How Did We Get Here? Modern Pop’s 99 (Well, 8) Problems

Hint: You’re Probably One of Them


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(written 2/07)

Contrary to popular belief, there is “good music” nowadays. There is powerful, innovative and important modern pop music, it’s just that the general public usually doesn’t hear it.

This leaves the majority of Americans feeling empty about the music they hear in all these venues.  Most find today’s music fun for a spin, but ultimately shallow. You may find yourself saying: “this is not my free radio”, “this is not my ‘Billboard 200’ where experimental albums can debut at number one (Sgt. Peppers, etc) or become a fixture for 741 consecutive weeks (The Dark Side of the Moon)” or “this is not my Bob Dylan, the music that was once a powerful force in inspiring change in this world.”

So, how did we get here?  Though many attempting to explain this phenomenon will point to maybe one or two factors, the issue has roots in many more causes than that. Here are what I would identify as the eight factors that have most contributed to the homogeneityartificiality and meaninglessness of music in the 2000s.

1. Video Killed the, uh, Talented-But-Homely Star

Image has always been important in pop music, but never like it is today.  With the seemingly endless visual exposure of mainstream bands in the media, most importantly in still increasingly popular music videos, image has becomes more and more important to music every day.  There was an element of superficiality before, but not to the extent that there is today, when Paris Hiltons are made into stars with no regard for talent and all regard for looks.  In the grassroots 2006 documentary Before the Music Dies, musician Branford Marsalis asserts that for this reason, based on his experience with the music industry, “today Stevie Wonder would not get a shot… [and] today Ray Charles would not get a shot, [because] they’re blind.” One must only watch an episode of “American Idol” to see talents rejected for their looks, and this is only what the industry lets you see.  Behind closed doors, modern recording technology like autotune (think of the terraced sound of Cher’s voice in “Believe” for a deliberately audible example of what autotune does) allows sound engineers to render anyone’s singing pitch-perfect.  With such technology, who needs talent?  The musical revolution will not be televised, brothers, because the best artists are not always the best looking.

2. This is How the Album Ends: Not with a Bang but with a lowercase “i”

With iTunes and the iPod, allowing people to create their own playlists and skip to songs individually, more than ever the emphasis is on the song not the album.  Sure, before there were singles, but these were limited and selected by the artists; never before have people been able to buy simply any single song off any album.  Even the technology of CDs began a movement in the song-oriented direction, as it was easier to skip ahead to a new track with the push of a button.  Today, bands like Radiohead abstain from selling on iTunes in an effort to preserve the album.  This is not to simply be nostalgic about some lost art form, but rather that it takes a considerably different artist to make a cohesive statement with an album rather than to simply craft a few scattered hit songs.

3. The RIAA: Living in the Analog Age

Failure to recognize that fans have been able to steal music from each other for years—in a world where people can download from each other, burn each other’s CDs, tape off each the radio or, yes, even steal a record from the record store—the RIAA is still antagonizing digital technology.  Instead, the way to get music is to make fans want to pay you.  To convince them you deserve it.  But the RIAA has not understood this.  It operates on a corporate model that is concerned with quarterly earnings rather than the long term, and its stock is down.  And it’s not just pinkos and potheads that believe this: just last week Steve Jobs, CEO and founder of Apple Computers, wrote an open letter challenging the music industry to further embrace digital technology.  He asked “the Big Four” record labels to permit iTunes to sell music downloads without DRM technology—technology that effectively makes it difficult not just to share music with others but to put your iTunes music on any player other than an iPod—citing that the music industry already makes most of its money off selling CDs that have no such protection.  Where Jobs has been successful by putting his trust in the consumer, the RIAA continues their war against them.

4. The “Big Four” and the Impatience of Quarterly Earnings

Today 70-80% of the music market is owned by “The Big Four” music groups: Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and EMI Group.  Most do not realize this because they market themselves under smaller labels (for example, Sony BMG’s subsidiary labels include Capitol, Epic, Arista and RCA).  This would not be such a problem except that these music groups, having all gone public, are inevitably more concerned with commerce than art.  Art should never be a corporation. In modern times, these giant music groups no longer develop quality (lasting) artists, because business models tell them they can make more money just by having huge hit singles.  More than ever before, if a band is really talented but can’t make a hit of their first album, they’re dropped and left to fend for themselves.  U2’s Bono himself, in his acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, commented that with the way the music industry is run today, U2 never would have made it.  He later elaborated, “You just have to have the single immediately. If you don’t, you don’t get a second chance. And I don’t think that’s where the great artists… have come out of.  Bruce Springsteen didn’t have a single for 10 years. Neil Young, I’m not sure he ever had a single.”

5. Why “Nickelback Sucks” and Why Our Kids’ Bands Will Suck Even More

Mainstream music has become like a carton of milk—homogenized.  In few places is this so apparent than in “Nickelback Sucks”, a recording of ‘corporate rock’ band’s first two singles layered over each other to point out how the two have the same song structure, chord structure and breaks.  The scary thing is that most of us have been so lulled into pop’s ever-more-restricting conventions that we don’t notice the similarity.  In fact, some argue that is almost an industry rule that a band’s second single must mirror the chord and song structure of the first, and this is apparent even in bands like Coldplay (in “Clocks” and “Speed of Sound”).  Critical theorist Theodor Adorno warned against such “standardization” and “pseudo-individualization” of popular music in his 1941 essay “On Popular Music”, identifying standardization of instrumentation and (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus) song structure and discussing how people were lulled into thinking these songs were different.  However, few heeded his warning, and with evidence like “Nickelback Sucks”, we can only hope people begin to heed it now.  After all, if we don’t notice standardization as obvious as Nickelback, imagine how homogenized the music of those bands that grow up listening to Nickelback will be.

When one considers the lack of emotional range and aesthetic variety that comes standardization and homogeneity, the cost becomes clear.  After all, imagine how many classic films and books would suffer if they were all forced to be the same length.  Imagine Leo Tolstoy being approached by his publisher and his publisher saying, “Look Leo, I’m sorry, but we’ve glanced at your draft of War and Peace and our focus groups show that it’s just not marketable.  People just won’t read anything unless it’s 200 to 300 pages and has a familiar structure and theme.”  To take an example from music, Reprise Records refused to release Wilco’s fourth album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on the grounds that it was unmarketable—the album used unconventional instrumentation and static for atmospheric cohesion.  However, when Wilco finally found a new label with which to release the album as it was, it was hailed as a masterpiece and eventually made it onto Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of The 500 Best Albums of All Time.  Because of such pressures to standardize albums and songs for marketability, artists are struggling to get would-be-classic albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot released.

6. Singers, Songwriters and Singer-Songwriters

Did performers like Britney Spears kill the singer-songwriter?  To be fair it’s not so much performers like Britney that killed the singer-songwriter, but rather the industry that made her and the fans who bought her.  Even at the Grammys, well-respected and admittedly talented artists like the Dixie Chicks won best album this week for an album on which there wasn’t a single song that they wrote on their own.  Of course, this is not entirely unprecedented—Motown’s hits, for example, were generally made in an assembly-line manner with distance between songwriters, singers and producers.  However, Motown talents like Marvin Gaye fought against that system to write, produce and perform their own albums.  Not that great pop songs don’t ever come out of a songwriter writing for other performers (Jackson 5 tracks like “ABC” and “I Want You Back”, also released on the Motown label, come to mind).  However, in these songs the heartfelt power of personal albums like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (which Gaye wrote, produced, sang and played piano, keys and drums on) is notably absent.

With the end of singer-songwriters also comes the end of heartfelt calls for change.  While it’s easy to name countless political anthems and protest songs from the 60s (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”) 70s (“Imagine”), the 80s and early 90s (“Fight the Power”), most would struggle to name a single popular political song from the last ten years.  And it’s not as if, especially as the US now faces a disaster of a foreign conflict only rivaled by Vietnam, the world is at any shortage of injustices.  Some modern music does address injustices today, but most of this music either comes from artists developed in other eras of the music industry (Neil Young’s latest album Living with War) or remains out of the mainstream (Bright Eyes’ devastating “When the President Talks to God”).

7. Clear Channel Killed the Radio… Just the Radio

But protest songs and music at large have also faced a little something called Clear Channel Communications.  And by “a little something”, I mean a company that owns and controls over 1,100 radio stations, nine satellite radio stations and more than thirty television stations—a number impossible before the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, prior to which Clear Channel only owned 43 stations and was restricted from owning many more.  Of course, this would not be a problem if stations were still allowed to operate relatively independently.  Instead, Clear Channel standardizes its playlists nationwide, while interjecting short pseudo-customized messages from artists and DJs—e.g. “Hey (insert state name here”)—so that listeners feel like they’re listening to a broadcast specific to their area whereas in reality it is the same playlist and in effect the same broadcast as everyone else.  This means radio is largely no longer a free and independent vehicle for getting out new music, but rather is about as corporate-controlled as the rest of the industry.  Oh, and to return to those protest songs, it seems these songs would have a lot of trouble getting airplay from a company known for censoring criticisms of the Bush administration and funding rallies in support of the Iraq War.

8. “Just Keep Dancin’”: The Complacency of the Modern Listener

Though it is often hard to delineate where manufactured consent ends and just old-fashioned consent begins, it is all too easy for the average person to hoist all blame on the Clear Channel and the music industry itself.  Ultimately, the music industry and the radio could not exist as it is without the buyer’s consent.  Even hoisting well-deserved blame on the industry for some practices does little unless actions and buying choices back it up.  An informed buyer might, for example, listen to alternative, free stations (such as college radio stations), use alternative media such as newly popular music blogs, and listen to music (yes, even in ways that are technically illegal) before buying, in order to make informed buying choices.  However, unfortunately most listeners are simply satisfied to like what the major labels tell them to like, the songs that Clear Channel inculcates us with.

These listeners remind me most of a man I once saw at Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee.  He shuffled in short steps forwards and backwards, hands stabbing the air in front of him in what’s become the style for those at “jammy” concerts.  He commented to a friend who may or may not have been beside him that he was “just gonna keep dancing, just like this, just like this, no matter what comes on, I’m just gonna keep dancing, just like this.”  What made this episode exceptional was that the concert had not yet started—the man was dancing to silence.  Of course the dancer, who talked like a five-year-old on espresso shots, was clearly on some cocktail of psychedelics and stimulants, but he is not too dissimilar from many modern listeners who “listen” to music like a tired husband listens to his gabbing wife—he may nod along, but the content registers on the periphery at best.  To listeners like these, the radio is little more than elevator music.

*                 *                 *

I don’t want to be a music snob, and I don’t want to be anti-establishment just for the sake of being anti-establishment.  I like Justin Timberlake, Kanye West (with reservations about his hypocrisy) and even some Britney Spears tracks (“Toxic”), but it hurts me as a music lover that most of the talent lives outside of the mainstream.  It is not as if bands with the talent to blend experimentation, urgency and pop sensibility—bands like how, say, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and Marvin Gaye once were—are no longer around, but rather that they are not heard.  Worse, unless consumers (us) start educating themselves about these problems and start forcing the industry to change, they never will be.

3 responses to “How Did We Get Here? Modern Pop’s 99 (Well, 8) Problems

  1. Pingback: How Did We Get Here? Modern Pop’s 99 (Well, 8) Problems « to begin with, everything.

  2. I don’t think that the letter from Jobs was sent “just last week,” I actually think that was a while ago.

  3. Oh, this was written a while ago. Okay then…

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