High in the Hollywood Hills, in a cramped home music studio stuffed with a dozen keyboards, a rack of electric guitars, a messy pile of pedals and power cords, a tambourine, and a cowbell, Dr. Luke is trying to get inside your head. He knows how to get in there. He’s been in there before. He might even be in there right now.
Dr. Luke—born Lukasz Gottwald in 1973 in Providence, Rhode Island—is the music producer responsible, in whole or in part, for the following chart-topping songs: “Since U Been Gone,” by Kelly Clarkson (2004); “Girlfriend,” by Avril Lavigne (2007); “Right Round,” by Flo Rida (2009); “Tik Tok,” by Kesha (2009); and “I Kissed a Girl,” by Katy Perry. That last song, by most counts, was the unofficial 2008 Song of the Summer—a title conferred by a loose consensus of critics, bloggers, radio D.J.’s, and teens with very loud car stereos. This year’s Song of the Summer battle is shaping up as a bout between “Your Love Is My Drug,” from Kesha, a 23-year-old party girl who spells her name with a dollar sign (Ke$ha), and “California Gurls,” the new single from Katy Perry, a former gospel singer who’s now a kind of candy-coated cross between Betty Boop and Kesha. “California Gurls” itself is a diabolically confectionary ode to sunshine, melting Popsicles, Sex on the Beach, and Daisy Duke shorts, and it recently ascended to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and the iTunes best-seller list. Both of these summer-song contenders, by the way, are also produced by Dr. Luke.
In short, if a recent radio hit was catchy, bubbly, infectious, maddeningly unavoidable, and featured an invocation to raise or wave your hands in the air, there is a very good chance that Dr. Luke was involved in its creation. In an age when our musical tastes are famously fractured and our listening habits supposedly unfathomable, Dr. Luke produces pop songs that millions of people embrace and that no one can escape. He does this partly by turning out earworm hooks and rocking beats, like any successful producer. But he also does this by sitting in his studio, listening. He’s a prodigious, even unparalleled, listener. And what he’s hearing these days—again and again—are tomorrow’s No. 1 hits.
The summer song, that unabashed blast of aural bubblegum delivered straight to the pleasure center of your brain, may be the last bastion of our collective musical experience. Even if you didn’t run out and buy “I Kissed a Girl” on iTunes or download it as a ringtone to your cell phone two years ago, I can’t imagine you didn’t hear it somewhere, constantly, whether on the radio, or at the gym, or leaking from your kids’ bedroom or from the earbuds of the guy next to you on the subway. Whether you love these songs or hate them, the very fact that we strive to coronate a Song of the Summer reflects a persistent desire to share one last listening experience—to still bob our heads, or wave our hands, or even turn up our noses, in unison. Neal Medlyn, a New York performance artist, hosts “Our Hit Parade,” a monthly show at Joe’s Pub in which downtown performers adapt the week’s top-ten songs. “These songs are these really amazing machines, which the thinking crowd often doesn’t give them credit for,” he says. “It’s like they’re mathematically devised to get in your head and make you love them.”
Right now, no one is assembling these machines more expertly than Dr. Luke. In fact, the cases both for and against him can be built on the exact same evidence: that his ability to turn out consistent chart-toppers suggests something repetitive and formulaic. “If you look at his discography, there are so many gigantic songs,” says the music critic Maura Johnston. “He clearly has this formula that works. A friend said to me, ‘I can’t get ‘California Gurls’ out of my head. I hated it at first. But it totally overtook me.’ ” A Dr. Luke song reliably involves tension-building verses followed by a soaring, strap-yourself-in chorus (a poppified take on the old grunge approach); no end of bleep-blorp synthesizing (both instrumental and vocal) borrowed gleefully from eighties electro-pop; and an unapologetic, don’t-even-think-you-won’t-be-humming-this-all-summer hook. He’s successfully cracked the secret to what once seemed like a musical oxymoron: the aggressively sunny song that melds “the veneer of rock and the sheen of pop,” in the words of Sean Fennessey, a critic for Spin and the Village Voice, who adds, “It’s this amazing weaving of different genres. And you can’t really see the seams.” Of his work, Dr. Luke says simply, “I want to make songs that reach a lot of people and are fun and spread joy. You can make depressing music, that’s cool, and maybe I’ll want to do that sometime. But for now, I want fun stuff.”