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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Top Gigs – Favourite Venues

Continuing the recent theme, here are some of my preferred music venues from over the years:

Fairfield Halls – Croydon

I can’t say this is a particularly favourite venue (its early 1960s brutalist architecture doesn’t help), and it’s more than 40 years since I was last there. But it’s where my gig-going all began, and I recall the acoustics were excellent. It’s where I saw two of my first gigs – 10cc (at the height of their mid-70s success) and Procul Harum (not quite past their best, but hardly troubling the charts in those days).

Electric Ballroom – Camden

Without doubt, this is a venerable institution, starting as a ballroom in the 1930s, and operating under its current name since 1978. The venue for two of my favourite gigs: Joy Division supported by Scritti Politti, Monochrome Set and A Certain Ratio; and Talking Heads supported by OMD and U2. Hopefully the facilities have been upgraded since then.

F-Club – Leeds

Not so much a venue, as a club residency at various locations across the city centre. It was a regular destination while I was a student at Leeds University. It was where I saw U2 play to about 50 people in late 1980 – Bono doing the same “I can’t believe I am smoking this cigarette I bummed off someone in the audience” routine he did when I saw him the previous year. F-Club was also where I saw New Order on one of their first gigs, in early 1981. The list of bands I saw there include Teardrop Explodes, Echo & the Bunnymen, Orange Juice, Josef K, Aztec Camera, Thompson Twins, Wah! Heat, Blue Orchids, Nico, Frantic Elevators (Mick Hucknall’s band before Simply Red), Rip Rig & Panic, Gang Of Four, Delta 5, The Three Johns, Mekons, Sisters of Mercy, A Certain Ratio… Glorious times.

Clarendon Ballroom – Hammersmith

Beginning as a pub in the 1860s (my great uncle recalled going to dances there in his youth), by the 1980s it was a noted venue for seeing punk and new wave bands who weren’t quite big enough to play at the nearby Palais or Odeon. In the mid-1980s it played a significant role in bringing the so-called Paisley Underground to London, where I saw Rain Parade, Green on Red, True West and Long Ryders in quick succession.

Town & Country Club – Kentish Town

For most of the 1980s and early 1990s, the T&C was the favoured North London venue for bands who had outgrown the pub and club circuit, but didn’t qualify (or desire) to play the characterless stadium arenas. It’s where I saw the likes of Pixies and Nick Cave, plus numerous UK-indie bands of the era. The added bonus was Friday nights, when Wendy May’s Locomotion continued the music, dancing and drinking after the bands had packed up, and before London’s 24-hour drinking culture….

Lyceum Ballroom – Strand

For a short period in 1980, the Lyceum appeared to be a key venue for the post-punk and new wave era. Within a few weeks of each other I saw three concerts there, the sort of multi-band bills that you don’t see these days outside of 80s revival package tours: Joy Division, Killing Joke, Section 25 and A Certain Ratio; Psychedelic Furs, Echo & The Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, A Certain Ratio, Manicured Noise, Eric Random; Magazine, DAF, Bauhaus. That don’t make ’em like that any more.

The Corner Hotel – Richmond

Conveniently located within spitting distance of where I currently live, The Corner Hotel has provided the setting for a number of memorable gigs over the past 15 years or more. For a relatively small venue, it manages to draw some big international names in independent music, among them Mogwai, Low, Tindersticks, Wire, Gang of Four, Michael Rother, The Pop Group, Tortoise, Wooden Shjips, Gang Gang Dance, Mouse on Mars and Ariel Pink. Notable Australian bands that I have seen at The Corner include: Severed Heads, Black Cab, Underground Lovers and Machine Translation. And the rooftop bar and restaurant does a mean chicken parma – what more could you want?

The Refectory – Leeds University

This is not your usual student venue (and not the only gig facility on the campus, which in my day also included the Riley-Smith Hall, and the Tartan Bar – all with subsidised student union beer on tap). Concerts at The Refectory were typically organised by a full-time Entertainments Officer – sometimes a stepping stone to a career in music and broadcasting. Apart from Elvis Costello (twice) and The Cure, I saw a stream of early 80s chart acts play at The Refectory, such as Rezillos, Undertones, Altered Images, Bow Wow Wow, Haircut 100…. and Kajagoogoo.

The Forum – Melbourne

Featuring a proscenium arch combining design elements inspired by the Roman Empire and Victorian Gothic, The Forum is probably my favourite large venue in Melbourne. It has a sloping auditorium and a wide vista giving excellent views of the stage. I saw LCD Soundsystem play an amazing gig here, as well as Tortoise, Faust and Mulatu Astatke. It also boasts a smaller auditorium and cinema space upstairs, which is a key part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Brixton Academy

Parts of the The Forum in Melbourne resemble London’s Brixton Academy – similar proscenium arch design, and wide-vision perspective of the stage. Since the mid-1980s, Nick Cave has made the Academy a regular fixture on his UK tours – no doubt it’s the Gothic influence….

Next week: Startup Vic’s Secret Pitch Night

 

 

 

Top 10 Gigs – revisited

Last month, I listed my Top 10 gigs of all time. Even as I wrote that blog, I knew I would probably change my mind soon after. Rather than trying to re-work those choices, I’ve decided to recall some of the more significant concerts I have attended – not necessarily the best performances, or even my favourite bands, but simply those that have had left a lasting impression.

In no particular order:

Magazine – London 1979-80

One of my favourite bands of the post-punk era. I saw them on their 1980 tour that eventually gave us “Play” – one of my favourite live albums. Although the London show I saw was good, by the time the band got to Australia, they were at the top of their game, and “Play” was recorded at Melbourne’s Festival Hall. Part of me hopes that the band will re-form to celebrate the 40th anniversary at the same venue…. I met Howard Devoto a couple of times in the mid-80s, including at the bar of the Hacienda in Manchester, and at a party in London where we talked about the prospect of doing jury service (very Kafka-esque).

Sex Pistols – Tokyo 1996

I got a free ticket (thanks, DQ) to see the Pistols on their 20th anniversary “Filthy Lucre” tour, at Tokyo’s Budokan stadium in November 1996. Apart from the sight of seeing 15,000 Japanese fans (many of whom probably weren’t even born when the Pistols were at the height of their notoriety) singing along to “Anarchy”, the concert is memorable because I went drinking with the band afterwards at a Tokyo night club, and got talking to bassist Glen Matlock. Many years later, I bumped into Glen again at a Melbourne cafe, and ended up seeing him play in Robert Gordon’s backing band along with Chris Spedding and Slim Jim Phantom at the Richmond Corner Hotel.

Kraftwerk – Hong Kong 2008

Kraftwerk have a great sense of location when choosing their tour venues. In 2008, they played the AsiaWorld-Expo trade show hall at Hong Kong International Airport, giving added context to the performace of their single, “Expo 2000”.

Diamanda Galás – Sydney 2001

Something of an acquired taste, Diamanda Galás also manages to create a sense of occasion whenever she performs. I first saw her in London in late 1994 when she was touring with John Paul Jones, former bass player for Led Zeppelin. At Sydney Opera House, she performed solo, and filled the venue with her six-octave vocal range.

Radiohead – London 1993

According to the online archives, this concert was at the Town & Country Club in March 1993, a month after they released their debut album, “Pablo Honey”. Although their single, “Creep”, hadn’t yet achieved chart success, it was clear that they were on their way to star status, given that for this gig they were “merely” the support act.

Sonic Youth – London 1985

In November 1985, Sonic Youth played the final gig of their “Bad Moon Rising Tour” at London’s Bay 63 – aka Acklam Hall – a former community centre underneath the Westway. I remember that they came on late, complained about the lights being too bright, and then ripped into an almost non-step set that culminated with “Expressway to Yr Skull” (also known as “Madonna Sean And Me“), the standout track from their 1986 album, “Evol”.

Philip Jeck – London 1993

This was more of an art installation piece than a gig, featuring the work “Vinyl Requiem” performed at the Union Chapel. Incredibly moving, and I have since seen Jeck perform a similar (but much smaller) work at Melbourne’s The Toff in Town venue.

Air – New York, 2007

As part of the Highline Festival curated by David Bowie, Air played a rare gig at Madison Square Garden. I was struggling with jet lag, but the experience of hearing their lush electronic music in a concert setting was well worth it. Featuring some of their soundtrack work for Sofia Copolla – “Virgin Suicides”, “Lost in Translation” and “Marie Antoinette” – sealed the deal.

Orange Juice – London 1985

This last ever performance by Scottish band Orange Juice, in support of striking miners, was nearly derailed by the egos of the other bands appearing that night. Despite their industry status, they agreed to go on first, only to announce the band was splitting up. I later saw Edwyn Collins performing a solo show at the Sports Bar at Hong Kong’s stadium in Happy Valley, on the back of his hit “A Girl Like You” in 1995.

James – Manchester, 2001

Another gig where I was struggling with jet lag, this was an emotional homecoming by one of the city’s favourite bands. It was also supposed to be their farewell concert, as they had announced they were calling it a day. (They reformed in 2007…). The final numbers, “Come Home” and “Sit Down” were particularly poignant. My sister also got credited on the DVD, as at the time she was the Stage Manager at the Manchester Arena.

Next week: Top Gigs – Favourite Venues