Grown-ups like to bitch about what the youth of the day are listening to on their iPods, Walkmans, boomboxes, record players and so forth. It has been this way for decades. Since popular music became an entity in the early 20th century, each generation has hooked onto styles of music which furrows the brows of the stuffy, cardigan wearing parents downstairs.
I am now a grown-up. And as such I shake my head dutifully at much of modern pop music. But, the thing is, I really don’t think it is because I am older. I honestly believe it is because much of it really is, well, shite.
Yes, yes. I am un-cool by street standards. It is particularly difficult to be cool past the age of 25, and besides I never tried very much before then. Pop music appeals largely on a “cool” factor, so we were never likely to get on. At school, while I was busy listening to Astral Weeks and The White Album, my classmates were listening to Usher and Westlife. It was a blissful world of live and let live. Assuming they kept their music to their headphones, naturally.
Parents are automatically un-cool. In fact, trying to be cool as a parent is almost the least cool thing they can do. But this is not an anthropological discussion of the rules of coolness; this is about music. And the fact is, a big, chunky slice of pop music recently is quite simply awful. Why is this?
Let’s start with a very, very rough history of pop from the 60s onwards. First up, came the rock music. Amplified instruments, power chords and even the occasional tritone all put the willies up the old folk and set a nation of youth alight. Roger Daltrey sang “Hope I die before I get old” with a snarl that sounded like he meant it – evidently, he did not – over a run of distorted guitar lines and raucous bass and drums. To the acoustically minded older generation, “My generation” was quite the shock.
Rock music took a few guises over the following years, but it some respects lost its air of cool. Glam took it elsewhere with gender bending, a trend continued into the synth years with the new romantics in the 80s. Throw in some Disco, House, Hip-Hop and myriad other genres over the years and we have something for everybody. Each style containing something to piss off the old folk, whether it be lyrically, sonically or just in the fashion trends connected with the music.
The movement towards the offensive and profane is interesting. Society might seem to be as censored as ever, but from the shy innuendo of 60’s Pop we now have the all out vocal pornography of Hip Hop and quote-unquote R&B. Suggestions of a one night stand in Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” seem twee nowadays but were outrageous for the time. One wonders how far down we can go (quite literally). Hip hop videos are already pretty much soft porn, and the lyrics, when censored for radio, often have more pauses than words.
It may be a clichéd moan but it has reason: In the 60’s we had great, great music – The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan – and not only were they active, they were cool. “The” bands to follow. Now, don’t get me wrong, we still have fantastic music now, oodles of it. But it is rarely hip. The cool music for the all important trend setting youth market is not on par with the musical heyday of yesteryear. Yes, there was tacky pop back then too. But even the “lesser” music was perhaps greater than our worst efforts. The Monkees were the precursor to S Club, but Neil Diamond wrote songs for them and they had a harmonic bed that was admirable. Harmony is little more than a quaint notion to many modern popsters. Melody is all conquering – simplistic, creep into your head and stay there melody. Set atop whichever synth and drum combo is in vogue. This is the modern way.
Perhaps this is no accident.
As markets mature, a greater understanding emerges of the defining sales factors. Tin Pan alley understood the importance of a great hook. Benny And Björn famously declared that they aimed for five or more hooks in each Abba song. Both of these houses of music produced good, balanced pop music that merged their hook-happy nature with other nutritious ingredients: harmony, lyricism, rhythmic interest, and so forth. So where came the downfall?
Without intending to pin the tail on any particular donkey, both the 1980’s and the decade’s famous hit makers Stock Aitken and Waterman were a couple of notable, possible turning points. Songs that were catchy, sure, but good music? Hook laden, yet badly produced and little more than vehicles for celebrities with average vocal talent – here was music as commodity, and bloody successful commodity at that! But artistry sat this one out, as the synths and layered vocals took the fore.
Throwaway pop flourished. How many S.A.W. songs still reside in our playlists? Other than for the odd burst of warm nostalgia in a tacky 80’s retro bar, this music does not stand up outside of its time. Artistry and longevity is of little consequence to the pop factories. Once the pennies stop rolling in, they move on. Commendable from a business perspective, granted.
The reason this works is that the market for such music knows no better. Aiming at children is to aim at the uninitiated. They hear a catchy tune and like it. Adults and the more musically educated may hear the same tune, dislike it, yet still find it sticks in the head like an obnoxious uninvited guest. Ignorance is bliss to the writers of pop pap. Wrap it in a shiny package, sung by some pop starlets and voila! – a hit is born.
And it is always Pop. “Pop” as a genre is often, rightly and wrongly, a slur in the music writing world. Pop denotes music aiming for popularity. And Pop is easier than ever to make. Home computing has reached a point where comparatively small outlays can yield professional demos, or even release quality sound. It is however largely the homeground of sample/synth/vocal setups. As such, guitars, pianos, drums etc are still the remit of actual studios.
Perhaps – and these thoughts are still forming – the opening of the home market has created a new angle.
When recording to market quality was an expensive outlay, music made more sense, economically speaking, when its appeals were as wide as possible. To be at once catchy and hip, but also fundamentally solid at a musical level to entice the musos. The pop of yore. If songs are now cheaper and easier to get to market, why not aim more at one or two smaller sectors? Economics call this specialisation. Aim at the kids, musos be damned! They have their own music after all.
Also worth considering is this; the flourishing world of safe, inoffensive pop is perhaps a product of the aforementioned moral decay in popular styles. When underground hip hop is gyrating its way into the hearts and minds of ever younger pre-tenny-boppers, parents can breathe easier knowing that while One Direction and Little Mix may be tripe of the highest order, at least it is clean, worry-free tripe.
But banality is a danger to young minds. Neither end of this pop spectrum is ideal. Where is the balance? The good, honest music? The art??
The good is out there. And perhaps, just perhaps, it will rise. For the same reasons that pop pap is flourishing, perhaps real music will revolt. With home recording allowing more artists to demo, and the internet providing an open outlet, the market is being blown open.
When popular music was young, the rock stars, pop stars and singers wanted to change the world with music. And in many ways they did. Generations were fuelled by Flower Power, and called to arms by Punk. One can only hope that if banality takes too strong a hold, the musicians – real musicians – will be urged to change the rule book again, one chord at a time.