Being of a certain age – I’m 55 – and a music guy, I naturally share some of the perspectives of my late boomer cohort. Newer, we’ve learned, is not always better. We’ve experienced the depth of analog recording, we remember the visual richness of Super 8, we’ve watched Antonioni without a fast-forward button and understand the value of a longer attention span.
But sometimes the opinions of colleagues, friends and acquaintances in my demographic shade into cranky middle-age guy prejudice. Specifically when it comes to pop music.
I’ve been a casual-to-heavy listener to pop music since about 1966, and a lifelong student of the pop song. I tuned out briefly in the late ‘90s when my kids were little and tuned back in in the early 2000s. I make a point of listening to pop radio from time to time. Because to me there’s nothing better than a great pop song.
With this in mind, I decided to look through the top 100 songs from each year of from the last six decades. After scanning the charts, and listening to any unfamiliar cuts, I can say that current pop music (2012-2013) is no worse nor any better now than average. There are lots of mediocre songs that are popular, and some good ones, and occasional great ones. It was ever thus. This is the result I expected and was based entirely on my own subjective judgment about the songs on the lists.
This is not to say that tastes and programming decisions don’t fluctuate over the years to render some eras more fertile with creativity than others. The music of the mid-to-late 60s and early 70s seemed to yield more good hit songs than average, while the 80s were particularly rife with bad hit songs.
What this survey reinforced for me is the notion that pop music has more continuity than not, that it is primarily young people’s music, and that if you don’t like one song, just wait for the next one to come on.
Jesse Walkershaw says
Perhaps, but there are sure some god awful trends in modern music that may make pop a bit worse than in days gone by. Auto tune, which should make a vocal sound better, just robs it of any discernible human character. Over compression of every song, so it can compete in the loudness war. Pop culture in general being more and more self referential, so despite the globalization of culture, fewer and fewer ideas are being used as a basis of creation.
Still a good song is still a good song, and some things that are not exactly good songs are still catchy and fun.
Tripped over this today https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEx_bg1RQw0 as a fer instance.
Bill Burnett says
Having discussed this tangentially and actually with you a number of times over the years I have found you to have what I call a Homologous view of pop music.(ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: via medieval Latin from Greek homologos ‘agreeing, consistent,’ from homos ‘same’ + logos ‘ratio, proportion.’ It seems to be important to you to maintain that there is an equal proportion of good Pop music at all times, and that the perception that certain eras contained more good stuff than others is an illusion created, I guess, by when one “comes of age.”
I strongly disagree. I feel that there are socio-economic, demographic technological and artistic forces that produce great eras in various styles and those eras pass. Jazz, for instance, burst through big time in the 20s and stayed strong for a while and then wound down until the Charlie Parker/Coltrane/Miles Davis gang came along and revived it and it has now wound down again. Not that there aren’t great jazz players now, but that ground has been covered and there can never again be the type of jazz breakthrough we saw in the age of Miles. The 60s represented a confluence of forces that made Pop POP!…The gradual accumulation of styles, from Tin Pan Alley, to Blues to R&B to Rock n Roll to , to Folk-Pop to Folk Rock to ROCK, the sort of catch-all phrase for all of it being stirred together. AND the brief relaxation of the racial divide that existed for so long with Race records and segregated radio stations and segregated clubs. That vanished for a while and we had Motown and Stacks and Atlantic artists like Aretha being played on the same stations as white British groups and country artists and folk musicians, all of whom were of course inspired by the black artists and by the white composers who had dominated the early 20th century. And of course, The Beatles! And KABOOM, a huge renaissance of POP flourished for a decade or maybe two. But then the record industry and radio and MTV industry figured out how to reinstate racialism through DEMOGRAPHICS. It wasn’t racist, it was business. You couldn’t argue with business. Remember that there were no black artists on MTV for years until Michael Jackson broke through with Thriller. (And HE was busy turning himself white!) Anyway, Pop has wound down now and just keeps recycling and regurgitating the same rhythms and riffs and approaches to music, but with bigger production techniques and greater textures. The craft of songwriting has atrophied into collages of texture and rhythm that are powerful but not really songs. And songs was what it was all about. I have experienced this first hand as a creator of TV shows. When it was necessary to indicate that a kid of today’s parents had “gone back in time” it was not possible to do so with the music that those people would have actually grown up with because “their” music was IDENTICAL to the music of today. So we had to fudge it with “old timey” music like Scott Joplin or Big band, even though those characters would have been young decades after big band was the dominant style. Rudy Tabootie’s parents would have been listening to Talking Heads and Blondie when they were young, and those bands sound just like music sounds today, in terms of the rhythms and instrumentation used. Pop has stopped.
I don’t want to argue with the naysayers over questions of taste. I do, however, have to dispute the idea that there is no innovation in today’s pop, because that is patently incorrect. There is a lot of innovation in pop music in terms of beats, feels, rhythm, sounds, vocal performance, ornamentation, melodic and harmonic signatures. The hot music from this year sounds quite distinct from music of three years ago, let alone from the music of the Talking Heads and Blondie. As far as not really being songs: yes, music today is more production-focused. Every era has a different understanding of what a “song” means, yet there is still plenty of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus going on, I assure you.
Further, my main point was never that music from all eras is equivalent in terms of quality, but that there is always worthy pop music among the dreck. It ebbs and flows. As I said, the 80s were a particularly dull period for pop hits, the 60s were particularly fertile.
But in response to the pushback, and in the interest of taking a longer view, I did further research – http://tsort.info/music/. I looked at the top hits by decade starting in the 1920s. I was less familiar with the music from the pre-war years, but surprisingly only by a little. This is because there are many big hits from that era – particularly the 30s – that are still widely known today.
While the sweet spot of the 1960s and 1970s was still apparent, it was nothing compared to the sweet spot of the 1930s. That was an era that was lousy with great songs. Wonderful melodies and clever, tightly-written lyrics. Certainly there was some crap, but more good and great than any other era by far.
Which brings me back to what people of my parents’ generation thought about the music of my youth. They saw the poor rhymes, the impressionistic lyrics, the shrieking vocals, the loudness, the aggression, as deficiencies. These were not really songs to them. The hits relied too much on performance and recording, the songwriting skills had atrophied. I can see their point.
But for a young person who had the time to really listen – through repeated listenings – there was some really beautiful music from the 60s and 70s. The impressionistic lyrics opened up new forms of expression. The raw abandon of rock music was thrilling. There was a feeling of honesty that was lacking in the earlier era. The sound of a recording became as much a part of the song as the music-and-lyrics structure. But these were not obvious or welcome to those who had accustomed themselves to a different way of hearing a song.
Perhaps what the youth of any era have for their own era’s music is more time. They have time – doing their homework, working their shitty summer job, hanging out at parties – to fuck around and hear the music repeatedly and in the right social-emotional context. Repeated exposure to something makes you hear what you might at first miss or dismiss.
Anyhow, I’m not going to talk you into liking something with a blog. But rest assured, there are those from our demographic still finding some exhilaration, some joy and some beauty in today’s pop hits.
I exactly agree with Bill B.
I would add that we are in a phase where most of what happens truly mimics a somewhat narrow set of long-running pat styles, featuring little innovation even within those styles. That is fundamentally different than a golden age. The simplest way to say it is that we don’t appear to be in a golden age right now. Many hip teenagers will attest to this so it’s not old fart-ism, it’s merely the status of affairs and kids are experiencing it too. I think it’s because the soul is gone from pop music. Inept self-conscious forms little advance the project of the muse.
Anne Temple says
I am a non musical person but have a comment. Bastile’s When you close your eyes keeps going through my mind as of late and it seems that I often have a pop song doing the same at any given time. From Maroon 5 to Evenecence. I almost think Pop music is better now than ever.I base this on how much I sing in the shower or car.
I have to quote this because it TOTALLY nails a certain kind of friend of mine: Bill writes: “It seems to be important to you to maintain that there is an equal proportion of good Pop music at all times, and that the perception that certain eras contained more good stuff than others is an illusion created, I guess, by when one “comes of age.”
What I find fascinating here is that the only friends of mine who push this Panglossian pop angle tend to be the very cats who are most qualified to be elitists. The 4 biggest examples I know personally are brilliant, intellectual, college educated composers who have what I’d describe as an (overly) eager hyper-conscious relationship to populism. I’m far less interested in their musical tastes actually than I am in why they seem so reluctant to be snobs! 🙂 I’m black, working class and never been to college and yet I’m an insufferable music snob who will argue the death of pop music with you with all the fire and cheap shots most reserve for discussing the middle east.
But all this is kinda off subject so forgive the ramble.
Brian could you list 5 examples of great/decent/ok pop music happening right now? While I am a class A old-school pop music curmudgeon who thinks top 40 for the most part went downhill after the 70s, I am also never happier than when there’s a bunch of tunes in the top 40 that kick ass. I just haven’t heard it like that for awhile. Even my 21-year-old agrees. Loving Dagmar Krause doesn’t stop me from liking Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball or that Safe & Sound tune but for the most part today’s top 40 just makes me wanna finish my shopping and race towards the cashier.
for what it’s worth, my 21 year old listens to pretty much what I was listening to at 21. It’s freaky to call her flat and hear The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway or Smash Hits blaring in the background. And does it make me feel cool? Hellz yes.
I never said that there’s always been the same amount of good songs. I just said there were still good songs.
The best I could come up from this week’s Top 40:
Zedd/Hayley Williams – Stay the Night (catchy)
Pitbull/Kesha – Timber (very catchy refrain)
Pharrell – Happy (okay)
Beyonce/Jay Z – Drunk in Love (intense, funny)
Avicii – Hey Brother (okay, intense
Avicii – Wake Me Up (catchy, intense)
Idina Menzel – Let It Go (good)
Eminem/Rihanna – Monster (rap is good, chorus so-so)
For comparison, I investigated the charts the same week (end of March) for the previous 4 decades:
Britney Spears – Toxic (very good)
Usher – Yeah (cool vibe, intense)
Five for Fighting – 100 Years (very good)
Sleepy Brown/Outkast – Can’t Wait (interesting, good)
OutKast/Sleepy Brown – The Way You Move (interesting, okay)
Jay-Z – Dirt Off Your Shoulder (interesting, good)
Outkast – Hey Ya (okay)
Maroon 5 – This Love (okay tune & feel)
Linkin Park – Numb (okay)
Dido – White Flag (okay)
Petey Pablo – Freek-a-Leek (cool groove, catchy)
Jet – Are You Gonna Be My Girl? (intense)
Toby Keith – American Soldier (okay)
Bryan Adams – Please Forgive Me (very good tune)
Crash Test Dummies – Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm (very good and intersting)
Ace of Base – The Sign (catchy)
Snoop Dogg – Gin and Juice (good, interesting)
Salt ‘n’ Peppa w En Vogue – Whatta Man (catchy, funny)
Salt ‘n’ Peppa – Shoop (okay, funny)
Janet Jackson – Again (good tune)
Aerosmith – Amazing (okay tune verse)
Phil Collins – Everyday (okay verse)
Mariah Carey – Never Forget You (okay chorus)
Toni Braxton – Breathe Again (oaky)
Tom Petty – Mary Jane’s Last Dance (okay)
Cranberries – Linger (okay to so-so)
Tracey Ullman – They Don’t Know (excellent song, one of my favorites)
Dan Fogelberg – The Language of Love (very good, intense)
Huey Lewis – I Want a New Drug (good lyrics, okay tune)
Kool & the Gang – Johanna (okay)
Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Want to Have Fun (pre-chorus refrain is good, chorus so-so)
Billy Joel – An Innocent Man (good chorus)
UB40 – Red Red Wine (good)
Automatic – Pointer Sisters (okay)
Phil Collins – Against All Odds (okay)
Queen – Radio Ga-Ga (good chorus)
Rick Springfield – Love Somebody (good chorus)
KC & The Sunshine Band – Give It Up (okay)
.38 Special – Back Where You Belong (okay)
Duran Duran – New Moon on Monday (kind of okay music)
Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells (excellent)
Love Unlimited Orchestra – Love’s Theme (very good)
The Main Ingredient – Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely (good)
Barbra Streisand – The Way We Were (okay to so-so)
The Spinners – Mighty Love (okay)
Elton John – Bennie and the Jets (great feel, good tune)
Paul McCartney & Wings – Jet (good tune, albeit a hodge podge)
Gladys Knight – The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me (good)
Eddie Kendricks – Boogie Down (okay)
Mocedes – Eres Tu (good tune)
MFSB – TSOP (good, catchy, great sound)
Charlie Rich – There Won’t Be Any More (okay)
Judging from this sampling, 1974 & 1984 clearly had better songs; 1974 had more good or okay songs. It went downhill in 1994, got a little better in 2004, and seems a little worse now.
Here’s what I like about the (better) pop songs of today: the melodies are free, full of leaps and very hooky, I like emphasis on the notes that are outside of the chords. Also some of the beats are really complex, with a multiplicity of subdivisions. What I like less about now is the chord changes are so repetitive, there’s little to no modulations, no thick chords, all triads. Also, the lyrics are frank, but the rhymes are bad. The wordplay in hip hop is still excellent. The stories and the wordplay in country is at a high point, although, again, the rhymes are bad.