Pop

4 01 2019

This could be a contrarian post about how I once hated pop music but now I sort of like it (in moderation), but that would be expected. Recently I got around to reading John Seabrook’s book, The Song Machine, that is inside look at how most Top 40 songs have been made in the last two decades. Briefly, many of these songs are the work of a group of Swedish producers who work in a highly formulaic and methodical manner. Many of them are the product of a superior musical education program in that country, and some like Max Martin didn’t even start out in pop music. Seabrook even confesses at the beginning of the book being more of a rock critic, but saw an opportunity to investigate a phenomenon that he found obnoxious.

If pop music sounds like it’s in a bit of a time warp, as in songs haven’t changed much in the past 20 years, it’s because it’s probably because of the same people producing them. Compare music from 40 years ago on the radio to songs from 20 years ago and you might start getting the gist of this. From groups like Ace of Base and the Backstreet Boys forward, we are talking about the same cadre of producers, with some additions here and there. We also see that music has been revolutionized due to digital downloads, the Internet, and YouTube.

These are commonly known problems. The question I am left with is: Is the music any good? Is it a profound affront to actual music, as many people adamantly protest? I think a more interesting question concerns its universality. We all know the secrets if we forced ourselves to think about it: familiar beats, an infectious hook, and near-obnoxious mass marketing. It turns out that people like hearing what is familiar, even if they hate a particular song at first. How does one measure a song that has been viewed, listened to, or downloaded millions of times against a work by Bach or Couperin that may have been performed in a church a couple of times during their lifetimes, and perhaps only occasionally in concert halls now? Does scale ever factor into the consideration? Can one at least admire a little the global apparatus that is the “Song Machine”? Is that not a tremendous work of art in itself?

 


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