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 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 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 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.