Dig just past the shiny surface of today’s mainstream pop music, and you might find yourself asking questions like, “Why does it take seven people to write a song that sounds like it came from a computer?”
In the case of the current smash hit “The Middle” by Zedd, Grey and Maren Morris — which has topped Billboard’s pop radio airplay and dance music charts while collecting hundreds of millions of digital streams on services like Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music — the process went far beyond even its three lead artists and seven credited songwriters.
What began as a demo by a behind-the-scenes Los Angeles studio team and a young wallflower singer from Australia took more than a year of fiddling between the germ of the idea and its Top 40 debut, a creative roller coaster that included three distinct waves of musical production, 14 prospective vocalists, a corporate tie-in and a video premiere during the Grammys.
Lennon-McCartney this was not.
But while “The Middle” and other would-be major hits of its ilk may strike some purists (or snobs) as cynical — compositions by committee, designed for mass appeal and maximum pleasure — they are also meticulously constructed, deeply collaborative and often inventive, squeezing multiple moods and genres into a three-minute package that can somehow feel universal.
In the inaugural Diary of a Song, a new video series from the pop music team of The New York Times that pulls back the curtain on how music is made today, we tracked the writing and production of “The Middle” through voice memos, demo versions, text messages, emails, interviews and more provided by those behind the track.
The material revealed an intricate dance between no fewer than eight collaborators — including, ultimately, an incongruous pair: the producer-D.J. Zedd and the pop-country singer Maren Morris — all of whom put egos and personal preferences aside in service of the sonic whole.