Why is modern pop music so terrible?

Hey Thoughty2 here. On the 6th December 1966 four guys from Liverpool stepped into Abbey Road Studios and began to record an album. 333 hours and many questionable substances later, The Beatles had emerged having produced their eight album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It would go on to sell over 32 million copies worldwide and be named the greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine and many other publications. It was highly experimental, using mould-breaking techniques and a huge array of unusual instruments. The band had produced an emotional masterpiece that epitomised the so called summer of love and was a true masterpiece of its time, yet it remains just as relevant and powerful today. Fast forward 44 years to 2010 and Justin Bieber released his hit single "Baby", this is generally considered to be a bad move. So what went wrong? How did we go from Bob Dylan to Britney Spears, from Led Zeppelin to Lady Gaga and The Kinks to Katy Perry. But who am I to criticise the musical tastes of the vast majority of today's youth? Personally, my musical tastes are stuck in middle of last century, but you may think that just makes me old fashioned, stuck in the past and I should move with the times. But here's the thing, there is far to this than simple nostalgia and when your parents keep telling you that the music died long ago, they may actually have a point, because it turns out science agrees with them. Over the past thirty-plus years researchers have been studying how trends in music have changed. And a recent study in 2012 by the Spanish National Research Council revealed that the suspicions of somewhat antiquated individuals such as myself are very true, music IS getting worse every year. The researchers took around 500,000 recordings from all genres of music from the period of 1955 to 2010 and they meticulously ran every single song through a set of complex algorithms. These algorithms measured three distinct metrics of each song, the harmonic complexity, timbral diversity and loudness. The most shocking result that the researchers found was that over the past few decades, timbre in songs has dropped drastically. Timbre is the texture, colour and quality of the sounds within the music, in other words, timbre is the song's richness and depth of sound. The researchers found that timbral variety peaked in the 1960s and has since been steadily declining. The timbral palette has been homogenised, meaning songs increasingly have less diversity with their instruments and recording techniques. This divide is clearly evident if we take what is widely considered to be The Beatle's masterpiece, A Day In The Life, which was recorded using an orchestra of forty musicians. But this is not classical music, this is pop. The five minute piece contains violins, violas, cellos, double bass, a harp, clarinets, an oboe, bassoons, flutes, french horns, trumpets, trombones, a tuba and of course the four band members playing their usual instruments over the top. In contrast Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines uses but one instrument, a drum machine. And yes this a rather extreme example, a song known for it's one-dimensional but punchy baseline. But it represents an overall trend with modern pop music that the researchers found in their data. Instead of experimenting with different musical techniques and instruments, the vast majority of pop today is built using the exact same combination of a keyboard, drum machine, sampler and computer software. This might be considered as progressive by some, but in truth it sucks the creativity and originality out of music, making everything sound somewhat similar. Do you ever flick through the radio and think to yourself "all these songs sound the same?". What the researchers found is that the melodies, rhythms and even the vocals of popular music have become more and more similar to each other since the sixties. One facet of this homogenisation of popular music was pointed out by musical blogger Patrick Metzger. Metzger noticed that hundreds of pop artists were using the exact same sequence of notes that alternate between the fifth and third notes of a major scale. This is usually accompanied by a vocal "Wa-oh-wa-oh" pattern. Metzger named this the "Millennial Whoop" and it sounds like this. The Millennial Whoop can be found in hundreds of chart-topping pop songs created over the past few years, and its usage is becoming more frequent. From Katy Perry's California Girls to Justin Bieber's baby, literally every single major pop star today has included the Millennial Whoop in at least one of their songs. But why? Well, quite simply, familiarity. Our brain likes familiarity, the more we hear the same sounds the more we enjoy them. The millennial whoop has become a powerful and predictable way to subconsciously say to the masses, "hey listen to this new song, it's really cool, but don't worry you will like it because it's really familiar, you've kind of heard it a hundred times before". And in this wildly unpredictable world, this makes us feel safe. Sticking to the same cookie-cutter formula comforts people and that's important. But what about lyrics? Well, I'm afraid it's bad news there too. Another study examined the so called "Lyric Intelligence" of hundreds of Billboard chart-topping songs over the past ten years. They used different metrics such as the Flesch–Kincaid readability index, which indicates how difficult a piece of text is to understand and the quality of the writing. This was the result, over the past ten years the average lyric intelligence has dropped by a full grade. Lyrics are also getting shorter and tend to repeat the same words more often. We've gone from the absolute poetic beauty of Bob Dylan and Morrissey too well... this... and this... What if I also told you that the vast majority of chart-topping music in the past 20 years was written by just two people. What do Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Ellie Goulding, Robin Thicke, Jessie J, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, Maroon 5, Pink, Leona Lewis, Avril Lavigne, Christina Aguilera, Kesha, The Backstreet Boys, Westlife, NSYNC, Adam Lambert and Will.i.am all have in common? The answer: their songwriter. I'm not saying 100% of their songs, but a good chunk of all of these artist's songs were written by the same Swedish man, Mr. Max Martin. This one man is singlehandedly responsible for over two-dozen number one singles and thousands of songs in the top 100 charts over the past decades. He has written universally recognisable tracks such as "I kissed a girl", "Baby one more time", "Since u been gone", "California Gurls", "Shake it off" and so, so many more. And if Max Martin didn't write it American signer-songwriter Lukasz Gottwald most probably did. Known professionally as "Dr. Luke", together with Max Martin, they account for the lyrics and melodies behind the vast majority of pop music today. You've likely never heard of them and that is very intentional. These two men are the hidden pop factories behind virtually every single band that is played on the radio today and probably every music act you grew up with, if you're under thirty-years old. And you wondered why everything sounds the same. There are still popular, chart-topping musicians that write the entirety of their own music today, but you have to look really, really hard. Research has also shown that the hook, the part of the song that really grabs us and pulls us in, is occurring sooner in modern songs and they happen more often. Researchers believe this is because when it comes to music, our attention spans have drastically shortened, unless a song instantly grabs us our brains tend to shut off and ignore it, often skipping to the next song. This shortened attention span is a trend amongst people that has only occurred in the past ten years and it's believed to have been caused by the instant access to millions of songs at our fingertips. It used to be the case that if you wanted to hear a song you had to go out and buy that one single or album, take it home and play it. You would probably play it countless times because you had spent so much money on so few songs. Over time you would learn to appreciate all the subtle nuances throughout the album. And then the iPod happened granting access to thousands of songs on one device, which eventually led to streaming. Today we flick through songs on Spotify without much thought to each song's subtleties and unique talents. This has caused musicians and record companies to favour punchy bass lines that demand our attention and to stuff each song full of so called "hooks" to instantly grab our attention and keep it for as long as possible. And they've been doing something else in recent years to grab our attention, something subtle but very powerful, yet so very, very wrong. For the past twenty years music producers have been engaged in a war. The "loudness war". The aim of this war is to produce louder music than your competitors. But how do you make music louder when the listener is in control of the volume, not the producer? Well, they use compression. You may have heard of dynamic range compression, it's the process of boosting the volume of the quietest parts of a song so they match the loudest parts, thus reducing the dynamic range, the distance between the loudest part and quietest part. This makes the whole song sound much, much louder than the un-compressed version, no matter what volume the listener has set their device to. It's like me standing in the middle of the street and mumbling nonsense to myself, occasionally whispers and sometimes speaking a bit louder. A few people might notice and avoid me. But then if I were to compress my dynamic range I would suddenly be bellowing out every single word at the top of my voice, loudly and proudly. Suddenly everyone turns around to look at the crazy man shouting in the street and the police would be called. But this is exactly why producers do it, as the market has become increasingly crammed with similar sounding pop music, making your song shout louder than all the others ensures it will be heard amongst all the competition. But there's a big price to pay for loudness. Dynamic range compression, when abused, as it often is today, is an absolute travesty when it comes to the art of creating music. Where physics is concerned, the rule is that you can't make a sound louder than the volume it was recorded at, without reducing its quality. Compressing a song's dynamic range strips away its timbral variety. It muddies the sound, subtle nuances that would have before been very noticeable and could have been appreciated are now, no longer nuanced, they sound exactly the same as the rest of the track. Listen to this short recording without any compression. Now hear what happens when the dynamic range is compressed to match that of modern pop music. Hear how everything sounds less punchy and vibrant, the drum beats stand out less, everything just makes less of an impact. But there's very real reason why popular musicians and producers today don't stray away from their safe-haven of repetitive, monotonous drum machines, unimaginative, factory-produced lyrics, rhythms stolen then from the previous popular song then chopped up and changed slightly and of course, their ever popular millennial whoops. It all has to do with risk. In the fifties, sixties and seventies record labels would receive hundreds of demo tapes from budding young artists every week. They would sift through them and the most talented acts would be offered record contracts. Even if they weren't that special it didn't matter too much, the record label would just through a few thousand pounds into marketing and if the public liked their music they would gain traction organically and make it big, if not, they would fade away into the night. And this is crucial because importantly, the public were voting with their ears for the best, the most talented musicians, singers and songwriters. We, the people were the final judge and jury, the ultimate arbiter. And so musicians had to be really bloody talented to impress us enough to stick around and make more music. But this was risky, because many times record labels would pump thousands of pounds into an act that weren't destined to be and their gamble wouldn't pay off, losing their investment. But when they signed the really big acts it would balance the books. However today promoting a new band is more expensive than ever. Over time the cost of breaking in a new artist onto the global music scene has sky-rocketed. In fact the IFPI reports that today it costs anywhere between $500,000 and $3,000,000 TO sign a new act and break them into the music scene; that's a hell of a lot of money. Would you want to gamble with three million dollars? No? Neither do music producers. So the industry has reacted by removing the risk. Instead of trying to find genuine musical talent they simply take a pretty young face, usually from a TV talent show and then simply force the public to like them, by brainwashing them. Instead of allowing the public to grow to like an artist and make their own mind up about the quality of their music, the industry now simply makes you like the music, thus removing all the financial risk. Brainwash you say? How on earth do they do that? Have you ever noticed how "that" popular new song seems to follow you around, everywhere you go. It's on every radio station, it's played in your favourite stores, the supermarket, online and its even in the latest Hollywood movies and popular TV shows? This is no coincidence. What that is in fact, is the record label's $3 million making sure that that new single is quite literally everywhere, completely unescapable. Remember I was talking about the power of familiarity? It's called the Mere-exposure effect, a physiological phenomenon by which people develop a preference for things they see and hear often. Our brain releases dopamine when we hear a song we've heard a few times before and the effect only gets stronger with each listen. Can you remember the very first time you heard your favourite pop songs from the past ten years? Whether it be Gangnam Style, Happy, All About That Bass, Blurred Lines, Hotline Bling, did you truly like it the first time you heard it? Or where you kind of repulsed? Did you have this brief moment where you thought, what the hell is this? But then you heard it a few more times and you began to think, well I guess it's kinda catchy. And they your friends are all listening to it and you hear it a few times and boom, it's your favourite song and you can't stop listening to it. If this has happened to you then I'm afraid, you have been brainwashed. The mere-exposure effect has gotten to you. Surely if a song is truly a great song, then you wouldn't need to force yourself to love it, you wouldn't need to be won over through a period of repeated exposure, you would just like it the first time you heard it. We all have different musical tastes but they are sadly being overridden, diluted and emulsified by the brainwashing activities of big record labels, the repeated and constant exposure to manufactured songs that we've heard a hundred times before. Don't get me wrong, there are many fantastically talented bands out there, but in today's industry virtually none of them will ever be signed because they are simply too risky to promote, because they don't fit the usual pop formula... they are different. But being different is important. You may be thinking, "so what if I'm being brainwashed, I enjoy contemporary popular music and isn't that what's important?" Yes, of course, music is an expression of your personality and it should be enjoyed, no matter what others think. But it's also really important to not let creativity and originality disappear. Music as an art form is dying, it's being replaced by music which is a disposable product, designed to sell but not to inspire. So we shouldn't be so complacent in allowing systematic, cold, factory produced music to dominate or else the beautiful, soulful and truly real music that we've all at some point loved and has been there through our darkest times and our happiest times, could soon be a distant memory, never to be repeated.

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