Sia, Rihanna, Stargate, "Chopping Broccoli" and "Diamonds"-gate: You think making the sausage is easy?

We, as human beings in the 21st century, are, if anything else, believers in mythology. We believe that capital acquisition will make us happy; we believe that eternal war is the price of freedom; and above all, we believe that music, really moving popular music that resonates with a wide swath of the population, is difficult to create. The singer, the songwriter, the producer, these people labor endlessly behind-the-scenes, their wizard-like toil and trouble eventually resulting in the dulcet tones that will describe to us what our own times and lives sound like.

Yet sometimes, glimpses of the man behind the curtain are accidentally revealed to us. This week, a bit of attention was paid to a 36-year-old Australian woman named SIA, a singer/songwriter who has co-written a number of massive hits for other, more well-known artists. At an event billed as the Norwegian-American Achievement Awards this past Wednesday, where the Norwegian production cabal known by the occult-ish nom de guerre STARGATE were the recipients of the coveted Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce Achievement Award, Sia, accompanied by the sweet, sweet piano ticklings of the Stargate duo, performed “Diamonds”, a song that she wrote for Barbados-born controversy magnet RIHANNA. Though little fanfare was made of the fact that both singer and songwriter choose mysteriously to forgo their surnames in hopes of joining the rarified pantheon of godlike artists who are Known By Only One Name (Madonna, Sade, Gerardo, Taco), significantly more digital ones-and-zeros ink was spilled on the apparent revelation that not only did Rihanna not actually write this touching ode to one’s own innate ability to be beautiful like terrestrial jewelry, but that Sia’s vocalizations were pretty much copied verbatim by The One They Call Rihanna.

Rihanna, Sia, Stargate, all of their respective handlers, and indeed the entire recorded music industry, should be sighing deeply in relief that this is all that anyone seemed to notice, however; because the woman named Sia, at this same performance/awards ceremony, in an offhand moment, almost let slip some industry secrets that are normally guarded more closely than the President of our own nation’s beloved nuclear football: that writing songs is fucking easy. Standing onstage with her laptop, Sia casually remarks that it took her a mere twenty-two minutes to write the lyrics to “Diamonds”, and that a full twenty-six minutes were all that separated the time in our history when the song “Diamonds” did not exist, and the era we now live in where it does. Twenty-six minutes! It takes longer for bread to be buttered the correct way, or for one to properly fold up and let fly a paper aeroplane.

One can only imagine the calamity that awaited Sia backstage, as representatives of the music industry shuttled her off to a hidden bunker while they awaited for the Fourth Estate to pounce on this revelation that the biggest musical hit requires little to no effort to create. But it was not to be, at least this time. Notably, this information has been made public knowledge twice before, although curiously enough, nobody seemed to really take notice in any real and significant way.

Most recently was in a brutal and cutting expose by those vicious rapscallions at the magazine The New Yorker. Like all who call that cruel and unforgiving isle home, the New Yorker staff are known for their biting “journalism”, and the way that they take a topic and just peel off the skin as if it were but an onion until the subject screams “No more, no more!” This March, an unscrupulous writer of theirs named John Seabrook unleashed a scabrous expose of the lack of cloth shielding the privates of the emperor in a piece entitled The Song Machine. In it, he describes the workaday proclivities of the Stargate shadow-clan, honing in on the way that they use a woman named Ester Dean as a human hook creator, chaining her metaphorically to a microphone for inhuman stretches while they force her inhuman shrieks to eventually conform to the sonic shape of the future sound of modern radio. To wit:

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 it’s not,” she told me. “And I just see when I get this little chill, here”—she touched her upper arm, just below the shoulder—“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.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I certainly felt a “little chill” just by being exposed to that mortifying tale of sadistic exploitation. Can we ever really participate in the free market of modern pop music once we know, as they say, how the sausage is made?

The second instance in which it was revealed how this horrifying product is manufactured occurred in 1986, and is mostly remembered, if at all, as a piece of hilarious farce. I am, of course, referring to a Saturday Night Live sketch starring Dana Carvey, the late Phil Hartman, and Alien temptress Sigourney Weaver, known in the common parlance as “The Chopping Broccoli Sketch.” In this sketch, Dana Carvey portrays Derek Stevens, a washed-up British rock-and-pop superstar whose lifetime of substance abuse has eroded his brio and talent. Hartman and Weaver are executives at Stevens’s record label, eager to help resuscitate his career.

The sketch revolves around a meeting, called ostensibly for the executives to hear a demonstration recording of Stevens’s new music, songs that will a) make them money and b) put Stevens back on top in the recording industry. It is clear to us, the audience, that Stevens doesn’t have any music written-- his shifty, sunken eyes properly betray the common deception of the chemically dependent ne’er-do-well; we’ve all been on at least one side of this all-too-common presentation of lies-as-fact. The sketch’s notoriety is due to what happens next, as Stevens sits at a piano and attempts to play his “new” “music” for his hungry A&R audience. What we see next is a deep dark and revelatory peek into the decayed soul of artistic creation, as Stevens plunks some chords and upchucks the wonder that is “The Lady I Know”, a trifle-as-song whose genesis is the title, thought up on the spot. The song culminates in a crescendo of faked emotion, with repeated lines of how the titular Lady is “chopping broccoli.”

This, folks, is how the sausage is made: it isn’t a group of wizards working complicated magic, nor a crew of musical scientists crunching impossible equations that result in the tones that we all eventually equate with the best and worst times of our existence. No, those songs that we love, songs that eventually become synonymous with the very nature of sentiment and nostalgia, were, let’s face it, banged out in seconds by folks too busy snorting and texting and golfing to go the extra mile. The rest is smoke and mirrors, of course, with an industry second only to our own Military-Industrial Complex intent on obfuscating this obvious truth. The success of “Diamonds”, like any popular hit, continues this cycle-- with more time spent on choosing the brand of champagne for the inevitable “It Went Platinum, Bitch!” party than it did to write and record the song itself. A famous poet once said “I’ve got my mind on my money and my money on my mind”-- but who has their mind on the clock when these crucial musical origins are occurring? The answer is simple: the mythmakers who have a vested interest in our slavish mental devotion to their fever-dream creations. This “blog” piece is but a humble attempt to rattle the pillars of the temple.
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