Saturday, 9 April 2011


Time for another "curmudgeonly old man" post. I know you all love them. I get to vent my anger about something new and foreign to me and you get to enjoy my flowing, but vitriolic prose. It's win-win. So here we go: is it me or is pop music getting worse?

Pictured: the good old days.

I know the music industry is thriving (despite what the mainstream press may say). We are living in a music revolution, with more bands, more labels and more access to great music. I am slanted towards alternative and indie music, which has changed dramatically in my lifetime, but mainstream pop has only seen some small changes. It seems like only a little while ago people were talking about the "democratization" of music, how anyone could record a song and put it up on MySpace, for millions of potential fans to hear. Record companies could become irrelevant, due to digital distribution and low-cost, high-quality home recording equipment and software. That dream never really fully came to fruition, instead we have seen the inevitable march of music, it's evolution and amalgamation of styles. Sometimes this can be great. Sometimes it can be a monstrosity.

"Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I present to you Exhibit A. Exhibit A please stop grinding against the defence solicitor."

Over time new music genres emerge. These genres are then blended with other genres, creating new genres and new music. This can create some great music, because it means that songs and artists aren't "tied down" by the rules or expectations of one genre of music. Sometimes, however, a more cynical, analytical method can be used. By researching the most popular songs of the time, and identifying common elements, it is possible to extract the information necessary to create a song that, mathematically, has a high probability of success. I think science and maths is great, but to see it used for such a capitalist endeavour leaves me cold. There are elements we can see in today's charts that are common to all the big songs. "Big Euro synths" are popular, as are having a rapper featured on the track. I wouldn't say auto-tune is a part of this, quite literally, formulaic approach - it is just cheaper to record the vocals in a couple of takes and apply auto-tune than record 30 takes to get it perfect, editing them all together. I don't think I am some kind of conspiracy theorist: listen to the Top 40 and tell me it isn't all largely similar.

Okay maybe not 'largely similar'. 'Carbon copies of generic pop mulch' is more eloquent.

Something you may have noticed is that lyrics are quickly becoming much simpler. There is a swerve towards the sound of the lyrics being more important than their meaning. They still pretty much make sense, you won't find any esoteric, abstract word-poetry in a Black Eyed Peas song - but increased use of repetition and general move towards lyrics that, in some cases, a 13-year-old could write is particularly disturbing. You've probably seen the Rebecca Black video. Obviously it is awful, but I would ask if - aside from the glossier production and higher-budget music video - there is any real difference between "Friday" and "I Gotta Feeling"? Both exhibit lazy song writing and both are popular - people chose to view Rebecca Black's song as bad because it didn't quite tick all of the boxes of a modern pop song. The lyrics, perhaps, were too simple. But Black Eyed Peas resort to listing the days of the week and nobody bats an eyelid.

Pictured: the Black Eyed Peas' Offical Songbook

I suppose you could say that not all pop music is like that. And you would be correct. I am mindful of referring to "disturbing trends" that aren't really trends at all (the phrase gets used a lot in political discussions) but when I think back, the pop that I disliked in the 90s - by comparison - sounds Earth-shatteringly brilliant by today's standards.

And everybody did, indeed, get up.

I said before I am slanted towards the alternative music scene. I don't buy or listen to pop music. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a decent pop song. And there are some good tunes out there. It is just that record companies have figured out an equation for success and they will continue to use it as long as people continue to buy those singles. Because that is what pop music is really all about. Alternative musicians aren't bothered about single sales - most of them give MP3s of their latest single away on their website for free - but the pop industry thrives on it. It is their barometer for success and quality. Indie artists can make most of their money from live tours and album sales. With some indie artists you can buy the album directly from the artist, or through a portal that promises most of the money from the sale goes to the musicians. For pop musicians the album is just a collection of singles to be released. They aren't "records" in the true sense. The thing is I don't know anyone who actually buys singles - what is the point? - but there must be people who do, otherwise the charts wouldn't make any sense. I would like to see some analysis of the type of people who buy singles, where from, why, etc. For all we know the single charts are being manipulated by three 14-year-old girls.

Pictured: every single person who still buys singles.

Okay that's enough blathering. In conclusion this new music is just noise and you whipper-snappers need to listen to some proper music for a change. Now get off my lawn.

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