Photo by Daisuke Tashiro, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Y’all know that I have a very low opinion of modern popular music and the people who write, produce, perform and make a whole lot of money doing it. I’d rather listen to the comforting sounds of a garbage disposal or a leaf blower than indulge in what passes for music on today’s pop charts.
It’s just so . . . empty.
With the help of modern science, I will explain my perspective and explore various theories as to why modern popular music is a virtual desert. Your comments on the subject are highly appreciated, even if you think I’m completely full of shit.
Way back in 2012, a team led by Joan Serrá, a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute in Barcelona, published a study titled “Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music.” I will warn you upfront that the paper is extremely technical, so you may not want to click that link unless you’re into stuff like this:
Specifically, we find that the distribution of codeword frequencies for a given year nicely fits to P(z) ∝ (c + z) −β for z > zmin, where we take z as the random variable, β = 1 + 1/α as the exponent and c as a constant.
For those of you not into algebra, calculus or whatever the fuck that is, allow me to summarize their findings. Serrà and his colleagues analyzed 464,411 pieces of popular music recorded between 1955 and 2010 and contained in the Million Song Dataset, using a complex array of algorithms to identify trends in three key aspects of music:
- Timbre: The character or quality of a musical sound; tone color and quality
- Pitch: The harmonic qualities of the music, including melody, chords and tonality
- Loudness: Volume variance and consistency
As explained by Mihai Andrai of ZME Science, the team “found that pop songs progressively become louder and scarcer in terms of chords, melodies and sounds used.”
“We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse,” Serrà told Reuters. “In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations – roughly speaking chords plus melodies – has consistently diminished in the last 50 years.”
Practically speaking, the homogenization of songs means they all start to sound more and more similar, all while getting louder and louder. But these aren’t the only problems.
They also found that the so-called timbre palette has become significantly poorer. Basically, the same note, played on a guitar or a piano or some other instrument has a different timbre, so as a result, pop music has a more limited variety of songs, despite all the technical advancements in the field.
The loudness war has been used as a pejorative term for the apparent competition to digitally master and release recordings with increasing loudness. The music industry has been accused of cranking up the volume at which songs are recorded in a ‘loudness war’ but Serrà says this is the first time it has been properly measured using a large database.
Though the analysis does not include the last thirteen years of popular music, all you have to do is look at the list of Grammy winners to conclude that popular music hasn’t changed all that much; it’s more than likely that a follow-up study would find even greater homogenization. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that harmonic aspects of music have suffered diminishment given the generally non-melodic content of rap and hip-hop; the dominance of those two genres in the last thirty years has certainly contributed to homogenization. I’m somewhat surprised that the study did not cover the all-important rhythmic aspects of music, but it’s a safe bet to assume that rhythmic variation has also suffered given the heavy use of programmed beats.
In a separate study mentioned on Intellectual Takeout, Serrà analyzed pop lyrics over the last 10 years “using several metrics such as the ‘Flesch Kincaid Readability Index,’ which reflects how difficult a piece of text is to understand and the quality of the writing. Results showed lyric intelligence has dropped by a full grade with lyrics getting shorter, tending to repeat the same words more often.”
In other words, pop music is getting dumber and dumber, something I never thought possible.
These findings have yielded several interpretations and corresponding hypotheses.
Hypothesis #1: Homogenization results from a decline in music literacy. This hypothesis has been peddled on a couple of sites, namely Klassic Arts and Intellectual Takeout. Both sites argue that the drop in music quality parallels the decline in musical training: “Over the last 20 years, musical foundations like reading and composing music are disappearing with the percentage of people that can read music notation proficiently down to 11 percent, according to some surveys.”
There are two weaknesses in that argument. The author of the Intellectual Takeout piece tries to make the case by arguing, “With few exceptions such as Wes Montgomery or Chet Baker, if you couldn’t read music, you couldn’t play jazz. In the case of classical music, if you can’t read music you can’t play in an orchestra or symphonic band.” True, but classical and jazz do not qualify as popular music, either literally or in the context of genre definition. The popular music genres covered in the study—rock, folk, soul, hip-hop, rap—do not require musicians who know how to read music.
The second weakness is found in an inconvenient factoid in the same article: “Timbral quality peaked in the ’60s . . .” Since The 60s were a period of musical exploration that resulted in a barrage of new textures, colors and tones conceived by a flood of untrained musicians, I think we can safely conclude that a lack of technical music literacy does not inevitably lead to homogenization.
Trained musicians (like the authors of those articles) tend to view untrained musicians with disdain and ignore their remarkable achievements. Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Prince and even Irving Berlin all qualify as music illiterates. You can add several jazz musicians to that list, including Django Reinhardt and Dave Brubeck. Collaboration between trained and untrained musicians can be problematic from a communication standpoint but once the players move past the language differences, they usually manage to play nice with each other.
I do have mixed feelings on the topic because I am a formally-trained musician who firmly believes that my training has deepened my appreciation and understanding of many different forms of music and improved my musical abilities. But while I think formal training has value for those who are really serious about music, I don’t think it has much value in today’s pop music environment.
Hypothesis #2: Homogenization Results from Technological Innovations That Have Created a Generation of Lazy-Ass Musicians. The most passionate advocate of this hypothesis is Corey Taylor, the lead singer for Slipknot, an American metal band. (Disclosure: My partner is a metal fan and if I ever get around to reviewing a metal band, Slipknot would be at the top of my list.) In an article written by Daryl Nelson that appears on (believe it or not) Consumeraffairs.com, Corey is given sufficient space to air his grievances regarding techno-dependents. “Now you’ve got people who don’t really have the skills, because technology hides it, going out and putting these crappy singles out. And because that’s all there really is people basically eat it like hamburgers. It’s become very, very commercialized.” “I would say three out of four people nominated [at the 2012 Grammys] were Auto-Tune artists. At that point, you shouldn’t be allowed to be nominated in anything that has a vocal category . . . You should be nominated in an instrumental category because the computer did all the work for you. If you sound more like a keyboard than a human being, you shouldn’t be allowed to walk away with one of those trophies.”
I agree with Corey, with some reservations. Singers who use auto-tune because they can’t hit the fucking notes should never be allowed to compete for awards—they’re the musical equivalent of baseball players on steroids. What people don’t understand about auto-tune is that it has extensive capabilities that don’t count as cheating. Radiohead used auto-tune in a couple of tracks on Amnesia, not to correct Thom Yorke’s vocals, but to create “the classic ‘dead-in-pitch robo-effect’ and to talk into the machine. ‘You give it a key and it desperately tries to search for the music in your speech and produces notes at random’ Yorke explained.” (Pitchfork) Singers have been using vocal patches for years to alter vocal textures. The only difference is that today’s software makes patching a lot easier than creating a connector to break into the circuitry of a Leslie speaker so that John Lennon could sound like the Dalai Lama.
Guitarists have also made heavy use of technological advances. If you go to the Guitar Center website and search for “effects pedals,” the search will yield 11,074 results. We’ve come a long way from the single-button vibrato pedal that Fender still ships with their amps. Do some guitarists use pedals to disguise a lack of talent? You betcha! On the other hand, many guitarists use effects as artistic tools to create tones and textures that enhance the aesthetic value of a track. The only way I can tell the difference between a lazy-ass guitarist and a talented guitarist in today’s effects-heavy environment is to find a track where they go acoustic or limit their modulations to reverb and vibrato.
You can also listen to Richard Thompson and use his guitar work as a point of comparison.
And while there are musical artists who have made good use of electronics and software to create music with real aesthetic value, they are outnumbered by lazy musicians who fall back on technology to compensate for deficits in musical skill and imagination. The ubiquity of recording software has encouraged thousands of amateurs who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing to create lots of really crappy music without ever having to resort to using traditional musical instruments. I do believe that the fetish with software has diminished the importance of craftsmanship in music and therefore is a significant contributor to homogenization.
Hypothesis #3: Homogenization Results from Lower Consumer Expectations Driven by Changes in the Way We Listen to Music
This is a fascinating take that I hadn’t considered because I actually like to sit down and listen to music without distractions, which I guess makes me an old fart. Once again I’ll turn things over to Daryl Nelson:
Another thing that’s changed is how we listen to music. Many people now listen to music mostly on their devices and don’t choose to play it at home and absorb it in their living room.
In a way, music has gone from a main form of entertainment to background sounds that you listen to on-the-go. It’s almost like we traded convenience for musical satisfaction, which is probably only going to continue.
Michael Fremer, who runs the site Analogplanet.com, pretty much said the same thing in an interview with The New York Times.
“People used to sit and listen to music,” he said. “But the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to.”
Which is one of the main reasons why so many non-musicians make music these days, because they know a lot of consumers have lowered their expectations. Back in the day, there seemed to be a sense of artists wanting to outdo each other, in terms of wowing consumers and giving them the most musical bang for their buck.
Oh, how I long for the days of cutting contests and Lennon and McCartney trying to outdo Brian Wilson.
The only time I regularly listened to music on the go was during the year I spent in Paris and commuted to work on the Metro, and I really didn’t enjoy the experience. I can’t listen to music while working out because my primary form of exercise (other than long walks and sex) involves martial arts, and you’d have to be a moron to wear Air Pods during a martial arts session.
But there are millions of people who jog, ride bikes or go to the gym and listen to music while exercising, and I’m sure many of them are attracted to music with strong beats that serve to motivate performance (which may explain in part the modern embrace of rap and hip-hop). If your primary use of music is to serve as a dance track for your life, features like melody, timbre, chordal variation and intelligent lyrics are useless appendages.
Nobody forces consumers to buy crappy music, so yes, today’s music consumers share some responsibility for homogenization. The problem is exacerbated by the herd mentality, as described in a study that expanded on Serrà’s work: Instrumental Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells: “In an ‘artificial music market’ it has been shown that success is determined by social influence, i.e. people showed the tendency to prefer music that they perceived was also preferred by many other listeners.”
Bloody lemmings, the lot of ’em.
Hypothesis #4: Homogenization Results from Artists Following Formulas Consistent with Their Brand
That same study also pointed out how artists contribute to homogenization, as summarized and interpreted in an article on Piano Around:
In the “Instrumentational Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells” study, they detailed how two opposing desires coexist peacefully to create new music that offers uniformity and variety. Not surprisingly, one of the findings was that popular music is a bit on the boring side.
“Album sales of a given style typically increase with decreasing instrumentational complexity. This can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation once commercial or mainstream success sets in.”
The scientists went into detail about some of the problems with modern pop music. No artist was spared in their assessment.
As music becomes popular, the formula becomes clearer and artists seeking approval and radio-play seek to replicate the formula as closely as possible. Musicians with a similar skill set, playing similar instruments, singing songs with similar lyrics flood the market.
The formulaic cycle mentioned in the last paragraph isn’t anything new. Beatlemania spurred a shift to melodic guitar rock; when that cycle petered out, soul music and folk rock dominated the airwaves; then psychedelia stepped in, etcetera, etcetera. What’s different about the current phase in popular music is the unusual and unfortunate longevity of its formulas, the result of big-label dominance, sophisticated marketing, low consumer expectations and the refusal of artists to consider recording anything that doesn’t fit their brand. Since musicianship is of little value in today’s popular music scene, it’s likely that the artists who consistently win the Grammies and top the charts simply don’t have the talent or imagination to do anything beyond what they’ve always done: stick to the formula.
Today’s pop music stars are cultural icons in an increasingly mediocre cultural environment, exploiting the masses and making obscene amounts of money through their commitment to homogeneity.
Hypothesis #5: Homogeneity is the Result of Big-Label Business Strategies
Well, duh. The big conglomerates control the means and methods of production. The moguls who run those entities have neither an obligation nor the motivation to provide the public with anything but consumable goods. They may vary the packaging or come up with slightly modified renditions of the same product to fool people into believing that they’re getting something new-and-improved, but in the end, they’re no different than the companies who stuff the grocery shelves with nineteen different versions of Oreos and twenty-one variations on Cheez-Its.
Since the conglomerates are obviously stifling competition, you might think that the obvious solution is for the regulators to step in and break up these virtual monopolies—and I fully endorse that line of thinking. Unfortunately, regulators on both sides of the Atlantic had the opportunity to do just that when Citigroup wanted to dump EMI, but instead of standing up for the consumer, the bureaucrats let the moguls have their way:
Universal Music expressed interest in purchasing EMI in 2012 and made an offer of $1.9 billion. Consumer watchdog groups released a report encouraging the government to halt the deal on June 14, stating that the buyout would cause major issues within the industry. They felt that this new mega power would be able to disrupt pricing, costing consumers significant amounts of money.
A congressional hearing was held on the issue, and it was examined by European authorities as well. After several months of debate, American and European regulators approved the takeover of EMI.
So the Big Four became the Big Three, in control of 80% of the market. And I thought that competition was one of the Six Pillars of Capitalism. Silly me.
I cherish musical craftsmanship and musical diversity; the majority of today’s music consumers do not. I guess it’s just my luck to live in an era that values celebrity and short-term stimulation over aesthetic experience.
Because my annual traffic numbers (132K hits per year) fall far short of Rolling Stone (29.5M hits per year) and Pitchfork (12.9M hits per year), there isn’t a whole hell of a lot I can do to influence the situation. And because I have strong aversions to both fame and fortune, I’m probably the least likely person on earth to lead a musical revolution.
You may wonder why I even care about the state of popular music. After all, I have access to physical and digital libraries filled with enough non-modern-pop music to last a lifetime. I’m only exposed to modern pop in public settings where it’s nothing more than a minor irritant. It’s fair to say that modern pop has no influence on my life whatsoever. So why do I care about its homogenization?
I care because I know there are serious, talented and creative musicians out there who will never get a fair shot due to the nature of today’s music business and the follow-the-herd mentality of today’s music consumers. That’s the real tragedy of homogenization.
I will enjoy a slow read later. But when does “modern pop” begin? For F. Crumb, it’s the 1930s.
Modern pop in this context is generally “21st century,” though the seeds were planted in the 90s with the Spice Girls, non-gangsta rappers and hip-hoppers. American Idol had a huge influence when it first aired in 2002.
Excellent essay, thank you. Can’t see anything here I disagree with and you spelled it out nicely.
No scientist will ever explain how Ian Anderson was put on earth to generate a soundtrack, biography, opiate and lifelong solid baseline for me or how you managed to amplify an already characteristically brilliant post x 100 with the two words: Richard Thompson.
I don’t think big record companies have much to do with it. The music market has been dominated by a handful of big companies for a long time now. I suppose that possibly they have simply gotten better at what they do, so that they seldom let unusual music get popular by mistake. But still, I’m thinking this is a minor factor. There are more opportunities for unusual music to sneak between the cracks nowadays, by way of the Internet.
I lean heavily toward #3 (changes in how we listen to music) and #2 (technical innovations making people lazy). I remember thinking that when my nephew and niece, who I doted on when they were youngsters, were growing up, I might someday get to be the cool uncle who would introduce them to some of the great music I’ve enjoyed for all these years, including some out-of-the-mainstream contemporary music. But it never happened. At all. By the time they reached their teenage years, kids weren’t buying CDs anymore, so there was no easy way to know what they were listening to, and I don’t think they were really listening to much anyway, at least not in any serious way. There were no posters of musicians on their walls. Music for them, even now that they are adults, always seemed like just a small piece of the popular culture pie, and not a particularly special part. Maybe music got crowded out, in large part, by the increasing prominence of the Internet as a form of entertainment. Yes, there is music on the Internet, but many other forms of entertainment are better served by the Internet than music is.
The technology hypothesis makes a lot of sense to me too. It’s hard to replace people who know how to use their bodies (their fingers in particular) to produce a variety of musical sounds. In the early 2000s, a couple of friends of mine, neither of whom had any musical talent, started making pieces of “music” on their computers. They played some of it for me, and it was completely lifeless. It wasn’t even bad music. Although there were rhythms and melodies, it somehow wasn’t music at all. At the time, both of them thought that they were maybe onto something, but it didn’t last. I assume that they eventually realized the same thing that I did when I first heard it. It’s harder to discern this when people with SOME musical talent use technology to create music, and maybe that’s the problem. You end up with this in-between thing that is music in some senses of the word but not in others. It’s incomplete. But for people who are using it to work out, it’s good enough. And those are the people who seem to be driving music sales more than anyone else these days.
Great points! I think you’re entirely right: the Internet essentially supplanted radio and television as the main form of entertainment and it gave teens an unlimited number of entertainment options beyond music. In my father’s day, lots of guys saw the Beatles and wanted to form bands to appear cool and attractive to girls, whereas today the Internet is both the cool thing and the primary means of communication.
Spot on. Both your points and those you have quoted.
I really should have saved for here my comment in your previous post (a review of a Tracy Chapman album). By the way, did you like the comment I posted there?
But I do have new things to say here as well though.
I understand the appeal of listening to music on the go, because it can indeed be very relaxing and nice, I do it myself. That doesn’t mean that I stopped from listening to songs with more attention as well. There is a time for everything, whether a person is a hardcore music lover or is far more casual about it. I think that modern technology has simply made casual listening easier, I don’t think it necessarily means that many people never became hardcore musical lovers because of said convenience.
I’m also always very suspicious about arguments appealing to pure intellectualism for questioning the full creative expression possible by an artist. It often feels elitist to me. Don’t get me wrong: formal knowledge can deepen a person’s capacity for both creation of appreciation of an artform immensely. But it is not a must for an artist.
This reminds me of Alec Wilder, who wrote books about the Great American Songbook (going in-depth on the likes of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and so on, and deeply analysing around seventeen thousand songs of the Great American Songbook), and he really derided american popular music as rock emerged in popularity. And one of his reasons was criticizing the musical literacy of rock artists. Many of them were self-taught, while those Great American Songbook songwriters I mentioned (with the major exception of Irving Berlin) were musically literate, and deeply so.
Quoting from the book “Alec Wilder” by Philip Lambert.
“He never abandoned the popular song; in a way, the popular song abandoned him, in the voices and antics of Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. “As the new amateur, noisy, clumsy, tasteless writers came into power,” Wilder later recalled, “it became increasingly less fun to try to write a respectable, professional, stylish, tasteful song” (The Search, 92). But he did continue to try, even as he found himself drawn more and more to the sounds and artistic sensibilities of the theater, opera house, and concert hall.”
Another quote from the book:
“In november 1972, Alec Wilder wrote a reflective essay for the New York Times about the state of music at the end of a tumultuous decade.1 “My particular complaint about rock,” he explained, “is its continuing amateur point of view. For while amateurs can produce miracles, they can do it only once.” Wilder wrote that he had witnessed remarkable professionalism in students at traditional music schools and colleges all over America, but that their efforts were seldom publicized, that they were “too calm, too quiet, and too civilized to constitute good copy.” He was extolling the values and perspectives he had developed for himself when he was a music student about forty-five years earlier, well aware that American popular culture had long since passed him by. He had once worked comfortably, prodigiously, in the musical vanguard, challenging conventional preconceptions while mastering popular styles. Now, in the wake of the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Woodstock, he could only muse about the cultural transformation and fear for its future. “By . . . the early sixties, the world had begun its disintegration,” he wrote in a memoir. “Joy, laughter, innocence, compassion, style, discipline, excellence, humility, [and] perspective were not only being choked off but even derided” (The Search, 102).”
People with thoughts like this are one of the reasons why I’m so suspicious of arguments questioning artists for their supposed illiteracy. The Great American Songbook, which Alec Wilder adored, already proved him wrong with Irving Berlin, who was musically illiterate by all accounts. I guess Alec Wilder would just say “Irving Berlin was the exception that proves the rule”. Nevertheless, I still don’t agree with his view at all.
I’ll take this as an opportunity to recommend brazilian artist Cartola. One of the greatest figures in the history of samba, he was born poor and died poor, he was semi-analphabet in his whole life, but the beautiful poetry in the lyrics of songs he wrote such as “O Mundo é Um Moinho”, “Cordas de Aço” and “As Rosas Não Falam” are proof that a great artist can truly come from anywhere.
Last but not least, while I don’t have necessarily anything against maonstresm artists, I do indeed wish that more artists outside current mainstream styles could break into said mainstream.
Great topic, but I have no relation to what is considered “modern” music. I am living into my sixties, and have a long history and relationship with music. I grew up with my Dad’s collections of Sinatra, Crosby and classical playing in our home.
I also had access to am radio prior to the advent of fm. Back then, everything was ” new”.
Today, for me, what constitutes ” new” is music that I missed during my coke-addled 1980’s years. I now search for early post-punk bands (Siouxsie and the Banshees, Magazine, etc.), and continue to revisit Bowie albums such as Low, Heroes, Lodger and Scary Monsters…
Talk about sonic diversity? Listen to any of those Bowie albums for an amazing sound pallette.
My radio experience here in Phoenix is such that I dig out my “old” shit and immerse myself in that. Our radio channels play the same crap they deem classic.
There was a time when modern music pushed boundaries and incorporated different sonics (again, see Bowie) and encouraged deeper listener collaboration.
I could write a book about this, but never will. I appreciate you and your efforts for bringing this to fore.
By the way, hip-hop and rap is not music.
As John Lydon said, upon the release of PIL’s first two albums, “this is anti-music”. However, it lives on, in my mind, as what musicians might strive to, but, where is the commerce in that?
Peace and be well. You are welcome here, always.
I completely agree that hip-hop and rap are spoken word and not music. And lucky you! Next up: Lodger!
Typed up a long comment re this excellent piece… and then got an error message when I clicked post, damn!
WordPress has been getting a bit flaky lately . . . please try again!
Second go, not quite the same as the first:)
Really enjoyed your thoughts on this, it’s such a huge subject that I won’t even scratch the surface of in this comment!
It’s always hard to discuss as you tend to get a lot of comments along the lines of, ‘but people have always said modern music sucks’. To me this ignores the major factor here and that’s of course the internet and how it’s fundamentally changed our relationship with music, how we listen, consume, create, heck even how people behave at gigs has changed. I’m not saying the influence of the internet is all bad, but it’s largely bad!
To me the record companies have just been picking up the pieces after a typhoon blew through and adapting as best they can.
Critically the decline goes back in part to where what would once have been considered very vanilla, mainstream pop music started to get serious critical praise, (‘poptimism’) once that started happening (maybe 20 years ago?) things degraded quite quickly. You see it all over the net now, rave reviews (using very similar language) for music that is crushingly ordinary and horribly homogenized. The disappointment when you listen to some of this stuff and find it’s just more of the same laptop pop is all too familiar.
As a music writer I’m painfully aware of it!
I’ll just console myself with two facts: there is very good music being made, just less of it and it’s adrift without the context of the past and anyway, it would take me several lifetimes to fully explore all the great music already out there, the greatness of which becomes clearer and clearer as we fall further in the present day.
You hit on one of my pet peeves about reviews of contemporary music—the rating systems do not take into account the larger context of musical history. A rave review meant a lot more in the 60s and 70s because the competition was much stronger—to get a “five-star” review, you had to create something truly great. A 5-star review today only means that your music is “the top turd in the shit pile.”