No, it’s not just you – sci­en­tists prove pop re­ally has eaten it­self

Brian Boyd on mu­sic

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

RE­LAX. YOU’RE NOT pre­ma­turely old, there’s noth­ing wrong with your hear­ing, and your mu­si­cal sense and sen­si­bil­i­ties are still in full work­ing or­der.

If you’ve felt alien­ated and ir­ri­tated by the pop mu­sic charts over the past few years, con­sole your­self: it’s been sci­en­tif­i­cally proven that the mu­sic you lis­tened to when you were younger ac­tu­ally was a whole lot bet­ter than the beat-in­fested, pop-assem­bly-line rub­bish that now thumps its way out of your ra­dio and clut­ters up the charts.

This week sci­en­tists showed, and they can pro­vide tons of white-coat data to back up their find­ings, that pop mu­sic to­day re­ally does all sound the same – and is an­noy­ingly loud to boot.

Those re­doubtable types at the Span­ish Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil fed al­most half a mil­lion pop, rock and r’n’b/hip-hop songs from 1955 up to the present into a com­puter. A spe­cial pro­gram broke down the au­dio and lyri­cal con­tent into crunch­able data, and once a bunch of hy­per­com­plex al­go­rithms had been thrown at the songs it emerged that pop mu­sic to­day has ef­fec­tively eaten it­self.

There is a bland­ness now that sim­ply wasn’t there be­fore – and that refers to the num­ber of chords used, the con­struc­tion of the melody lines and the over­all sound. Mod­ern pop has a more lim­ited “tim­bre pal­ette” and there has been a con­sis­tent di­min­ish­ing of any­thing ap­proach­ing “in­ter­est­ing” in how a song is com­posed, recorded and played.

Look at the top 10 sin­gles listed be­low and you’ll get some idea of that uni­for­mity of sound. Sim­ple chord pro­gres­sions with a generic rhyth­mic back­ground and a ho­moge­nous use of in­stru­men­ta­tion abound. It’s bat­tery farm pop.

If you re­ally lis­ten closely you’ll hear that “rhythm” and “en­ergy” are the new lodestars of the pop world, which may be fine for some­thing clat­ter­ing away in the back­ground on day­time ra­dio. But pop used to strive to be so much more than just sur­face. Lis­ten to what Hu­man League ac­com­plished, for ex­am­ple – and they’re not that long ago in terms of the study.

These days, best-sell­ing pop songs are in­creas­ingly writ­ten to or­der by com­mit­tee. A song such as Um­brella (ella-ella) was orig­i­nally writ­ten for Brit­ney Spears who, dis­play­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic in­sight, turned it down. It ended up in Ri­hanna’s in-tray, and at best she’s just the “face” of the song. It has got to the stage where you could swap songs around the hand­ful of pop artists who dom­i­nate the sin­gles charts and no one would re­ally know the dif­fer­ence.

“We found ev­i­dence of a pro­gres­sive ho­mogeni­sa­tion of the mu­si­cal dis­course,” com­mented the boffins be­hind the study. “In par­tic­u­lar, we ob­tained nu­mer­i­cal in­di­ca­tors that the diver­sity of tran­si­tions be­tween note com­bi­na­tions – chords plus melodies – has con­sis­tently less­ened in the last 50 years.”

The tragedy is that the in­dus­try still doesn’t re­alise it’s hit an ice­berg, that it’s chas­ing the low­est com­mon pop chart de­nom­i­na­tor and squeez­ing out the in­no­va­tion that could help save it. Boil­er­plate pop isn’t do­ing any­one any favours, de­spite the dead cat bounce it might be give sales.

The pre­dom­i­nance of “loud and bland” is a be­trayal of pop’s pro­tean strengths. Fur­ther­more, the in­creas­ing lis­ten-to- me loud­ness of pop mu­sic is a des­per­ate last throw of the dice in the playlist wars. Loud­ness is now baked into the pop song and is used as much to hide what isn’t go­ing on as to ramp up its mere­tri­cious ap­peal. Dy­namic rich­ness is sac­ri­ficed at the altar of com­mer­cial ap­peal.

Now that we have ac­tual sci­en­tific data about how pop has at­ro­phied over the years, surely it’s time that all con­cerned, from the A&R depart­ment to the song­writ­ers and pro­duc­ers, re­alised that it’s the mav­er­ick and the counter-in­tu­itive who have been re­spon­si­ble for the great leaps for­ward.

There are enough fla­grant ex­am­ples from the past two years alone to show that free-range pop is cher­ished, re­warded and ac­claimed – and uni­ver­sally so.

Hu­man League: yes, we def­i­nitely still want them

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