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