Sunday, December 15, 2013

Harumph (Music Today Sucks)

I'm sure many of you, if you're over the age of 40, have had the "music" argument with your kids, the one that starts with you complaining about how awful today's popular music is. I personally believe that today's pop music is mostly wretched and will be forgotten in 10-15 years. It is bland and disposable, as if written by machines. On the other hand, I believe music from, roughly, 1963 to 1979 will be studied centuries from now and will be regarded as a golden age, not unlike the late 18th century.

When was the last time someone wrote a song as ominous and wonderfully ominous as "Gimmie Shelter," as soaringly beautiful as "God Only Knows," or with the exquisite craft of “Hotel California?” If I'm missing something, please tell me, because I'd love to download something fresh.

My kids tell me that I simply like the music of my youth. This is a reasonable argument since every generation romanticizes its teenage years. But no, I think those of us who were young in the ‘60s and ‘70s just got lucky. Musical greatness is not linear, and some periods simply stand out, while others are forgotten. Quick, name a song from the 1910s. How about one from the ‘30s? How about anything at all from the second half of the 19th century? 

I'm waiting…

A number of factors came together in the ‘60s and ‘70s that conspired to produce greatness. Technology certainly played a part, with 4 and 8-track recording becoming available for the first time. 

A friend of mine who runs a record label says a big part of it was actually drugs, particularly LSD. It spurred creativity, the argument goes. While there may be something to this, it's not as if drugs have disappeared. Perhaps LSD use has waned...

The cultural backdrop of the ‘60s almost certainly played a role. And while the flower-power generation was grossly narcissistic, and its societal impact almost entirely negative (in my view), there's no arguing that all that social experimentation paid off in spades when it came to music. Landing on the moon after starting from scratch in 1961was no more remarkable than evolving from "The Twist" to "Sympathy for the Devil" in the same time frame.

And, of course, there's luck. Perhaps no age was as rife with musical genius, from Lennon and McCartney to Dylan to Brian Wilson to Keith Richards to Jimmy Page to Lindsay Buckingham. And more. These brilliant artists were thrown onto a canvas of experimentation, drugs, and technology, and incredible art was the result.

Then there' Really, it started to go downhill in the ‘80s and seems to have accelerated ever since. The art of writing a hook has been lost, as has any ability to harmonize. I can’t remember the last time I heard an interesting chord progression (many songs today are played entirely in chord). Lyrics have reverted back to treacly ‘50s simplicity or, in the case of rap, vulgar journeys through rhyming dictionaries. Nothing is implied through suggestion or imagery, it is simply said. "My Life Would Suck Without You," screeched Kelly Clarkson in her recent hit. The Righteous Brothers weep for you.

Much of it also just sounds the same, which is odd as there's more technology than ever with which to experiment. Garage Band, which comes free with any iMac, has more technology than any studio in which the Beatles recorded. Any sound you can imagine, you can create. But ironically, the absence of boundaries has tempered any desire to find and smash through them. 

John Lennon once challenged the Beatles’ recording engineer, the great Geoff Emerick, to make his voice sound like the "Dalai Lama shouting from a mountaintop." He did, with only the primitive tools available at the time. (The results can be listened to in the song "Tomorrow Never Knows.”) Today there's probably a button you push that says "Dalai Lama Effect." 

The contemporary artist is not challenged, so he does not challenge himself. 

I've been pondering getting this off my chest for some time, but there's a reason I'm writing about it now. It turns out there's proof that I'm right! Actual data. Michael Cembalest, a JP Morgan executive, wrote the following to his son as he left for college this fall:

I arrived at college in 1980 (the inception of a decade-long musical graveyard) when many people turned off the radio and instead listened to classic rock and rhythm & blues; blues produced from 1965 to 1978. I notice you like this music as well. Now you can substantiate to today’s generation why that era’s music was objectively “better." 

The Million Song Dataset is a database of western popular music produced from 1955 to 2010. As described in Scientific Reports (affiliated with the publication Scientific American), researchers developed algorithms to see what has changed over time, focusing on three variables: timbre, pitch and loudness. Timbre is a proxy for texture and tone quality, terms which reflect the variety and richness of a given sound. Higher levels of timbre most often result from diverse instrumentation (more than one instrument playing the same note). Pitch refers to the tonal structure of a song: how the chords progress, and the diversity of transitions between chords. Since the 1960’s, timbral variety has been steadily declining, and chord transitions have become narrower and more predictable...

(Source: "Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music," Scientific Reports, Serra et al, May 2012)

The researchers also found that popular music has gotten a lot louder. The median recorded loudness value of songs by year is shown in the second chart. One illustrative example: in 2008, Metallica fans complained that the Guitar Hero version of its recent album sounded better than it did on CD. As reported in Rolling Stone, the CD version was re- mastered at too high a decibel level, part of the Loudness Wars affecting popular music. 

Overall, the researchers concluded that there has been a “progressive homogenization of the musical discourse”, a process which has resulted in music becoming blander and louder. This might seem like a reactionary point of view for an adult to write, but the data does seem to back me up on this. All of that being said, I do like that Method Man-Mary J. Blige duet.  

So there it is. We are being assaulted with loud, bland music. The scientists say so.

Excuse me, while I turn the dial on my radio back to Classic Rock…


  1. I happen to love pre-Beatles American pop, circa. 1959 - 1963. Elvis's "Burning Love" is the most energetic rock song ever recorded. I like the Beatles, too; but I don't think they had a healthy effect on American music (cf. Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Strawberry Alarm Clock). The early decades of the 20th century are not to be lightly dismissed, Scott: Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin, Gershwin--e.g., the first half of the Great American Songbook.

  2. This post makes you officially an old man.

  3. Music today rots. No argument here. "Classic Rock" is wonderful and will endure (as high art always does). I can't get enough of it and my kids have already been indoctrinated --and love the Stones, Beatles and Who. But, the 1990s produced some great bands and legendary albums too. Nirvana's Nevermind, Beck's Odelay, Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory, Radiohead's The Bends & OK Computer, Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, LIVE's Throwing Copper. Dave Matthews and the Chili Peppers have had a good run too. And let's not forget what U2 and Pearl Jam have done for music. So many great songs and albums. Vedder is a genius and the band is pretty versatile. Pearl Jam has been the best band in the world for the last two decades.

    I'll make you a mix tape... I mean burn you a CD....... I mean send you the YouTube links and let you download them from iTunes. The lost art/hobby (and need) of making tapes for your friends could be an entire new blog entry here! Makes me sad...