The Secret Of Dr. Luke's Success (Might Stay A Secret Forever)
Today on Morning Edition, Linda Wertheimer interviewed Lukasz Gottwald, the songwriter and producer who has been conquering the pop charts since he co-wrote Kelly Clarkson's smash "Since U Been Gone" in 2004. This summer, his domination became complete -- songs he worked on with Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Taio Cruz all became huge hits. In the interview, Dr. Luke says his goal is to figure out how to match great songs with artists to "have them shine in a way hopefully a lot of people will like." How exactly does he do it? Jacob Ganz and Maura Johnston try to figure out the doctor's secret.
Jacob Ganz: Hi Maura. I was just listening to that Adam Lambert song, "For Your Entertainment," for the first time in preparation for our chat about Dr. Luke.
Maura Johnston: Nice. What did you think of it?
JG: I liked it but was trying to think of when I would want to listen to it.
MJ: The gym?
JG: Maybe. It's one of those songs that would definitely play in a club scene in CSI.
MJ: Hahahaha. YES.
JG: Also, I had to keep checking back on the YouTube to make sure he didn't have a female back-up singer hitting those high notes late in the song. Dude is pretty intense, huh?
MJ: Oh yes. Did you not see him on Idol?
JG: I did. His was the one season I watched every episode of, but I could feel the "performance" much more watching him live.
MJ: Yeah, the record is very smoothed-out.
JG: And also there's that weird protective feeling you get watching the contestants on that show that you definitely don't get when they're the star in the video.
JG: Anyway, if they ever remake that Mad Max movie, he should definitely play the Tina Turner role. Ok! Should we talk about Dr. Luke?
JG: It feels a little late to be having this conversation, in a way.
MJ: He is still on top of the charts, though.
JG: Yep. Between Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Taio Cruz, it's been a full summer of Dr. Luke on the radio. But is there anything that ties his songs together? Is there a specific thing in a song where you KNOW it's a Dr. Luke track?
MJ: Hmm. Well, it's funny because he frequently works with collaborators.
JG: That reminds me -- I'm sidetracking the conversation already -- did you see that thing Sasha Frere-Jones wrote on his Tumblr?
MJ: No ...
JG: Here you go:
Handy steam-powered app to tell the difference between Dr. Luke tracks:
Killer chorus? Wrote song with Max Martin.
Familiar enough to skirt copyright infringement and low on melody? Did not write song with Max Martin.
MJ: Hahaha. Well, there is one wild card in that equation. The Sugababes song "About You Now," written with Cathy Dennis. Also, I think "Your Love Is My Drug" is a key counterexample. The chorus on that song is awesome. And it's not a Max Martin collaboration.
MJ: I feel like what he does with the songs he works on is editing. Like, it seems like he is very good at bringing out a song's essence.
JG: Isn't that a little weird to say? I just mean because so many of his songs are about exactly the same thing. He's writing dance club pop, and most of the songs fit in one of two molds. Either the singer addresses a generic (but intense) love interest (see: Ke$ha's "Your Love Is My Drug" or Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream")
The singer talks about what an awesome time they're going to have while they're out at a club, presumably listening to the awesome song that they're singing right now, at this very moment. (see: Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" or Ke$ha's "Tik Tok")
MJ: But the thing is, I'm not really talking about on a lyrical level, I guess I'm more talking about how the music seems to have this visceral effect. W/r/t the Katy and Ke$ha songs, so many people have said, "I didn't want to like it but it broke me down."
MJ: So wait, let's get to the thing where he talks about filling seats, because the thing is, I think most of the artists he works with are not meant to be experienced live unless they bring a Gaga-sized spectacle along with them.
JG: Ok, in the Morning Edition interview, Linda Wertheimer asked Luke why he works with so many women and he said "female artists sell a lot more records and get played a lot more on the radio." And he adds that radio is the thing that drives artists' careers and that you can't sell seats at a concert without a big radio hit.
JG: He also mentions that "Since U Been Gone" wasn't originally written for Kelly Clarkson and that "Party in the USA" was originally written from an "adult British" perspective, and that the line "welcome to the land of fame/excess" was originally "welcome to the land of fame and sex." which means Miley being the singer actually changed that song significantly. It could have been much more "American Boy."
MJ: I wonder if the Jay-Z line ("The taxi man turned on the radio and the Jay-Z song was on") would have stayed in. You heard about that, right? After the song, Miley admitted that she had never listened to a Jay-Z song.
JG: You have to love Miley's honesty. Speaking of matching artists to songs, there's that bit in the New York Magazine profile from earlier in the summer where Luke talks about how after he's hooked up with Max Martin and they've written "Since U Been Gone," he tries to get the song to Pink, but can't reach her. And then they send it to Clarkson, who is "unexpectedly the exact right artist."
MJ: Hmm. Because she has the vocal chops?
JG: Yeah, I think "unexpected" because she had done mostly Idol-style ballads at that point in her career. And "exactly right" because she sounds great over those guitars.
MJ: Before that everyone had thought of Pink as the only pop-rock type.
JG: Yeah, she's aggressive and punky, where Kelly brings a little bit of hurt to that song. Which makes the chorus so much more cathartic.
JG: So now I'm wondering if Dr. Luke's particular genius is matching an artist to a song in his repertoire. Which brings us back to your comment about his ability to edit a song.
MJ: I think that is part of it. I mean, as I've written before, there's definitely a line through his productions, even if people willfully ignore the guy behind the curtain.
JG: That's a good point. What these quotes on Morning Edition, and what the NYMag article, and Sean Fennessey's post in Sound of the City all suggest to me is that he's actually a little bit of the classic pop svengali, that he has this stable of artists, and if a song doesn't quite work for one of them, he can unplug one singer and plug in another. I know that's not giving enough credit the artists themselves, many of whom co-write the songs.
MJ: I would think that is true. And there are probably up-and-coming artists clamoring to work with him as well although he might not be that into artists who are clamoring to collab with him, ha.
JG: Ok, just two more quick things:
1. Luke works with a bunch of artists who are either anodyne or annoying or (Ke$ha) both and somehow manages to make them into pop stars. But they're still not appealing, are they? Like, does anyone want to be Katy Perry?
MJ: God help us. Ke$ha maybe. Because she is the "badass," like she's the grown-up-ish manifestation of the sassy kid on a sitcom. "Omg, I totally threw up in Paris Hilton's closet" and so on.
JG: I feel like as a singer, she's not really up to the level of the songs. It's not that her voice is bad, exactly. It's almost that her sense of rhythm is off.
MJ: She was not good live.
JG: But as long as we're calling Dr. Luke some kind of puppet master, you could almost say he's turned that into an asset. She sounds like she's hung over. A little behind the beat, a little slurry. But she had a way better time than you last night. Which definitely fits the image the songs are projecting.
JG: The second thing I keep trying to figure out about him is what his "style" or "sound" might be. And maybe this is a losing game. That NYMag profile talked a lot about how he writes rewrites and how hard he listens and how well he's riding the pop wave of the moment. There's that quote where he says "Three months from now, my sound could be over." But I don't know what his sound is. I mean, if you were talking about the hip hop producers of 10 years ago ... Timbaland has exotic beats, backward drums, stuff like that. The Neptunes are sharp and crisp and use those robotic sounding synths. But what does a Dr. Luke song sound like?
MJ: I think his sound has had a few permutations. But that's the big question, I think. To me, what it mostly sounds is current. Which I know is not really a precise answer, but he has this knack for anticipating trends and finding the right packages for them. Like Katy Perry and Ke$ha, the two most prominent up-and-comers he's worked with, were, as you said before, really annoying. But annoyance works. (See also Fergie, ahem.)
JG: Maybe the other key is, it's hard to tell exactly what he's doing on a song. He's pretty quick to give artists credit for co-writing, and to acknowledge that he has collaborators.
MJ: I think that's the true essence of his genius actually. He's very ... Wizard of Oz.
JG: It's weird, the times I can actually tell there's a "producer" on his tracks are the moments that don't work.
MJ: Like which ones?
JG: He goes over the top sometimes. In Kelly Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck Without You," at 2:58 in the song, there's a ridiculous drum fill before she hits the last chorus, like NOW I REALLY MEAN IT! And it's just so unnecessary, because Kelly's doing fine on her own. But he had to stick one more element into the song to push it over the top.
MJ: I was very chilly on that song when it first came out. It's still one of my least favorites on that album.
MJ: I think his most underrated song is Pink's "Who Knew," which is pretty much a slightly slowed down, more tempered "Since U Been Gone."
JG: I love the Avril Lavigne song "Hot," which he produced but didn't write. It's essentially four songs in one: A Diane Warren style ballad, semi-liberated Kelly-style chugging pop, a "Please love me" interlude straight from Grey's Anatomy, and then a weird little hair metal guitar thing in the chorus.
MJ: That song is a crazy collision. It sounds good at the gym. All of Dr. Luke's songs sound good at the gym.