I recently started using a term that I’ve found to be brutally accurate when attempting to articulate my thoughts on modern music.
It was a “eureka” moment of clarity. Those two words perfectly encapsulated my feelings on what has passed for “popular” music for at least the duration of the current decade, and likely longer. I’d like to speculate on when things went wrong for pop music, but I’ll leave that to scholars with the patience to do so. I’d prefer just to tune it out, but since music is the most dominant part of my life, both writing and listening to it, I will offer forth my opinion. I don’t feel that music owes me anything, but I do feel that I need to take up for it when it’s being pulverized into dust and sold as “instant breakfast” to be gulped down either haphazardly, or by rote.
I’m treading dangerously into hypocrisy here. Before I continue, I would like to offer a “mea culpa” of sorts. While the alleged adults of my youth were, and continue to be, wrong in their assessment of the genres that I choose to enjoy as being mere “noise”, I will grant them their subjective opinion more readily in my own middle age. I will go even further. I totally understand the position they were coming from now, despite my youthful protestations, but I will maintain there is a wealth of substance in genres like metal and punk that is there for the taking if one wants to dig deeper. Still, it would seem to me that the default setting for most people now is to not dig deep at all past what is being shoveled on their plates for rapid absorption. Certainly, I have numerous acquaintances who do maintain a sense of refinement and taste in music, regardless of their genre preference, but it seems like the drones are winning the culture war.
Listen, tastes ARE subjective. If you enjoy a certain album or artist, I suppose it’s “good”, regardless of what I or anyone else says. It may be “universally recognized as crap”, but if YOU like it it doesn’t matter, right? I’d say yes to this in principle, but where I have to part ways with being diplomatic with others about it is when they can’t articulate WHY they like something. This is based on random conversations I’ve had, names redacted. I have never been able to extract from any of those conversations the reason why they like 21st century “Top 40” or Pop Music. Not a single time. Trust me when I say I attempted to get the answers in the least threatening or pretentious way possible. I genuinely want to know, and not getting a straight answer other than “I like how it sounds” is just as frustrating as trying to hear the appeal myself on the occasion I have the patience to attempt to listen to it.
Along with hypocrisy, I’m also wading into the pool of solipsism. I accept both terms, as I see no way other forward on this path of discovery without “sinning” a bit myself. I can’t expect someone to launch into a lengthy seminar extolling the virtues of various sub-genres or musicians like I could easily do if I had a willing and/or captive audience, but throw me some sort of bone here. Give me something I can work with. As I quipped to a buddy recently, “I hate Jazz, but I’m glad it exists. It requires effort.” I get the appeal, I understand why people like Jazz, but it doesn’t click with me so I move on. I need a denouement on modern music somehow, if only for my own sanity.
As a musician, I know all too well that there are only so many notes available to create a song. There are many ways to put those notes in an order that is pleasing, exciting, and sometimes breathtaking, but it’s virtually impossible to do something that doesn’t sound like some other previous work. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just something that songwriters must deal with as they write, and need to overcome as best they can. One of the problems I have with what popular music has become is what I perceive as that “lack of effort”. Take Country music for an example. It is not a preferred genre for me, but I certainly like a lot of it. Of course, I prefer Country music from the era when it was considered “Country/Western” and, like Jazz, it required effort to play and perform. Country, like Pop, has also fallen into a nearly unrecognizable form from its roots, and morphed into a ridiculously simple “sound” to reproduce. Over, and over, and over again.
It’s a “formula”, like you would feed to a toddler. A formula. Why is this popular? My young self would be incredulous at the suggestion that old me is trying to defend Country music, but it’s happening. You killed Country music! “YOU MANIAC! YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!! “
Of course, the mainstream Pop examples of “formulas” are legion. Here’s another example and see if, after watching this video, you don’t hear this everywhere now.
Here’s another personal anecdote that I think applies here. I used to work in retail selling nutritional supplements. We had a running joke about our customers who would come in and ask for “protein” only to have their eyes glaze over when we asked them what type of protein they wanted. “Whey? Whey Concentrate? Isolate? Casein?” We decided that a billion-dollar idea was to market a protein product that just came in a plain, white container. One size only, and one flavor. (Unflavored) There would be no writing on said container save for one word written in an uncomplicated font.** “PROTEIN“. Nothing more, nothing less. Give the people what they ask for, and profit. This, is what music is today. “SOUND“. Nothing more, nothing less. Consume as needed, no complications, no taste.
(**Comic Sans was ruled out as being a “problematic font that implies potential humor where none may exist”.)
Listen, to reiterate, if you like where popular music is at today then so be it, as unfortunate as it may be. I don’t expect lockstep agreement on my own personal tastes, and I can assure you that would be impossible for most people anyways. Like what you like, but I beg of you. Try to be discriminate. It’s not a bad word in this situation. If it is truly all cynically about the big record labels making money hand over fist, force them to put out something new! You can access virtually any artist, in any genre, in any time period in a single click. If I can ask you to do anything, simply take the time to “smell the roses”, and vote with your wallet.
In my opinion, I feel we are in an era when the decades are becoming culturally indistinguishable. Look at the difference between 1960, to 1970, to 1980 as an example. It is an utter travesty that society has lost its willingness to evolve past the year 2000. Worst Century Ever!