Wednesday, June 12, 2024

What If Your Parents Were Right?

“This is horseshit,” I said.

“Can you be more specific?," he asked.

“The vocals are auto-tuned. The backing tracks are electronic – processed loops made on someone’s laptop. God forbid they should pluck a guitar string or take a stick to a drumkit. The vocal melody gives you a sweet morsel to chew on, but then repeats it in an abusive way. As the initial sweetness dies from excessive repetition, it becomes meaningless goo. It’s like audio bubble gum; once you chew on it for a few minutes the flavor’s gone. Someone spent money to record that. Hard to believe.”

"Wow," he said. "You're serious?"

“Let's put it this way... If I ever accidentally ingest rat poison, I’ll listen to this to make me puke.”

For years, that’s how the conversation went any time someone tried to introduce me to a new pop artist. If they persisted, I would eventually threaten violence.

No, I’m just kidding. Sort of.

You know the Pharrell Williams song, “Happy?” That’s a great example. First time I heard it, it caught my ear. After about the fifth time, it started to annoy me. After about ten times – and every time since then – I want to punch him in the face.

Were there occasions in your youth that you’d be in your bedroom cranking something on the stereo loud enough that you parents could hear it down the hall? And they’d pound on your door to get you to turn it down, and then, afterward, at dinner, they’d be sure to let you know how awful that music was?

Surely, I’m not the only one?

Often, they would include something like… “music isn’t as good as it was in the old days” or “today’s music isn’t as good as it used to be.”

"Yeah, mom, yeah. Right, right. Whatever..."

But, you know what? Every time I hear a popular song now, I think, “What if your parents were right? What if music isn’t as good as it was in the old days?”

Well, as it turns out, there’s evidence.

A perceptive chap named Colin Morris published an article in which he looked at compressibility. As MP3 files are created, they’re compressed according to something called the Lempel-Ziv algorithm. That makes MP3’s smaller, and, therefore, easier to share.

Morris explains, “The Lempel-Ziv algorithm works by exploiting repeated sequences. How efficiently LZ can compress a text is directly related to the number and length of the repeated sections in that text.”

So this is a way of measuring repetition in lyrics.

He looked at the compression rate for all 15,000 of the songs that made the Billboard Hot 100 between 1958 and 2017. His conclusion?

“The songs that reached the top 10 were, on average, more repetitive than the rest in every year from 1960 to 2015!”

Among the prominent recent artists in the 45-55% repetitive range - Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton, and Coldplay.

Those above the 55% repetitive range include Justin Bieber, Beyonce, One Direction, Maroon 5, Demi Lovato, and Rihanna.

Please, get me an emesis basin.

Among the top ten most repetitive songs of all time, he listed K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s 1977 hit, “Keep it Comin’ Love.”

Back then, when you were shoveling blow into your nostrils and sweating all over the dance floor at Studio 54, I guess it was only the beat that mattered. Who could hear the lyrics anyway?

By the way, I’m sorry if I’ve now planted that song in your skull.

But, wait. There’s more.

Dan Kopf noted another significant change.  He writes, “Popular music is shrinking. From 2013 to 2018, the average song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell from 3 minutes and 50 seconds to about 3 minutes and 30 seconds. Six percent of hit songs were 2 minutes 30 seconds or shorter in 2018, up from just 1 percent five years before.”

On the streaming music services that have become so pervasive, artists are paid according to the number of times a song is delivered to a listener via a digital “stream.” So it literally pays better if you have more shorter songs rather than fewer longer ones for your fans to stream.

But, wait. There’s more.

A study by C.N. DeWall and others, published by the American Psychological Association found that lyrics are darker and more self-focused than they used to be. Just what the goth and emo kids need…

But, wait. There’s more. And this is the clincher.

As reported in Scientific American, one study looked at the sonic characteristics of over a million songs – 464,411 of which date from 1955 to 2010. They looked specifically at three aspects; timbre, pitch and loudness.

Here’s how those were defined… Timbre is the sound color, texture, or tone quality. Pitch is the harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements.  Loudness is not the listener-controlled volume, it’s the level when the audio signal is recorded and stored.

Here’s what they found: “After peaking in the 1960s, timbral variety has been in steady decline to the present day... That implies a homogenization of the overall timbral palette, which could point to less diversity in instrumentation and recording techniques. Similarly, the pitch content of music has shriveled somewhat. The basic pitch vocabulary has remained unchanged—the same notes and chords that were popular in decades past are popular today—but the syntax has become more restricted. Musicians today seem to be less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, instead following the paths well-trod by their predecessors and contemporaries. But the loudness of recorded music is increasing by about one decibel every eight years.”

There’s only one conclusion we can draw: mainstream music has been getting shittier in every conceivable way. More repetitive. More depressing. More homogenous. Less adventurous. Shorter. And louder.

Your parents were right!

So what do you do?

First of all, if your folks are still around, go to them, maybe take them out to dinner, and admit they were right. I’d suggest giving them a bit of advance notice so they don’t fall down or have a heart attack. It might make for one of those warm, fuzzy moments you’ll always remember.

After that, patronize venues that support original music, not karaoke and cover bands. Look for new artists that suit your existing tastes but also challenge you to accept different approaches. Sometimes it’s dissonant. Often they don’t follow traditional song structure.  But its ok. There’s recent music out there that has moved me just as much as anything I've heard that dates from 1955 to 2010.

But don’t listen to contemporary hit radio. Don’t watch the Grammy’s – at least until they find a way to incorporate more diversity in their telecast. Don’t let anyone shove a popular song down your throat. And if they want to know why you don’t want to listen, tell them – in the nicest way possible - it’s horseshit.

Popular Music

 Many years ago, I had a friend named "Gus."

Gus liked weird music. Some of it was good - he was the one who introduced me to Killing Joke - but some of it was unlistenable.

He was very punk in a post-punk world.

One day, I asked him, "Why do you like this crap?"

I'll never forget his answer.

"Because I know no one else will."

In his mind, the term "popular" meant "bad." Granted, Gus was a man of extremes, but he purposely sought out music that was not popular. I think the logic went something like this... Most people are stupid. So, if too many people like something, it can't be good.

I've often used a slightly less judgmental explanation with musicians who were puzzled by the success of bands they saw as "generic" or operating according to simple songwriting formulas. Creed took much of the brunt of this criticism from rock purists, along with Nickelback.

"Imagine you're a wine connoisseur," I would say. "You have a refined and highly-developed taste in wine. You're horrified by the fact that there are people out there who drink white zinfandel off the grocery store shelf when they could have a Winbirri Bacchus. But, the thing is, there's a lot more white zinfandel drinkers out there than there are connoisseurs."

I would pause a few seconds to let the analogy sink in, and then continue.

"Between them, they've sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million albums. So, Creed and Nickelback are just the white zinfandels of nu rock." (I had to be careful not to say "infidels").

Eventually, I discovered that most people thought the logic behind that explanation was sound. I also discovered that most people are incapable of arguing with you when you've used a wine drinking analogy.

My first job in radio was at a Top 40 (contemporary hits) station. Think back to the popular songs of 1994 (if you were beyond the embryonic phase of life at that point). Some were genuinely good. And some still cause me to retch at the mere thought of them. The fact that I heard each of those songs 10,000 times probably doesn't help.

But that brings us to the key question. Do you choose the music you listen to because you think it's good? Or are you listening just because everyone else seems to be?

We're certainly subject to many influences on our musical taste, especially in our developmental years. Parents, siblings, friends, and various media have a profound effect.

So, do we like some music just because other people do? The answer is... yes. Of course. But we should be careful, shouldn't we? Choosing music based on what's popular is the cultural equivalent of chasing the latest cold virus that's going around. Just because other people have it doesn't mean it's good.

At some point in my early teens, I began developing my own taste. Do you remember the old music clubs - Columbia House and BMG? I started buying albums, and reading the liner notes. I devoured artist interviews from CREEM and Rolling Stone. I made a habit of visiting the local record store.

The first two things I remember saving money for were an import copy of the Who's "Live at Leeds," and an original Capital Records release of "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys.

I explored different types of music, within certain boundaries, and occasionally ventured outside those boundaries. I don't do country music of any sort. Ever.

I'm a rock guy. Although, for me, the term "rock" covers an enormous variety of artists. From Joni Mitchell to Alice in Chains, the Animals to Tame Impala.

Led Zeppelin is the greatest hard rock band that ever was and ever will be. Although they're really good at light rock too. I've seen Sevendust live twenty times. But I love Steely Dan. I'm a huge fan of Fuel's first three albums. I also love the Fixx. I like Rage Against the Machine. And Fiona Apple. And Little Feat.

Despite numerous attempts to convince me otherwise, by people whose opinion I respect, I don't like Janis Joplin's voice. I'd rather hear the sound of kittens being thrown into a wood chipper. I like Bob Dylan's songs. I just don't want to hear him singing them. And, please, Bob, don't play the harmonica. It's not your thing.

I've never been a fan of the Velvet Underground. Or the Clash. Or the Ramones. I never liked Bruce Springsteen. Or Bob Seger. Or Black Sabbath. Or the Smashing Pumpkins. Or Radiohead. Or the White Stripes.

I'm perfectly willing to admit they're good at whatever it is they do. I just don't want to hear it.

If I'm dating myself with my lists of bands, now you know why I've undertaken this quest - to find newer music I can enjoy and appreciate.

The point is... once you've put some thought and effort into exploring and discovering what you like - once you've developed your taste - there must be certain things you don't like, right? I've met people whose taste in music is so broad and eclectic I can't even fathom. To me, it's like having no taste at all. Either you've put no thought and effort into digging beyond the generic horseshit music that is thrown at us every day in huge volumes, or you're a mindless moron.

Now I'm starting to sound like Gus...

But there's a middle ground here, isn't there? You don't have to like things just because you think no one else will, but why not take a chance and stop liking things just because everyone else does?

If you'd like a personal introduction to good music you've probably never heard before, you're welcome to come to my house one evening for a good listening session.

Be sure to stop at the grocery store on the way to pick up a bottle of white zinfandel...