The Current State of Popular Music

Over the holidays, during a family get-together, two younger relatives mentioned what their favourite pop song was. I did not know the song by title or artist, and until very recently I actually I thought it was an advertising jingle. I now understand that the combination of the song’s novelty factor and its ubiquitous appearance had helped to make it very popular. I can see why it may appeal to kids – but I doubt it will become an evergreen classic….

The song they mentioned incorporates a number of musical tropes very prevalent in many current pop songs, especially as regards the vocal styling and lyrical phrasing. But like much of the music being produced these days, it will likely be forgotten within a couple of years at most. The inherent “novelty” of the vocal could render the song a one-hit wonder, and the artist a one-trick pony.

I have nothing wrong with pop music per se, but if “we are what we eat”, surely we can become what we listen to. An unending and unvarying diet of mainstream pop music (as defined by commercial radio playlists, as measured by self-serving charts compiled by streaming services, and as financed by major record label marketing budgets and promotional tie-ins) is the equivalent of eating nothing but fast food and processed snacks.

So, at the risk of being labelled a grumpy old man, here is a list of things that are mostly wrong with contemporary pop music:

1. Vocals that feature one (or more) of the following:

  • the sound of cutesy chipmunks on helium
  • forced falsettos, cracked breathlessness and over-emoting warbling
  • singing from the back of the throat (as if constipated)
  • singing through the nose (as if congested)
  • whining, strained upper registers  (as made infamous by a certain tantric pop star)
  • auto-tune effects (especially those in search of a melody…)
  • shouting in place of projection
  • turning vowels into consonants, and consonants into vowels
  • adding syllables that don’t exist, and leaving out ones that do
  • over-stressed sibilants

2. Lyrical phrasing, scansion and rhyming schemes courtesy of Dr. Seuss,

3. Slogans, nursery rhymes and shouty phrases in place of lyrics

4. Drum and percussion tracks either programmed by ADHD, or inflicted with St. Vitus’s Dance

5. Boring, boxy and plodding 4/4 rhythms, with no syncopation or variation

6. Same set of production techniques and sound effects as used by every other producer or DJ

7. Samples based on the nastiest ringtones available (or programmed on the cheapest synths around)

8. Never mind a lack of key changes, or an absence of chord progressions, songs that revel in one-note vocal lines

9. An absence of interesting melodic or harmonic structures

10. Sound compressed into the smallest available bandwidth so it is easier to stream, but which ends up sounding flat and claustrophobic, and with exactly the same sound dynamics as every other song

11. No space to let the music breathe – every available beat and bar has to be filled up, especially with vocalese stylings

12. Too many cooks – songs by “X feat. Y with Z” are usually contrived concoctions dreamed up by the record company (“hey, we can flog this song to fans of all three of them!”) that end up as filler tracks on their respective solo albums

13. Kitchen sink productions (as in everything BUT the…) – you can almost imagine the producer in the studio shouting, “cue flamenco guitar, cue rapping, cue 80’s sample, cue metronomic rimshot, cue call and response vocals, cue detuned kick drum….!”

Part of the problem is that with the cheaper costs of recording, and the wider access to the means of production, anyone can make music, and release it direct to the public online. Meaning there is just so much more new music to listen to. However, the major record labels and their media partners still control most of the marketing budgets and distribution costs, that largely decide the songs we tend to hear, and that ultimately determine which songs become “hits”. By default, this process prescribes much of what is deemed “popular taste”. With the increased use of algorithms and other techniques, artists, producers, labels and media platforms can increasingly predict what songs will be successful, in a self-fulfilling prophesy of what will “sell”. it’s like punk never happened….

Next week: Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed

Haring vs Basquiat

Following last week’s “compare & contrast” entry, another similar exercise this week, between artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the subject of the NGV’s summer blockbuster exhibition.

Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Other artists: “Untitled (Symphony No. 1)” c. 1980-83 [image sourced from NGV website]

Given their friendship, collaborations and mutual connections to the New York scene of the 1980s, it was only natural that the NGV went for this double-header retrospective. Since they both gained early recognition for their street art and graffiti-based work, and their images crossed over into the worlds of music, fashion and clubbing, they had a lot in common. They were as likely to be featured in style magazines such as The Face as they were to be found in the arts section (or society pages) of the New York Times.

Both died relatively young, and it’s as if they somehow knew they each had limited time, such is the intense pace at which they worked, as evidenced by their prolific output. If there is one element that really links them is their inner drive – they had to produce art, there was no choice for them, and they threw everything into it.

They each developed their own distinctive visual styles, much imitated and appropriated throughout popular culture, graphic design, video and advertising. Haring is known for his dog motif and cartoon-like figures, Basquiat for his iconic crown and text-based work. They also placed great emphasis on issues of identity, gender, sexuality and broader sociopolitical themes.

Where they perhaps differ is that Haring relied on more simplistic imagery (albeit loaded with meaning and context), using mainly primary colours, flat perspective (no shading or depth), and strong repetition. On the other hand, Basquiat’s paintings reveal confident mark-making, bold colour choices (not always successful), and an implied love of semiotics (even more so than Haring’s almost ubiquitous iconography).

Of course, we’ll never know how their respective work would have developed over the past 30 years – maybe what we now see is all there was ever going to be? As a consequence, there is perhaps a sense that they plowed a relatively narrow field, that they did not develop artistically once they became gallery artists. I’m not suggesting their work is shallow or one-dimensional (even though it can simply be viewed and appreciated “on the surface”), but it would have been interesting to see where their work took them.

Finally, we are still very close to the era in which they were active, and in that regard their true legacy will be in the influence they cast on late 20th century art and beyond.

Next week: Hicks vs Papapetrou

 

Steam Radio in the Digital Age

A few years ago, I wrote a blog on how radio had come of age in the era of social media. And despite podcasts and streaming services making significant inroads into our listening behaviour, radio is still with us. Plus it now gets distributed via additional media: digital radio (DAB), internet streaming, mobile apps and digital TV.

Image sourced from flickr

Most mornings I get my first information hit from the radio. Likewise, the midnight radio news bulletin is usually the last update of the day. When I’m on my way to or from the office I’m either catching up on a podcast or streaming radio, via TuneIn or dedicated station apps.

I particularly enjoy the BBC’s catalogue of on-demand content – both contemporary material, and archive programmes. There’s something inexplicable about the appeal of listening to 50-60 year old recordings, themselves being dramatisations of books and plays first published 100 years or more earlier.

The main reason I turn to these relics of steam radio is because I can curate what I want to listen to, when I want to listen. These programmes are also an antidote to much of what gets broadcast on commercial radio stations, which I find is mostly noise and no substance. (Blame it on my age, combined with being a self-confessed music snob.)

Most of these archive radio recordings still work because of two things: the calibre of the material; and the high production values. The former benefits from tight script editing and strict programme lengths. The latter is evident from both the engineering standards and the sound design.

One of the paradoxes of modern technology is that as the costs of equipment, bandwidth and data come down (along with the barriers to access), so the amount of content increases (because the means of production is much cheaper) – yet the quality inevitably declines. And since in the internet era, consumers increasingly think that all online content should be “free”, there is less and less money to invest in the production.

The importance of having a high level of quality control is inextricably linked to the continued support and funding for public broadcasting. With it, hopefully, comes impartiality, objectivity, diversity and risk-taking – much of which is missing in commercial radio. Not that I listen very often to the latter these days, but it feels that this format is destined to increased narrowcasting (by demographic), and parochialism.

In this era of fake news and misinformation (much of it perpetrated and perpetuated by media outlets that are controlled or manipulated by malign vested interests), and at a time of increased nationalism, divisive sectarianism and social segregation, it’s worth remembering the motto of the BBC:

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation”

Notwithstanding some of the self-inflicted damage that the BBC has endured in recent years, and the trend for nationalistic propaganda from many state-owned news media and broadcasters, the need for robust and objective public broadcasting services seems more relevant than ever.

Next week: Craft vs Creativity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musical Memories – Of Time and Place

Although sound is supposed to be the weakest sensory trigger for recalling memories, I suspect most of us can readily associate a song or a piece of music with a significant time, event or place we heard it. Indeed, music is often more evocative of our emotional response than either smell or taste, which at a primal level are readily connected with survival and self-preservation. (Music cannot kill or harm us, but poisonous or rancid food can.)

This thought occurred to me recently when I was on a weekend trip to the country with a group of friends. Sitting round the log fire under a starlit sky, The Doors’ “Riders on the storm” came on the streaming playlist. At that particular moment, it seemed an ideal setting to hear this track. Even though I have heard the song many times before, this latest airing has now created a new memory association – the time, the setting, the people I was with, the food and drink we enjoyed.

Of course, in this particular context, it also reminded me of the first time I consciously heard the record. As a young teenager in the mid-seventies, I used to fall asleep listening to my transistor radio, usually tuned into the original UK pirate station, Radio Caroline. Caroline mostly broadcast classic and progressive rock – often playing a whole album without interruption. It introduced me to a lot of bands and music I did not hear on Top 40 or daytime radio – so it was an important part of my musical education.

Road trips seem particularly adept at forming musical associations: in my case, a drive to the Yorkshire coast accompanied by a bootleg tape of the Beach Boy’s “Smile” sessions; a night time journey through the Anza-Borrego Desert, with the roof down, listening to Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”; and just a couple of months ago, hearing the Pink Floyd song “Wish You Were Here” while touring part of the Croatian coast. Even though I was very familiar with those records before these particular journeys, the specific context of those trips means the music will forever be linked to the events.

I suspect this memory association is largely because our response to, and engagement with music is often dependent on our mood. If we are more alert to and in tune with our surroundings, this receptive state of mind leads us to make mental and emotional links via the accompanying musical soundtrack. These triggers mean that we are more able to recall or even replicate that mood via the use of the associated songs.

All this as The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” celebrates its 50th anniversary. As a child, this was the first Beatles album we had in our home. We already owned a number of their singles, which had a huge impact on my early listening adventures. But “Abbey Road” was probably the first album I really engaged with. Even now, there are large sections I can replay in my head. The song order is likewise entrenched, thanks to the format of the vinyl LP in the pre-shuffle and pre-streaming era. The cathartic extended coda of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” at the end of side 1, that gives way to the upbeat and optimistic “Here Comes The Sun” at the start of side 2. I have every expectation that when I next listen to “Abbey Road”, it will still trigger memories of my childhood and listening to the record with my older sisters.

Next week: School Reunion