The Continuing Decline of Popular Music

Repeat Stuff
Repeat Stuff

A while back I wrote an article about the wacky world of music where talent is ignored in favor of prepackaged, overproduced tweenie heart throbs and beauty queens who have little discernible talent other than good looks, a decent voice and a bit of charm. And while these modestly talented stars rake in millions, many extremely talented musicians languish in obscurity.

Indeed, a good friend of mine was in a local band a while back that was very good. Quite a few people noted that they should be famous or that they will soon become famous… You know, when people realize they’re really good. Unfortunately, since being good is not a qualifier for musical fame these days, I would hesitate to make such predictions.

The problem is this; people really like music and thereby many will dedicate themselves to it even if the odds of financial success are small. Who wouldn’t rather be a musician than, say, an insurance salesmen? Thus, there are a lot of really talented bands and musicians out there and they get lost in a sea of other music. The market is ridiculously over saturated. This may have not been the case in the past as much, but it certainly is now. People can only keep so many bands in their heads at any given time. Dunbar’s number dictates human beings can only conceptualize something like 150 people as friends or acquaintances of note. Everyone else is little more than a number. I suspect our tolerance for musicians and bands is substantially smaller.

And furthermore, we generally don’t like new things. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg notes that there is a growing scientific consensus that “…a preference for things that sound ‘familiar’ is a product of our neurology” and that popular songs all sounded like what we “…expected to hear from that particular genre.” (Pg. 201-202) So it’s even worse for a young, aspiring musician; creativity will quite literally be punished.

Record companies know this, so they don’t really sell music. Instead they sell a brand that recycles the same kind of thing over and over again with minor tweaks here and there. Why do you think every movie that comes out today is a remake/reboot/reimagining/sequel/spinoff/prequel or adaption of a TV show, video game or at the very least, a popular book? The established brand helps guarantee that the $100 million or so the studio dumps into filming our 2 hours of escapism will rise to the top of the enormous mound of media begging for our attention (and money).

And so it goes with music, just make a smaller investment up front and try to sell a charismatic and attractive “musician” who can technically sing and maybe dance a little. Then sell them songs written by someone else (or something else) that have been scientifically tested to be as catchy (and empty) as possible. While the songs are often overproduced, they are also simple with very few and very predictable chord changes. This makes them easy to dance to, sing along with and get caught in the head. Throw all that together with said “artist” and boom, a famous musician is born… or probably more accurately; designed, tested, manufactured and marketed.

This all makes me rather sad. But at least I could console myself with the fact that we have so much music at our disposal that anyone could dig through and find stuff that is actually of quality. The production side may be an upside down mess, but the consumption side is smorgasbord of possibilities.

That consolation faded further though after I had a recent conversation with my guitar teacher (who is very good musician, and of course, not famous). He mentioned that in Mozart’s day, he was well known for his operas, no his symphonies. At the time, operas were the music of the masses. Lawrence Edelson describes it as follows:

“The opera house was the first musical institution to open its doors to the general public. The first opera house was opened in Venice in 1637, presenting commercial opera and run for profit!  …It offered new entertainment to anyone who could afford a ticket.  By the end of the seventeenth century, Venice had sixteen opera houses open to the general public.”

Can you imagine Joe Shmoe or some trailer park rednecks going to the opera today? Or how about some tweenie bopper? Or maybe a bunch of meathead jocks? “Yo, let’s get hella faded and then get ourselves some Pavarotti dude!”

Sorry, I digress. Sure, it’s great that normal people had a form of entertainment available to them they hadn’t previously had. Indeed, Edelson notes the positive change that was starting to take off in the early to mid 1800’s, “During the first half of the nineteenth century, new forms of popular culture were developing as the industrial revolution generated the two preconditions for mass entertainment: mass production and a mass audience. “

That is great. The problem is that today opera is considered the music of the snobby elite. It’s the classy music meant for a more sophisticated audience or something like that. So opera went from being a music for the general public to a music for the elite. My guitar teacher is convinced this has been the trend throughout time, and unfortunately, he’s probably right.

Jazz and blues’s used to be considered the music of “bars and brothels” during the early 20th century. Now they’re classic. The Beatles made what was considered pop music at the time, yet now they’re the epitome of classic rock and are hugely respected as musicians. And I should note, while I do like the Beatles, the simplicity of their songs and the ease with which they are too play, is rather astounding.

Personally, I like blues and jazz and the Beatles are OK. I don’t particularly like opera, though. In fact, I don’t like it at all. So maybe I’m partially to blame for all of this. But the trend is quite disconcerting nonetheless. Liberals may worry about leaving a wrecked planet to their children and conservatives may worry about leaving a massive debt. But we should all be able to agree that we shouldn’t be leaving Katy Perry and Justin Bieber to our children… OK too late for that… to our children’s children. They’re popularity should die with us.

Unfortunately, it seems we are intent on justifying our hormonally-influenced adolescent musical preferences in adulthood by giving such pop music the “classic” label. And with the way this trend is going, it appears that the likes of Britney Spears and Ludacris will become the “classic” music of the next generation. Hell, today their songs are already turned into symphony arrangements for college marching bands. A generation more and Taylor Swift and T Pain will likely become the operas of the 21st century and snotty elites will pontificate about the important matters of the day while embracing the deep themes of how “I kissed a girl and I liked it.”

Or maybe they’ll all just go the way of New Kids on the Block and Hanson.

One can only hope. TC mark

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