Words: Article in PLUG Magazine on the decline of pop
This is an article I wrote for PLUG Magazine about the state of pop music in 2015. It’s behind a paywall so you can read it below. There is also a nice article from Mic.com here about pop becoming more generic, along with a Pitchfork article on streaming services and playlists that are changing the face of pop. I wish I had the insight to incorporate some of these thoughts into my piece.
Too synthetic and stuck in its ways, is chart music suffering from a crisis of its own making? Peter Sabine, aka DJ Fabsabs, explores…
Pop music is the most divisive of subjects for DJs. Overtly manufactured to make the most money possible, admitting to being a fan of certain pop acts would be akin in some DJ circles to puking on the table at a five-star wedding banquet.
Yet before you say ‘DJs are a bunch of pretentious wankers’, there is a point to be made here: pop is getting worse. There are reasons why the synthetic nature of pop, once one of its strong suits, is leading it down the road to ruin.
- Subject matter has narrowed over time, with most songs now alluding or describing sex and drinking, and getting “high”. Songs that don’t conform, or are too quirky, increasingly miss the boat.
- Lyrics have become increasingly asinine (they always were, but at least there used to be more humour or reasoning). “Your booty like two planets, go ‘head and go ham sandwich,” implores Jason Derulo on Wiggle. Will.i.am, meanwhile, pops up on Nicki Minaj’s Check it out for this valuable contribution: “I’m shot caller, get up off my collar, you a Chihuahua, I’m a Rottweiler.” Eh?
- Regurgitated looks and provocative outfits are de rigueur, but serve no real purpose accept for mindless sexual commoditisation. In Birthday by Katy Perry, the imagery and lyrics all lamely allude to the listener that she puts out pretty easily. If you want to do sexy and mysterious, check out Debbie Harry from Blondie. And no, she didn’t play with inflatable cocks like Miley.
- Song lengths have been limited to between three and four minutes. God forbid you give the masses a nine-minute Guns N’ Roses November rain or a skit like The Beatles Her majesty any more (except in hip-hop, they love them).
- Structures are limited to the formula: introduction-verse-chorus-repeat, finishing with a key change. There are variants on this, like Pharrell songs that start with a series of beats (Blurred lines, or Drop it like it’s hot). I’ll admit, the key change can be powerful, like in Whitney Houston’s cover of I will always love you (There is my Patrick Bateman moment).
It might be argued that these characteristics have always been part and parcel of pop, particularly its more manufactured variants, and for every moronic song nowadays, there is an intelligent gem.
But can you ignore the greater downward spiral?
The Black Eyed Peas, in particular, seem to highlight everything that has gone wrong with pop. The group fell so far from the intelligent and meaningful Where is the love?, to highlighting Fergie’s booty in My humps:
“My hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my lovely little lumps”…
Let’s compare the situation to the late 1990s- early 2000s. Yes, there were plenty of dispensable songs – Livin’ La Vida Loca, I’m Blue, Barbie Girl etc. Ok, they kind of sucked. But…
Firstly, we didn’t really take them seriously, and I’m sure neither did the artists (they probably just laughed all the way to the bank).
Secondly, there was more balance in the general pool, as talent in its prime was plentiful. Consider the following artists making classic pop back then (in no particular order): Christina, J.Lo, Britney, Kylie, Madonna, Mariah, Cher, Blink 182, Shania Twain, TLC, The Goo Goo Dolls, Celine Dion, The Offspring, Kelis, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Limp Bizkit, Robbie Williams, Beck, Radiohead, Dave Matthews Band, Korn, Leftfield, Fatboy Slim, Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, Sisqó (LOL), Ja Rule, Fatman Scoop, DMX, Eminem, Dr. Dre, ‘N Sync, Brandy, Destiny’s Child, Sarah McLachlan, Sixpence None the Richer, Backstreet Boys, Vengaboys, Third-Eye Blind, Girls Aloud, System Of A Down…
Lastly, it’s important not to just highlight the talent here, but rather, the diversity of songs that could chart globally. Nu metal, college rock, gangster rap, country, terrible euro-dance, handbag house, or boy band ballads, everything was possible.
Would this diversity be accepted in 2015?
When Missy Elliott appeared during Katy Perry’s Super Bowl half time performance she stole the show. Not only did the rapper highlight how safe Katy Perry songs are, but it was a reminder that Missy tracks, combined with the best of Timbaland’s production, feel exciting and dangerous. They (still!) touch a raw emotional nerve that much of current pop music fails to do.
Bring back the magic
Is it that the pop music industry has forgotten how to excite because it is focused on being risk-averse? You can understand the fear in the era of media saturation. When any one can publish music, and where there are multiple means to listen, it makes sense to stick to the basics.
Think about the superlative pop music of yore – Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Beastie Boys, Prince, or Blur. The common denominator is that they took risks, did things differently, and adopted multifarious styles and influences. They had “fuck it” moments and trashed the template.
There are certain pop songs that I remember the first time I heard them. Man in the mirror on a junk overlooking the South China Sea; Crazy in love in a London club, Unfinished sympathy driving back from a Hong Kong rave, or Justin Timberlake’s My love at a Shanghai house party. The place didn’t matter, but rather the uniqueness of elements in the song that blew me away.
How many of those moments do I have nowadays? The last one was Clean Bandit’s Rather be, and those points are few and far between. Nowadays, why do local classics like Chochukmo’s Good night stick out as more special? Because they have uniqueness to them, an individuality that pop is losing.
Take the safety off
The standards and expectations of so many contemporary pop tracks fail to go beyond the churned out, lyrically moribund, lazily produced, unadventurously programmed, and lacking in worldly influences. As a result, they are absolutely forgettable. It’s no wonder you often hear the same music in McDonald’s or H&M as mainstream clubs. And it’s a sign about how safe pop has become.
Safety is pure sin for any genre nowadays except musak they play while you’re relieving yourself in the urinal. With so many avenues to produce and consume music, the survival of pop relies on having an edge, particularly as it loses control over distribution channels.
Even if record companies can buy airtime, clicks, views, ad space, and social media followers, they have lost their monopoly on the pipeline of what people hear. While they still have star power on their side, the ability to innovate and take risks has been lost.
Innovation is at the heart of any successful music movement. A DJ once told me that for a scene to survive, people in the group need to share music and create hits together. Some of the great underground movements: Bebop, Northern Soul, Punk, House, or Grime, created their own hits that were propelled by DJs, promoters, music collectors and club-goers with a pioneering and adventurous spirit.
When Iggy Azalia implores listeners to “Trash the hotel, let’s get drunk on the mini bar” in Fancy, is that pioneering or adventurous to you? It just seems so disingenuous, like a consultant changed her lyrics after studying the latest consumer focus group study.
On Human, The Killers’ Brandon Flowers asks: “Are we human, or are we dancer”? The point was to question whether people think for themselves anymore. Listening to pop nowadays, it’s a valid question. But one thing is for sure: people don’t want to be bull-shitted around.
Pop music’s increasingly one-dimensional approach is short-changing people in an era of cultural and informational complexity. It’s time to smash the template, or risk becoming irrelevant.