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Is Mainstream Music Getting Worse?
I a dreaded teenager, the age group who everyone seems to be afriad of—and part of Generation Z, or so-called post millennials. Gen Z has been criticized for the clothes we wear, our “attitudes”, our lack of care for society, and the music we listen to. What kind of music would you guess someone my age would listen to? If you have heard any snippets of the music on radio stations, in public places, on music platforms, performed at events, and played everywhere imaginable—you would probably say mainstream pop music. But when I say “mainstream”, that is not indicative of the quality of the music.
The claim that I am making is that our generation doesn’t have a choice in the type of music we like and listen to unless we put effort into cultivating a personal music taste. Even though my opinion is that mainstream music nowadays is bland, boring, overly simplistic lyrically, and lacks creativity and substance—not to mention all the songs sound the same from a musically analytical perspective—I still hear the newest pop singles everywhere I go. Justin Bieber and Katy Perry follow me everywhere. The music of pop artists like these reinforces things that are already advertised in the media, making them easily marketable.
We should also realize that the messages being reinforced in popular music are messages being reinforced in our culture. We really need to rethink some of that.
The way music becomes the mainstream in current times leans more towards marketing genius rather than artistic genius. No matter what my personal music taste is, what is most popular in the music industry is now unavoidable.
Music overall hasn’t necessarily gotten bad. There is still great music being made, and there are still talented people with potential, but those bands and artists are not usually getting the opportunities they deserve. The issue is how the system works. I myself can enjoy a good pop song or a good rap song, even though those are not my favorite genres. What I don’t like is how little variety there is, the lack of substance, meaning, and artistic purpose in what is played everywhere.
A lot of what is played on the radio fits a certain structure and topic, and it definitely sounds very different from the music that was being made 30 years ago, usually in the same way.
Up until now I’ve only been explaining how one kind of music is overbearing, but why is modern day music so bad, as I am claiming?
Over the years, emergent technology, techniques like autotune and compression, and electronic instruments such as synthesizer have been used more and more in music production. All this editing can significantly take away from a song’s substance and an artist’s originality—adding up to a homogeneous music industry.
A voice being ran through layering, autotune, and multiple rounds of editing makes it sound very manufactured, albeit perfectly pitched, but emotionless and generic.
There is also compression. This is when the sound is edited to minimize the range of volume in the sound. Elevating quieter sounds and mitigating the louder sounds means that the entire song or section of the song will sound “louder” overall. It’s similar to shouting vs. whisper shouting. Whisper yelling still sounds emotional, just softer, similar to how if there is less dynamic range all the sounds will sound loud no matter at what volume the listener is listening at. It’s a way for songs to catch your attention and try to keep you listening. Unfortunately, the trade-off is the texture, color, and quality of the sounds, also known as the timbral quality.
Minimizing the dynamic range, like compression does, limits musical expression; nothing really pops out as special or different in the song. For example, in classical music, dynamics are one of the biggest things you can do to vary the mood and make the piece interesting to listen to, but all that musical expression is thrown out the window in most pop songs.
Why is this type of music so successful though? Pop music is easy to listen to. It’s repetitive and bland. It takes less effort to understand the lyrics and meaning behind them or learn to play the song on an instrument. Again, it’s easier to listen to, while something like classical music takes years to be able to play well and meaningful lyrics take thought to comprehend.
Since the 1960s, the melodies, rhythms, and harmonies of songs have sounded increasingly similar to one another. Basically, music has become less harmonically interesting. The chords are generic and many modern pop songs use the exact same sequence of harmonies. This has continued to get worse because of the fact that these simple chord progressions are familiar to music listeners, so song writers choose to repeat these. Something giving us a sense of familiarity will most likely sound good, because we are remembering other songs that sound the same.
The problem with this is that that makes it harder for us to open up to new types of music. There is in fact something called the mere exposure effect, saying that the more times you hear something, the more you like it, because it’s comfortingly familiar.
This may sound a little extremist on first thought, but doesn’t all this remind you of a certain concept? I.e., being followed by songs that sound very similar, one type of music being reinforced to an extreme extent, tactics being used to convince you that what you are listening to is good, only four large labels controlling the distribution and the artists that are put out into the industry…
Brainwashing or manipulation could be suitable terms for what has been happening. But who does this benefit? Well, reinforcing something as “good music” that the general public likes, even if it requires putting some effort into making them like it, guarantees a safe course of action for recruiting new artists and putting out new music, since it is already known what will be successful. This is a problem because it means that similar music is being put out and similar artists are being signed, because record labels already know who will most likely do well.
A&R is the division of a record label with people who are responsible for scouting out new artists or talents to claim. Actors and social media influencers are often signed because they are already recognizable, and their music will be popular regardless. Easy money for them and the label.
The four major record labels currently are EMI, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group—they control much of the music people listen to, to say the least. Over two thirds of the music being sold comes from these companies.
Record companies have no need to go out of their way to choose someone “exotic” or different from the mainstream, so the way music circulates becomes an indestructible cycle.
There is also another but just as important reason why record labels don’t hire a variety of different artists: cost. The shocking amount it costs to break-in a band or artist is equivalent to gambling away multiple fortunes, betting it on something that has a low chance of succeeding. It takes at least 500 thousand dollars to break a new artist into the industry, not to mention the costs of providing artists that are new to the recording process with musicians, studios, producers, and supervision in production.
If you are reading this and realizing that your music taste has been limited, do a little research and find something you genuinely like, whatever that may be. Pre-2000s and even early 2000s, people didn’t have access to millions of songs at their fingertips, like we do. Instead, you would have to go to a music store, sift through the hundreds of records laid out, and put some thought into what records you were buying. After that, you would take your new records home and play them over and over again, because what you bought was all the music you had. You would appreciate the sounds more and seek out new meanings and details with each listen.
Back to present time, I could open up computer and find a song within seconds.
Unfortunately, the most popular artists aren’t always the most talented ones. I cannot speak for all of these musicians as a whole, but instead for the majority. Music now glorifies the wrong things and promotes a negative shift in American culture. In my opinion, there is a general lack of talent needed to be signed to a record label. As more and more of the emerging music sounds a certain way, there is a downfall in the expectations of people.
In fact, many music artists don’t write their own songs. Instead, a team of writers are in charge of composing the music. The respective artists then perform the piece and are often unfairly credited for writing the songs. For example, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Miley Cyrus’s hit song “Wrecking Ball”. I hate to break it to you, but she was not the original creator.
Not many people know of who actually writes many of the hits we’ve all heard, and not many people understand how music publishing works. It looks like I’m throwing shade on the beloved artists of the general public, but a good amount of them lack talent or anything that should make them stand out. Fake it till you make it, I guess.
There are so many truly talented people who love music and do it for the purpose of expressing themselves and making something that people like listening to, but many of those people belong to different genres, or publish their music independently. Of course, you can still enjoy mainstream music, as we all do occasionally.
Remember what music is about: personal preference and enjoyment. It’s is an art after all, but there has to be something out there that you haven’t heard of yet, something that you will enjoy hearing. Take what I have said with a grain of salt and have an open mind towards all the unique musicians out there that deserve opportunities to do what they love.