When I listen to music, I’m looking for something that not only sounds good, but makes me feel good as well.
That good feeling can come in the form of an energetic rock song to wake me up on the way to school, or a mellow jazz tune to help me relax before bed. It’s the reason why the first human ever decided to bang two stones together in rhythm and grunt, and it’s essentially why most of us listen to music today.
It’s why music has such a powerful effect on our emotions and moods. It’s why we crank rap music in our cars with our friends on Saturday nights, and it’s why we’re willing to spend $50 on a concert ticket to stand for five hours in the face of errant plastic beer cups and clouds of oddly fragrant smoke. It also used to be why I turned on the radio in my car.
But since around the middle of last summer, I’ve hardly been able to listen to popular stations like 95.7 the Vibe and Mix 93.3. It’s been impossible to tune in without hearing a song with a sugary electronic beat that repeats itself every four seconds and/or vocals that sound like a robot singing through the back of a fan. Everyone loved to hate on the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC back when they were the kings of mainstream pop music, but hey, at least they could actually sing.
Factory hits that have dominated stations lately are perfect examples of how pop music has changed. Talented artists like the Beatles, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and even Blink 182 or Outkast used to fill the airwaves. They were extremely skilled musicians and lyricists, but they also made music that the average listener would want to hear over and over again. They wrote their own lyrics and played a huge creative role in creating their albums, instead of merely using a cookie-cutter beat and lyrics that their record label paid someone else to write.
Most of the “artists” on the radio nowadays collectively have less talent and originality than Andre 3000 does in one of his pairs of chest-high argyle pants. As catchy as Jay Sean’s smash hit “Down” sounds, laying down the electronically polished vocals while reading off pre-written lyrics might have required getting dressed in the morning. Maybe.
In the music world, the radio is the fast food and full albums are multi-course meals. But lately, songs that have taken over most of the stations that don’t involve Bill Shapiro, country music or smooth jazz have turned the radio into the equivalent of a dollar menu. Whereas classic pop hits like Jay-Z’s “Hardknock Life” or Sublime’s “What I Got” were a Big Mac meal, most of today’s pop singles are more like a dollar sundae.
And now that music has gone digital and hearing a single again is as simple as clicking the “buy now” button in iTunes, listeners are basically fine with that. The focus has moved away from recording a creative single to entice listeners into buying an album, and towards offering up a quick, tasty hit single that the average teenage girl can’t resist syncing onto her lime green iPod nano.
I’m not saying that having a catchy hit single is bad — in fact far from it. But when singles become the only focus, pop music starts to take a formulaic, factory approach.
No one can realistically claim that things should go back to exactly the way they were in the 60’s and 70’s, but there’s no denying that the popular music of that time was a million times more diverse and creative than the majority of what’s playing today.
Also, the fact that most of these artists don’t contribute anything to their music but their voice and ability to appear in People magazine’s celebrity candid shots has serious implications when it comes to live performances.
Real artists who write their own songs and work hard to perfect them are amazing in concert because of the emotion and skill they show when they play. It’s a little bit hard for Miley to get the same effect out of the “Party in the USA” chorus, whether she does it while dancing on a pole at an award show or not.
Pop music may never reach the heights it did when artists like Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, and the Beatles were in their creative heyday, but I wish that it would at least go back to where it was a few years ago. I remember as recently as the year 2000 when I could turn on 93.3 and hear a range of songs by artists like Nelly, No Doubt and Eminem. Each song was different, from the attitude to the instrumentals to the lyrics. Hearing those songs on the radio even inspired my 10-year-old self to drag my mom to Barnes and Noble to buy a few albums, such as Nelly’s “Country Grammar” (the clean version of course).
At its heart, good music is something that should be enjoyable and available to everyone, no matter if they’re an insurance salesperson or a professional jazz musician. It shouldn’t have to be analyzed and critiqued by two guys at a wine tasting. But if popular music stays on the same path, all of the good stuff may either become “underground,” or disappear from the radio completely. I’ve had enough of the cheap dollar menu hits on the FM. Radio stations should bring back the Big Macs.