for visiting Los Angeles for the Grammys was a special-delivery envelope that had arrived at my doorstep in Brooklyn two months earlier, while I was playing with my daughter on the rug and watching the ferry boats ply the open harbor between Lower Manhattan and Staten Island. Inside a black box, encircled by a detachable gold band that promised quite simply, the most fabulous party of the year!, was an invitation to attend Clive Davis’s annual party at the Beverly Hilton the night before the Grammys, on Saturday, February 9, with cocktails at 7 pm followed by dinner at 8. “Yes, the entertainment will be off the hook,” it promised, on behalf of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and Clive Davis, the party’s true host, the Caligula of his ego-driven business, and by all accounts a man who knows how to give a party.
The collapse of the so-called creative industries has happened with such blinding speed that people outside New York are not entirely aware that glossy magazines are dead. This, as far as I can figure out, is why I was invited to the most fabulous party of the year. Clive Davis’s sense of hospitality was also evidenced by the invitation he sent to Cissy Houston, the gospel legend and mother of Whitney Houston, who died in a bathtub on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton in 2012, directly above the ballroom where Davis’s party continued on without her. “I got an invitation to the party, which is the most obscene thing,” Cissy Houston told a reporter—“I don’t know why they would want me to come to the party in which she died, you know?”
Davis’s invitation to Houston was clearly not intended as an insult—it is simply what happens when you combine the rampant egomania required to float a five-decade hit-making career with the native human discomfort with tragedy. What Clive Davis loves isn’t music but stars, who are not necessarily musicians, but rather highly specialized forms of human. Stars love Davis because he is a sharp Harvard lawyer with the heart of a piano-bar diva. His monthly singles meetings back in the day when he ran Columbia Records, from 1967 to 1973, when it was Bob Dylan’s label, and Janis Joplin’s label, and a lot of other people’s label—back when labels told consumers what to buy—were held in a long, narrow, windowless bunker with a control room at one end and huge speakers the size of double-door refrigerators at the other. Davis sat at the head of a long table, alone. He would formally cue each new record—“This Is Earth, Wind & Fire”—which would be played at huge volume from the speakers directly behind his head, and everyone in the room would sit and watch him as he kept a stone face, nodding almost imperceptibly to the beat. Or, if he didn’t like the record, after a few bars his mouth would turn down, as if he had bitten into a bad oyster, and then everyone else’s mouth would turn down, too, meaning that it was dead on arrival.
“What am I looking for?! I’m looking for hits! What kind of artists? I’m looking for stars!” he would rant at producers.Tweet
Nobody at Columbia Records trusted anybody else, in part because Clive Davis didn’t trust himself, a driven boy from Brooklyn who went to New York University and then to Harvard law school, where he acquired tweed jackets and cashmere turtlenecks. He was abruptly fired from Columbia, ostensibly for using company money to pay for his son’s bar mitzvah, a fact that was uncovered after a failed federal investigation into payola called “Project Sound.” There was also the fact that Davis’s assistant David Wynshaw, the former director of A&R for Columbia Records, apparently had a side business operating companies in partnership with a Genovese crime family associate named Patsy Falcone, who was involved in importing heroin into New York. Davis’s comeback as head of Arista and then Sony, where he now runs his own label, J Records, left him with perhaps an even greater need to prove how indispensable his genius was, and is. “What am I looking for?! I’m looking for hits! What kind of artists? I’m looking for stars!” he would rant at producers who were young or foolish enough to ask him for guidance. “That’s all there is, hits!”
Davis is also famous among producers for the randomness of the details on which he fixates. “He gets very involved in everything, but that’s where you go crazy, because the details make no sense whatsoever,” one producer who’d worked with Davis told me, relating a story about a recording session scheduled for Davis’s annual yachting trip, which starts at Monte Carlo and ends in Capri. The day after Davis left, the producer was driving across the George Washington Bridge when his phone rang. “Uh, the high hat in bar thirty-one is, uh, it’s not right, so we need to fix that,” Davis began from his offshore yacht. The drummer was also slowing down around the bridge of the song, which in turn was throwing off the hook, he explained to the producer. “And the thing is you know, these are programmed drum-machine tracks,” the producer sighed when he told me the story. “It can’t slow down.” One clever sound engineer learned to keep two different mixes of every song, A and B: when Davis would call insisting that something was wrong with A, the engineer would send in B. When Davis would object to B, the engineer would send A, and keep going back and forth between the two mixes, until Davis got tired.
What also set Davis apart was his undeniable talent for hearing hits—the spark in a song, which he called the Wow Factor. “Where’s the wow?! I don’t hear the wow! We’ve got to get it in there!” he would object, driving musicians and producers crazy. Songs Davis didn’t like were “clunky and funky,” or other self-coined terms of art that he drew from his famously addled patois. “It’s Borax!” Davis might object, leaving his men to figure out what exactly that meant for the fate of a song. But the best way to gauge Clive’s reaction to a song was how long it took for his finger to rise up from the surface of his highly polished conference-room table, where he sat with his eyes closed, to the stop button on his tape player. Clive’s Crooked Finger of Doom! All of which only added to his reputation as the recording industry’s ultimate mack daddy.
Justin Timberlake, Disney boy genius, then of the boy band ’N Sync, and now a grown-up man with a cold, is no longer wearing his hat, and after two abortive run-throughs he has found a passable approximation of his own voice. “Let me show you a few things,” he croons to the thirty black musicians who have found day work backing a white kid with some real talent to go with his millions of teenybopper fans. What JT will show them is that stardom is hard, too. His manager, Johnny Wright, a middle-aged black man in a checked shirt and a golf sweater that make him look like a former member of the Temptations or the Four Tops, except richer and in better health, sits next to Ehrlich at the director’s table, offering a stream of precise, constructive commentary on the way the action onstage is being translated to the monitors. “The whole song needs to be about the movement of the band with Justin,” Wright offers. “Where he pulls the handkerchief, that whole movement, we need to tighten that.”
Ehrlich relays the comment into his headphones, and the star runs through the beginning of the routine again. Wright peers in at the monitor and shakes his head at the sloppy camera work. “He’s barely marking Justin. If he could give us a little more definition of the moves,” he suggests. He gazes up at the stage. “Looks great, by the way,” he offers. JT takes out his earpiece. “One mo’ time,” he says, sounding just enough like Marvin Gaye for the routine to fall into the market-friendly space between homage and rip-off. Like all dancers, he is a self-punishing control freak who gets off on the precision of his routines. “What Johnny is saying is make it more cut-y,” Ehrlich translates. “The singles on the singers and Justin. Then do your accents on the occasional horns.”
Take three is when JT turns up the intensity of his performance and delivers the vocal for real: “I show you how to do this, huh?” And he does. But the brute fact of the music business is that, in this day and age, not even a genius like Clive Davis has any idea how many records JT will sell. The number could be 100,000 or 5 million. To be a music executive means linking your dream to someone else’s dream, and being open to the entirely real possibility that the person whose dream you share may be a 15-year-old girl from Barbados or a guy who walks into your office with pancake makeup and a cowbell around his neck. Having faith in such people is a stretch; betting one’s financial future on what you imagine other people will hear in their music is a further stretch, especially at the fag-end of the music business where a multitalented ex-Mouseketeer like Justin Timberlake is the closest thing that anyone can find to Jimi Hendrix.
“Teachers really are the unsung heroes of our creative community,” JT recites, sounding perfectly sincere as he reads from his cue card. He puts his wool cap back on his head and swigs from a water bottle as Ehrlich mounts the stage and engages in animated back-and-forth about the “some actor” joke. “I worked with him on the first ’N Sync show,” Ehrlich offers, when he comes back to his table. “My mantra is and has always been, they’re not your friends.”
Julie Frost, one of the top LA songwriters of the moment, reminds me a little bit of the mid-’90s pop-folk star Jewel, if Jewel were ten years older and weighed sixty pounds more, and were therefore disqualified from any conceivable shot at Clive Davis’s Borax-ed version of music-biz stardom. Her path to the business’s current version of riches and fame is as typical as any other: she grew up with hippie parents in Vermont, went off to a fancy boarding school on scholarship, and then returned to the poverty-stricken New England backwoods to care for old people before fleeing to Chicago, where she became a hit at children’s birthday parties, which in turn led to a singer-songwriter showcase in New York and a light detour through the hit-making factories in Atlanta. Later she arrived on the scene in Los Angeles, won some prizes, got rich, and bought a house in Marina del Rey. Even as a child, she loved music, listening to Carole King, James Taylor, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Prince, and the soundtrack to Grease on oversize headphones plugged into her parents’ stereo. She liked to dance around the room, pretending she was the singer and admiring her reflection in the big glass windows. “If I didn’t get that time I was like, crap,” she remembers, stretching out her legs in a cold, windowless studio in West Hollywood, where she will be writing songs this afternoon.
In Chicago, she worked as a cocktail waitress and then got a job at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where she taught kids how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Songs began to come to her more frequently. “It was as if I had found this radio station and it was just my music and it would just come in anytime of the day or night,” she remembers with a faraway look, “and when it happened it’s like it took precedence over everything, like it was a fax from God.” Along the way, she also accumulated a growing number of handwritten rejection letters from music-business executives. “Even from Clive,” she remembers. “My boy Clive. ‘You’re critically great, but it’s not commercial enough.’ That’s what I got a lot.” When I ask her what “not commercial enough” meant, she shrugs. “I wasn’t pretty enough.”
As her control over her craft increased, she realized that there was an important difference between faxes from God and hit songs.Tweet
As a fixture in the Chicago scene, she soon realized that working as a freelance artist was an unspeakably cruel life, by Western standards. “You have to make every dollar with an hour of work,” she explains. “You never get a day off. You have no benefits, and you have no rights.” As her control over her craft increased, she realized that there was an important difference between faxes from God and hit songs. “I just was writing real, true songs,” she realized. “Which is different from writing a hit song.” At the time, she imagined that if you wrote enough songs, one of them would probably be a hit.
Atlanta changed that. There was sex and marijuana smoke in the air, and a science of writing hits, which was different from sitting in some crappy half-underground club and drinking coffee. She learned to ask herself, “What’s the most amazing thing that can happen between me and this track?” She especially enjoyed the little ritual when the song was done and everybody would come in and nod their heads. One day, she imagined, that would be her song.
To make that day come faster, she sent an email out of the blue to “Big Jon” Platt, which if you know the songwriting business is a pretty audacious move. Jon Platt is the head of Warner/Chappell Music and formerly the head of EMI. But what really makes him important are the artists he’s signed, a list that includes Kanye West, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z, all of whom love Big Jon and trust him to bring them hits; the “Big” in his name comes from the fact that he is at least six-and-a-half feet tall and built like a linebacker, with a shaved head and rings on all his fingers, and the jocular good manners of a man who is too physically imposing to be trifled with by anyone, big or small. The other reason artists trust Big Jon Platt is that he is, by all accounts, a person who loves music, and who makes sure that his artists and songwriters get paid.
There is no shortage of good stories about Big Jon, one of which is about the email that Julie Frost sent him at 2:30 one morning, with no introduction whatsoever, with two songs attached—one called “Beautiful Day” and the other called “Satellite.” Big Jon wrote her back and said he loved “Beautiful Day.” It became his happy song, which he blasted from his floor-to-ceiling speakers while he sat at his desk working three phones at a time and waving his arms. He flew Frost out to LA and signed her to a music-publishing deal with EMI, which she has since repaid by winning the Eurovision song contest, an ASCAP award, and a Golden Globe, and by writing hits for Beyoncé—“it’s just been like a fairy tale ever since,” she says. It’s a good life, living next to the ocean with her people while accumulating millions in songwriting royalties.
Her writing session today is at Mike Caren’s shop in West Hollywood, which consists of six new and decently appointed studios off a main hallway with black-and-white pictures of Atlantic recording artists hung on the walls, to give it some of that hallowed-by-history feel. Mike Caren is an up-and-coming music exec who has been in the business since he was a teenager at Beverly Hills High School. In a gray T-shirt and stonewashed blue pants and sneakers, he could be Justin Timberlake’s fantasy-football partner. If 99-cent downloads are where the music business is still at, even the fractions of a penny per play that Spotify pays out might still add up to real money, Caren believes. In the old days, he explains, a day in a studio with an engineer cost a minimum of $800—a cost that was usually borne, directly or indirectly, by the artist. If you imagine that a great songwriter might write 250 days a year and produce four or five hits, then the odds for each $800 spin of the roulette wheel were one in fifty. Fire the kitchen staff, put in Pro Tools, and pay an engineer by the hour, and you could use the same casino chip to pay for ten days of recording. That was Caren’s first discovery.
His second discovery was that he could encourage the writing of hits by urging songwriters to follow his nine rules of hit songwriting. While Caren’s rules are not comprehensive or exclusive, it is easy to measure their value by a glance at the dozens of gold and platinum records hanging in his office. He is happy to run down his rules for me. “First, it starts with an expression of ‘Hey,’ ‘Oops,’ ‘Excuse me,’” he begins. “Second is a personal statement: ‘I’m a hustler, baby,’ ‘I wanna love you,’ ‘I need you tonight.’ Third is telling you what to do: ‘Put your hands up,’ ‘Give me all your love,’ ‘Jump.’ Fourth is asking a question: ‘Will you love me tomorrow,’ ‘Where have you been all my life,’ ‘Will the real Slim Shady please stand up.’”
He takes a deep breath, and rattles off another four rules. “Five is logic,” he says, “which could be counting, or could be spelling or phonetics: ‘1-2-3-4, let the bodies hit the floor,’ or ‘Ca-li-fornia is comp-li-cated,’ those kind of things. Six would be catchphrases that roll off the tip of your tongue because you know them: ‘Never say never,’ ‘Rain on my parade.’ Seven would be what we call stutter, like, ‘D-d-don’t stop the beat,’ but it could also be repetition: ‘Will the real Slim Shady please stand up, please stand up, please stand up.’ Eight is going back to logic again, like hot or cold, heaven or hell, head to toe, all those kind of things.”
The ninth rule of hit songwriting is silence. Why? Because most people who are listening to music are actually doing something else, he explains. They are driving a car, or working out, or dancing, or flirting. Silence gives you time to catch up with the lyrics if you are drunk or stoned. If you are singing along, silence gives you time to breathe. “Michael Jackson, his quote was ‘Silence is the greatest thing an entertainer has,’” Caren continues. “‘I got a feeling,’ space-space-space, ‘Do you believe in life after love,’ space-space-space-space-space.”
Silence. Another rule of hit songwriting is simplicity, he adds, which is learning to say the most with the fewest words. He ticks off his rules on his fingers: expression, questions, commands, repetitions, logic, personal statements, clichés, and space. That makes eight rules. He shrugs.
His favorite example of a song that uses the most rules in the fewest words is a hit by the rapper Ludacris, “What’s Your Fantasy,” which starts off with the lyric “I wanna li-li-li-lick you from your head to your toes.” Caren loves that song. “In the first line: a personal statement, ‘I want to,’ a stutter, repetition, ‘li-lick you,’ logic, ‘from your head to your toes, move from the bed down to the down to the, to the floor,’” he explains. “‘I gotta know’—another personal statement—and asks a question, ‘What’s your fantasy?’ So he’s got six of them, in the first two lines of the song.”
We stroll down the halls, where the writers are working in rooms. In the studio next door, a young-looking blond white guy, who is at least six inches too tall to be in a boy band, and his goofy Australian writing partner are working on a song for Flo Rida, a rapper from the South whose posterior-oriented hits routinely sell three or four million copies. “I’ve been to a million places,” the Aussie offers:
“I’m not too good with faces
“But I’ll never forget that ass.”
Caren winces. “You have another six weeks to come up with a summer jam.”
Julie Frost is writing during the evening session with Andrew Frampton, a tall, fit, nerdily handsome Brit in black-rimmed glasses and a black T-shirt who cofounded Photogenic Records and writes hits on the side. He looks too gawky to be a front man in a band; it is easier to imagine him checking the damage waivers at the rental counter on the contract for someone else’s touring van. He grew up loving music and writing songs, and spent five years trying to break into the UK music scene with his first band, which he formed at the age of 13 with his brother and a friend, and which after five years of hustling achieved the holy grail: a £100,000 advance. The band then flopped, leaving Frampton with his old love for writing songs and a new appreciation of the career-determining value of hits. He left London for LA, where he came to love the weather, and the challenge of walking into a windowless room at noon, introducing himself to someone he had never met before, and writing hits.
Songwriters tend to be optimists, in part because so few songs they write are ever recorded, and so few recorded songs become hits. The fact that most money in songwriting these days comes from radio airplay greatly influences the kinds of songs writers have any interest in writing. A number-one Top 40 hit in America is probably worth $1.5 to $2 million in airplay, while a song on a platinum album—meaning an album that sells a million copies, which is a rarity these days—is worth only about $90,000. Web-based streaming services like Spotify and Pandora pay fractions of a penny per play, making them the equivalent of digital sweatshops where the world’s greatest singers, songwriters, and musicians work for less than the daily wage of garment workers in Bangladesh. Max Martin and Dr. Luke, the most successful songwriters in the world right now, make $20 million a year from airplay. Below them is an echelon of a few dozen songwriters who make between $1.5 and $6 million a year, most of which also comes from airplay. Songwriters like Julie Frost or Andrew Frampton might make a bit less than that by creating fifty to sixty copyrights a year, with past copyrights generating maybe half their income.
Today, Julie and Andrew are joined by two kids from Paris who write synth pop. One is wearing a black V-neck sweater, and the younger one is wearing a LOLcats T-shirt. The hope in the room is that the few bars of digitally inflected chord progression they have brought with them on a MacBook Air is the un-popped kernel of an original pop song. Creatively, their music is something rather than nothing. It is a place to start, which may be more or less random, but can pick up new inflections and textures and ideas as the evening rolls on. But first everyone has to deal with the monster in the room. There is no sense in being here without at least trying to imagine the moody Bastille-tinted synth riffs as the backbone of a Flo Rida summer hit that might generate millions in airplay.
“Have you heard the new Flo Rida stuff?” Julie asks. “It’s a whole new vibe.”
“I can’t believe
“White girl got some ass.”
“That’s introspective Flo,” she explains. Then she looks glum. “I don’t want to do another ass song,” she laments. Then she brightens. “All the way to ass town!” she suggests. Andrew chimes in.
“I want money
“Going all the way to ass town.”
Julie reaches into a brown bag and withdraws a clear plastic tub of chopped salad. “I do 500 calories Monday and Wednesday,” she offers. She and Andrew trade tips on staying fit in writer’s rooms while the Frenchies fiddle with their MacBook. “A good chord progression, 1, 2, 5,” the younger-looking one says. Then he presses a button, and plays the chord progression backward. Andrew Frampton looks over at the screen.
“Cool,” he says. “What program is that?”
“ACID Pro,” one of them answers, “from Sony.”
Julie stands up and raises her hands above her hand. “Ass! Ass! Ass! Ass!” she chants. She surveys the room again, and then hammers a final nail in the coffin, just to be sure. “Let’s not try to write for Flo,” she says. “Let’s write a big song.” The engineer loops the track from Paris, and Julie steps up to the mic and starts off with some wordless scat.
“Mmmmmmmm dah dah dah uh.”
“That’s the payoff or chant line,” she explains. She pauses, and tries to make the nonsense syllables resolve into recognizable words and phrases.
“When you hold me all day and night
“I’m going to get it right.”
She pauses again, searching for new emotion in the syllables, plucking sense from the ether of her subconscious.
“And when you hold me
“I feel alive.”
She looks pleased. “That’s an idea!” she says.
“And when you hold me
“I feel a lie.”
She shakes her head.
“And when you hold me
“I come alive.
“I want you to—hold me!”
The shape of a pop song is beginning to emerge, but she has left herself with nowhere to go. “It needs something dumber in the middle.” She sighs.
Andrew nods, from his place on the couch. “The hook could be any kind of big pop hook,” he offers. “It feels like the second part has got to pick up, or else we’re going to get caught in this linear thing.” He improvises a chorus, and then Julie sings,
“Throw that halo!
“Down on the floor.”
Andrew looks pleased. “If you throw your halo away, it’s like someone could catch it,” he explains. “Throwing it on the floor, that’s a bit more rebellious.”
Julie’s songcraft is less grounded in analysis. “I like halos, in general,” she says. “It sings really good. Or we could just say, ‘Hey Fuckhead, please listen to this hook.’”
Andrew steps up to the mic and expands the chorus. “Throw your halo / down on the floor / because you ain’t gonna need it no more.” Then he steps back again, looking for a clever bit of logic. “This is a dance song. Set your devil free. Don’t have any inhibitions,” he explains. “What if everything they are going to do on the floor is like what you would do to a drink? Pop the top.”
“We’re gonna pop the top
“And drink up every drop
“’Cause when the par-ty starts
“We’re never gonna stop.”
Jimmy the engineer doubles and triples up Julie and Andrew’s turns at the mic until they sound like plausible lead vocals on a hit record, rather than two songwriters fooling around in the studio. As Jimmy works, Andrew stands over his shoulders and rearranges the bits of digital matter into ever more compelling poppy curves and hooks. “Now punch in all four of those tracks,” he instructs. Following his directions, the engineer stacks bars of purple, blue, and sea foam-green digital stuff above a black EKG-like readout of the melody.
The next few hours are spent fooling with Mike Caren’s rule book to find couplets that stick. Julie nods when I suggest that this part of the job is like doing a crossword puzzle. “But it’s like a really hard crossword puzzle,” she adds. “Like the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. In French.”
A half hour later, a studio executive named Ben comes in, wearing tan suede Gucci loafers and jeans. He loves the song. “I think it’s a 100 percent home run for Ke$ha,” he offers. “For Maroon 5, the girl is always torturing Adam. There’s got to be something dark in it. But maybe Ke$ha can do the hook . . .”
In England, someone says, there is a guy named “Eg” White, who is maybe the last true, great producer, a guy who hears his own music his own way, in his own head. He did the song “Chasing Pavements” for Adele. “The great thing about Eg, he’s a very posh English guy, and you go to his place, he’s got all vintage gear, a guitar with broken strings, a tambourine with one bell on it,” Andrew says, his voice a bit wistful and admiring of a fantasy inherent in his mode of production, and therefore, according to the cruel logic of the dialectic, merely fuel for a synthesis as yet unseen. “Even the top guys don’t press him. He never works past six, because his wife won’t let him. He’s a seriously talented guy.”
Usher is standing onstage in the Beverly Hilton ballroom in a white T-shirt with a heavy gold chain around his neck. It’s just past noon, and the star is playful and at ease, rehearsing his lines for Clive Davis’s party while balancing a three-quarters-full takeout cup of coffee in his right hand.
“All right!” he exclaims, the reflection of the house lights bouncing off his gold chain, competing with the dazzling whiteness of his teeth. Then, for no particular reason, aside from the performer’s high spirits, he breaks into “La Bamba,” exploring the more exuberant textures of his silky, incredible voice while looking out over the stacks of chairs and scratched-up folding tables that will soon cover the ballroom floor. “Y arriba y arriba,” he sings, and then he stops, and smiles at the guitarist, who is seated to his left. “That’s the only part I know,” he says apologetically.
Usher glides through his lines without breaking a sweat, or giving off any of the neurotic intensity of a Justin Timberlake. He is Usher, a legitimate heir to a deep American musical culture, who will be performing for five hundred of his peers and not for a television audience of tens of millions of viewers, most of whom couldn’t care less about music, or his music. He pirouettes onstage while balancing his coffee with a casual ease that suggests it is attached to his hand; if you could see inside the paper cup as Usher was dancing, the surface of the coffee would probably be flat. “I realized that I wanted to be a star, cha-cha,” he vamps, hitting the high emotional notes in his lines without wasting effort on filler. He turns to the place where the evening’s honoree, the music executive L. A. Reid, will be standing. “L. A., thank you for fighting me on that,” he says, with palpable sincerity.
“Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, I was singing for a lot of people,” he says, or, rather, sings. Usher is so inherently musical that even when he delivers tribute lines on an empty stage with his morning cup of coffee in hand, it sounds like a song. He may not be a first-generation genius like Sam Cooke, or a second-generation genius like Marvin Gaye, or even a third-generation genius like Michael Jackson. But it is easy to imagine some version of the young Usher opening for Sam Cooke at a Georgia nightclub back in the day. He rewards the four people sitting at tables in the empty ballroom with two minutes worth of “We Belong Together,” and then he calls it a day.
Watching rehearsals for Davis’s party beats watching rehearsals for the Grammys, because the room is so much smaller, and the music is so much better, and also because I get to sit next to Michael Ahern, a white-haired, blue-eyed Irish theater-director-type from New York who has been in charge of sound and staging for Davis’s parties for more than thirty years. Ahern wears a jaunty red scarf tied around his neck and a tweed jacket over a navy sweatshirt to ward off the chill of the hotel-ballroom air conditioning; his wire-rimmed glasses, pushed down on the bridge of his nose, give him the look of an avuncular policeman. When he sees something he doesn’t like, he looks over the top of his glasses, and his blue eyes fade to the color of icicles.
“You promise that you won’t fuck me up?” he asks me after I make my way past security to the ballroom, where the Lumineers are dealing with a broken cello. The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” was the third-most-shared song in Brooklyn on Spotify, the Grammys publicist informed me. The Lumineers’ music is the musical equivalent of something you spread on a cracker, Ahern agrees. Nevertheless, this gig is dear.
Someone stops by the table with a question about lighting, who Ahern deals with quickly and then starts to tease. “I love you too, Bill,” Ahern calls out in a calm, even-tempered voice. “Tell your story walking.” Dry-ice smoke billows around a screen lit in electric blues and purples. As rehearsal time lengthens, the power guy stops by to talk about the outage at last year’s Super Bowl, which was held in New Orleans—a city notorious among show-biz folk for its drunken stagehands. “I find it engaging and charming, and it’s the kind of thing that you want to learn about in anthropology class, but it’s not the kind of thing you want in a fucking production,” Ahern reasonably offers.
After making sure that the Whitney Houston tribute video has been received, he turns his attention to the dry ice. “Benny Collins loves things like that,” he says, loud enough for the hulking man nearby to overhear. “Benny, do you want to play with dry ice?” On cue, Benny wanders over. “You were serious about the dry ice?” he asks. Ahern gives a paternal nod and points with his thumb in the direction of the smoke billowing from behind the screen, stage right, which features none other than Clive Davis himself with his trademark three-piece suit, bald head and glasses, talking on an endless loop, his face blown up to maybe fifty times its actual size. The fact that the sound has been turned off adds a paranoid tinge to the atmosphere of the room; it’s a tribute of sorts to the Ozymandias of the music business, the master of a once-glorious star-fucking universe that has been sucked into the black hole of YouTube.
On second thought, maybe it’s the rock stars who got tired. Next up on stage is Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith’s lanky guitarist—an old face from the East Village in the ’80s, back when there was a scene, meaning rents that musicians and other artists could afford. Kaye is followed by a procession of burly men, each carrying an armful of pink roses: centerpieces for the three great tiers of banquet tables at which Davis’s guests will be seated. Following behind the parade of roses is Patti Smith, legendary artist, autobiographer, poet, rock star. “One-two-two, bing-bing-check,” she says, in her dry way, into the mic.
Smith was the goddess of the Lower East Side when it was overrun by junkies. Onstage with her is a band of graying hipsters who have become their own ghosts. She looks out into the empty sea of wooden tables in search of something. “Where is Clive sitting?” she asks, squinting, but Davis is not in the house, or even on the screen, which is now running plugs for Harman, Hilton, MasterCard, and Hyundai, the corporate sponsors of the Grammy Salute to Industry Icons, which is the official name of tonight’s event. Michael Ahern compares the floor plan with the arrangements in front of him. “Clive is still setting up seventy tables,” he explains.
“Can we have some of the lights down a little? They’re so bright,” she asks. If Usher is smooth, Smith is abrasive; she looks like a female Keith Richards, without the smack. The band behind her launches into a mid-period Sonic Youth–inspired East Village drone while Smith explains that the people have the power—“the power to redeem the work of fools,” she sings. It’s an upbeat sentiment. “They’re used to dealing with heavy bass,” she says, gesturing at the musicians. “It’s making me nauseous. It sounds good, though.” She shades her brow, and looks out at the room, where about a dozen stagehands and their families have gathered to breathe in some rock and roll.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” she snarls. “Feedback on my vocal.” Then she tries again. When that one is over, she launches into her sandpaper-voiced version of “Gloria.” G-L-O-R-I-A. It’s a bad scene from five decades ago, filtered through the reverb of a three-decades-ago bad scene. But to say that scenes are pure until infected by commerce is to get something badly wrong about the music business, namely that it was a business, in which even the greats wrote songs for money; money is how Americans show appreciation for art, or say they are sorry, or otherwise show that their sentiments have meaning and are truly felt. In addition to writing all the music and lyrics for Nirvana, Kurt Cobain designed the band’s T-shirts and album covers and created shot-by-shot scripts for the band’s videos on MTV, as well as edited the bios and other publicity materials that helped shape the band’s narrative in the rock press. It was all part of his art, or inseparable from his art; it’s what he got paid for. “Rock and roll is a commercial art form, it’s not just about the music, it’s about what you look like, it’s about how you connect with an audience, it’s about the photos that appear in the British trades.” Nirvana’s longtime manager, Danny Goldberg, told me this when I met with him in New York, before I left for the Grammys. Even when Cobain was nodding off on rock-star doses of heroin in the MTV editing suite, Goldberg remembers, he could still identify exactly where the camera should come in and when to cut away. “He had a dark side, but he was so nice to me, you know, it was so out of proportion to anything that I did for him,” he remembered. “He was tremendously intellectually curious, incredibly creative, and had a great sense of humor; he was like a leprechaun or an elf. You’d go to wherever he was living, and he lived in a lot of places, and there’d be like reams of drawings and paintings and poems. He was also a great fan of other artists. He’d always be saying, ‘You’ve got to hear Captain America, you’ve got to hear the Jesus Lizard,’ or whatever those bands were.”
It’s a sin to visit Southern California and not drive. Freed from the darkness of the ballroom, I get my car from the valet and head for the Pacific Coast Highway, where the sun is burning through the haze, allowing me to see the curve of the coastline on the way to Malibu. The traffic is so bad here now, my friends tell me, that no one commutes to work anymore. What used to take half an hour now takes an hour, and as a result everyone works at home, the musicians in their backyard studios, the producers on iPads, and the writers on MacBook Airs, thanks be to Steve Jobs. Paul Jackson Jr., who played guitar on so many of Michael Jackson’s hits, was one of the pioneers of the Malibu recording dream of having a studio on your own property, in response to which the Studio Alliance of Southern California formed in order to prevent musicians from recording in their own homes. Now everyone has Pro Tools. Rick Rubin lives in Malibu, where he takes surfing lessons from Laird Hamilton, before Kanye shows up at his house to record.
When my coastal drive is done, I head over to the Sony lot and find my way to a large, hangar-like soundstage where Irving Azoff, the legendarily diminutive rock manager, is standing alone. On the stage in front of him, like a pop-culture mirage, are the Eagles, delivering a note-perfect version of “Hotel California.” Azoff, who is small in stature but, as his longtime publicist Larry Solters is quick to suggest, a giant to his clients, is famous for the hyper-aggressive habits of artist advocacy he perfected while simultaneously managing the Eagles, Steely Dan, Stevie Nicks, and Lindsey Buckingham and nursing Don Henley through a divorce, thus earning himself a place in rock-and-roll family history as the demented den mother of the Southern California sound.
Clive Davis and Irving Azoff are titanic opposing forces in the music biz, each representing a decades-long line of development that has been rendered obsolete by the digital age. Davis is a Harvard Law School graduate who signed Janis Joplin to an early deal for Columbia Records and then got the better of a young Bob Dylan in a contract that the singer once compared to slavery. He is a flossy Roman emperor, all artifice and fiat, who listens to ’50s musicals at home and talks about bringing a revival of My Fair Lady to Broadway. Azoff is an instinctual fan of rock-and-roll songwriting and performance; he scorns Pro Tools, iTunes, Barack Obama, and anyone else he believes is violating his artists’ intellectual property rights, which are the fruits of years of hard work at a demanding craft where the norm is failure. Writing songs that millions of people love, the songs that become standards at weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs, takes huge talent and is also unimaginably hard, he believes, which is why the hit-makers deserve to get rich.
On the day that we met, Azoff had recently left his job as head of Live Nation, a title that—in combination with his other attainments—led a number of journalists to call him the most powerful man in the music business. When I ask him how it felt to be so powerful, he scoffs: “I was king of shit.” The music business has collapsed, he says, in part because of the ever-widening split between songwriters and musicians, who have become less and less interested in learning to play their instruments, at the same time that audiences are less inclined to pay for music, and the federal government is even less inclined to enforce standing legal protections for intellectual property.
In seven or so years, the Eagles made about $700,000 from iTunes—roughly the amount they make in under one hour of playing their hits live.Tweet
“What digital has done is it’s taught generations of people to believe if it comes over the internet it should be free,” Azoff says in disgust. He tells me that he once checked the iTunes receipts for the Eagles, who are one of the top ten best-selling American recording artists in history. What he found was that upon reconciling the Eagles royalty statements from the Warner Music Group, the band had made about $700,000 from their share of however many millions of 99-cent downloads on iTunes—which equaled roughly the amount the band would make in under one hour of playing their hits live. Azoff then threatened to pull the Eagles’ music off iTunes, earning him an angry phone call from Steve Jobs. “I said, ‘Steve, for eight or nine or seven, whatever number of years it was, you paid us what we made for playing forty-two minutes of a show in Kansas City. We really don’t need your $700,000. We’ll just book another show.”
The night before the Grammys, I enter the Hilton ballroom, past three tiers of security and a long row of hired servants in tuxedos bearing canapés and mixed drinks, to find myself in a room that’s vibrating with energy—a room filled with people who are waiting to see rock stars. There is nothing that rock stars respect more than institutions; Clive Davis is an institution. Being a rock star means taking your job seriously enough to keep the joke alive, so that everyone gets paid and laid. They’re rock stars!
Dave Grohl, who was the drummer in Nirvana before becoming a bona fide rock star in his own right, is the industry’s favorite example of a model citizen—a responsible, bright, capable performer who writes hits. He is dressed for the evening in a black tuxedo jacket, which makes him look like a Romanian count, and he tells me some funny stories about Alice Cooper, who is standing in the middle of the room and loves golf. To his left is Diane Warren, who has written bushels of hits, from “A Smile Like Yours” (Natalie Cole) and “Blue Eyes Blue” (Eric Clapton) all the way down the alphabet to “You’ll Never Stand Alone” (Whitney Houston). Next to her is a buzz-cut man who is giving off a really weird vibe that neither of us can identify. His jaw is clenched, and on the lapel of his white dinner jacket is a glittering starburst-like decoration so elaborate that it has to be fake.
Cocktail hour ends, and the guests make their way to the ballroom, where the tables are now covered with white tablecloths and centerpieces of pink roses. The man in the white dinner jacket is standing three feet in front of me, working his jaw beneath his buzz cut like an aging Marine colonel played by Robert Duvall. The decoration on his lapel is more ridiculous than Alice Cooper’s hair or any rock-star outfit. It’s clear that the moment is too good to pass up. “Forgive my ignorance,” I ask politely, “but what country is that medal from?” His eyes focus on me for a moment, offering a rare combination of pity and rage.
“It’s the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” he snaps, and then he looks away, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sting or whatever it is that he’s come here for. It seems possible that he ran a corporation of some kind, like Procter & Gamble, and met Clive Davis at a rich man’s club or retreat.
“Why?” I wonder. It seems like a fair question.
“Because I went to the moon,” he answers.
I gape, and then I recover enough to ask him, “Which one are you?” I am sure that he is not Neil Armstrong, because Armstrong is dead. He gives me the look I would probably give people if I went to the moon and then came back, and then spent the rest of my life answering dumb questions from people who can’t begin to understand what it would be like to go to the moon.
“Buzz Aldrin,” he answers. Now the entire scene made sense.
“Shit,” I say. “What are you doing here?”
“Thinking about the future!” he answers, a bit too quick. Something in the way I asked that question obviously spooked him. Being a bit jumpy seems like a reasonable lifelong consequence of being blasted off the earth into space, where for all you or anyone else knew you might have spent the rest of your brief existence. What’s worse is to survive, and to carry the burden of something unspeakable. Astronauts and rock stars belong together, because they are both screens for the projections of masses of people who want their own experiences to mean something they can feel but can’t name. It is no accident that Michael Jackson’s defining move was called the moonwalk. He was also an astronaut.
“You touched the moon,” I exclaim. While Buzz Aldrin is looking around for proof of intelligent life on Earth, I am trying to knit together the frayed ends of a story: the music business was the product of a dream of connection to something larger than ourselves, which was taken over first by large corporations, then by television, then by the internet, and then it died. The high-end psychological baggage that rock stars carry is a comforting and familiar-enough metaphor through which I understand the dynamics of my much less glamorous life, which died for the same reason that the music business died, and the dream of living on the moon or Mars died, namely, because enough people have bought the lie that being a poster on someone else’s wall is the equivalent of actually knowing someone, or going somewhere, or creating art.
“Would you sign my invitation to Mr. Davis’s party, please?” I ask him. When the second man to walk on the moon touches his pen to a piece of paper that represents the apogee of achievement in the music business, the void will open.
“I don’t do that,” Aldrin harrumphs. For a moment, I wonder what he means by “that”? Sign autographs? Use a pen? The clear instability in Aldrin’s reality frame makes it impossible for me to be sure. Then he is gone.
“It is not an understatement to say that our host is a true genius,” says Neil Portnow, the head of the Academy, welcoming Davis to the mic. “Many, many nights we heard the phenomenal Whitney Houston,” intones Davis, in his capacity as master of ceremonies, which he will perform with unctuous pride for the next four hours or longer. “Whether you’re an executive, a writer, a producer,” he offers, “everyone in this room loves music,” which seems fair enough. “I’m not sure you’re aware of who is among us,” he says, moving from his funeral director’s voice to the voice of a waiter presenting the dessert cart at Le Cirque.
“She’s one of the most influential songwriters of our time, a winner of seven Grammys,” he says. “She attends very few parties.” The answer is Joni Mitchell, whose presence here certifies that Clive Davis is also a legend, whose guests are also legends, who are ordered according to the number of albums sold and Grammys won, and are joined by legends from other fields of popular endeavor. The multiplatinum artist is Sting. The quarterback who led his team to the Super Bowl is Colin Kaepernick. There is something delightfully Dada about Davis’s rambles.
“You are going to cancel any ephemeral absentminded appointment you have ever made,” the host instructs. “The culture of electronic dance music has to be represented . . .” Odd head motion. “We all must adapt . . .” Seeming aphasia, leading to a moment of sharp emotional clarity: “I need your respect and attention.” He pays tribute to Sean “Diddy” Combs, as he does every year, to certify that he is down. “I was knocked out by his vision and articulateness,” he explains. “And then he played me a song that sounded like a smash.”
Now it’s time for the music. “An all-time great . . . I discovered this artist . . . she’s a living landmark . . . she’s a singer-songwriter . . . she’s a photographer,” he lists proudly, as though ticking off the features on his brand-new car. “It is with emotion . . . it is with pride . . . it is with pure love . . .” It is Patti Smith, with Lenny Kaye standing next to her in a tux.
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins,” she sings, “but not mine.” She still has a Michigan auto-body-factory yawp in her voice, and she looks even scarier onstage now that she is no longer young. In an oversize men’s white shirt and a loose black tie, she looks like the devil’s own bag lady.
It is important to remember that Davis was young once, too. His office on the top floor of the Sony Building is furnished with a weird combination of robber-baron-era polished wood and Louis XIV decadence, which might impress musicians, most of whom grew up poor, like Clive, whose own childhood was as dysfunctional and fucked up as that of any ghetto rapper: his father had an affair with his aunt before both his parents died in accidents, leaving him in the care of the aunt whom his father was having the affair with. Now he helps multiplatinum recording artists fulfill their dreams. Alicia Keys had dreamed of performing with Aretha Franklin, and he made it happen. He brought Puffy to Capri. And once a year, the crazy beautiful Clive-o-centric world inside his 82-year-old skull matches up exactly with the world inside the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. “Brandy, sit down,” Davis commands. “I’ve met a lady who was married to a Beatle. That’s always special,” he muses, by way of introducing Olivia Harrison, George’s widow.
The Lumineers play a song, and the lead singer doesn’t approve of the response. After all, the band had the third-most-popular song on Spotify in Brooklyn this summer. “Everybody stand up,” he commands. “We’d like to feel a little more energy in the room.” On the one hand, his request is a measure of the band’s own inadequacy. But the room stands, in part because the request obeyed two of the nine rules of hit songwriting—a command, followed by a personal statement.
“Thank you for listening, thank you for giving us a chance,” the other boy Lumineer says earnestly. They are stars, for daring to ask for what they wanted at Clive Davis’s party. Their music is something that they will have to work on.
L. A. Reid is introduced by his partner, the songwriter Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. Babyface is a gas. He is way looser and funnier than Clive Davis, or anyone else here. “He was in this band called the Deele. I was in this band called Manchild,” he deadpans. “There was a thing called ‘breed’ back then,” Babyface explains. “It was an attitude.” He pauses, letting the silence do its work. “L. A. said I wasn’t breed enough. So I went away and worked on my breed. I got my hair together. I got my lips together.” His delivery is all about sideways variations on the deadpan, which he has mastered at the highest comedic levels. Everyone laughs at the idea of a 21-year-old L. A. Reid in purple spandex pants.
Usher walks onstage, and launches into “U Got It Bad.” He moves the mic when he sings, varying the distance and angle to better modulate his voice. L. A. Reid is floored. “It was so intimate,” he says, after Usher is done. “I just loved it.”
After dessert, I notice Joni Mitchell standing nearby. I tell her that every woman I ever loved owned at least one copy of Blue. Now my 4-year-old daughter Susannah draws while listening to “Big Yellow Taxi.” Impulsively, she hugs me, and gives me a kiss on the cheek before answering, “She had to start somewhere.” She tells me that she and Neil Young both grew up in the same lonesome part of Canada, and were affected by the same childhood epidemic, at the same age, in the same year.
Half the people in the room leave before the night is over, which means that it is possible to get a better table, close to the stage, as Clive continues on with his routine. Wiz Khalifa is here, as are Alicia Keys and her husband, Swizz Beatz. The Midnight Cowboy himself, Jon Voight, is here. The final duet features Jennifer Hudson and Gladys Knight.
As the lights come up, I have no idea what to say. Then I realize I should thank Clive Davis for having me as a guest at his party. So I go up to the stage, where he is standing with Michael Ahern. “That was a wonderful party,” I tell him, sincerely. “Thank you for having me.” He takes my hand and gives it a shake.
“You’re welcome,” he says, sadly.