Thursday, June 14, 2018

So it's true then - pop music HAS become boring


(First published in the Nelson Mail, the Manawatu Standard and stuff.co.nz.)

I did something last week that I almost never do. I watched an item on Seven Sharp.

This particular item had been previewed during an ad break in the 6 o’clock news and it aroused my interest. It asked the provocative question, has pop music got boring?

So I watched the item, and the answer reporter Tim Wilson gave was: Yes, it has.

Ah, so it’s not just me then.

Here I was wondering whether I was alone in harrumphing over the monotony of 21st century pop.

I had rebuked myself for doing what people have always done when they get to a certain age – namely, shake their heads at the incomprehensible tastes of the young. But here seemed to be at least partial confirmation of my view that pop music has become drearily predictable and insipid.

Wilson interviewed Auckland musician and arranger Godfrey de Grut, who lectures in popular music studies at the University of Auckland. De Grut comes with plenty of music industry cred, having worked with the likes of Che Fu, Brooke Fraser and Boh Runga.

Admittedly de Grut is no teenager, and neither is Wilson. But they’re a lot younger (and cooler) than I am, so I took heart from their assessment that mainstream pop music has become, in de Grut’s words, bland and homogeneous.

De Grut was able to explain in simple terms what it is about these songs that makes them l sound so similar. They use the same song structures and the same sterile technology. Often they’ve been crafted by the same songwriter. To me it all sounds pre-packaged and bloodless – the aural equivalent of junk food.

The Seven Sharp item seemed to confirm the impressions I’d formed on a recent car trip, when I couldn’t find any of the radio stations I usually favour and ended up listening to a pop station.

I started listening because there was nothing else available, but I stayed tuned out of curiosity and fascination at the sheer relentless sameness of the music.

Song after song followed the same pattern: simple, repetitive, almost childlike melodies – they reminded me of nursery rhymes – over an insistent, pulsing electronic beat.

It struck me as being fashionably gender-neutral. The voices were almost asexual, even androgynous, to the extent that it was sometimes hard to tell whether the singer was male or female.

I have no idea who the performers were, but I recognised the songs as being representative of a genre that’s heard everywhere in hotel lobbies, cafes and airport terminals. You can’t escape it, no matter how desperately you might want to.

It’s the same music that I’m forced to listen to when I’m put on hold while waiting to talk to my internet service provider/bank/insurance company/whatever. I assume it’s their way of persuading you to give up and leave them alone.

I even hear it if I wake early and tune into NewstalkZB’s Early Edition to get the first news of the day. For some reason there’s always a pop song playing behind the host when she comes back on air after the 5.30am bulletin.

Listening to this stuff, I find myself wondering whether pop music has exhausted itself and retreated to the same safe space it inhabited before rock and roll.

I’m just old enough to remember the dull, anodyne pop that emanated from radios before Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. It was the era of The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane by the Ames Brothers, Hot Diggity Dog Ziggity by Perry Como and How Much is that Doggie in the Window, by Patti Page. 

Rock and roll arrived in the nick of the time. If it wasn’t for Presley, Haley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, we would have succumbed to the stupefying effects of an obesity-inducing musical diet that consisted wholly of white bread, doughnuts and marshmallow.

With the advent of rock and roll, popular music acquired not only a raw energy but an edgy, almost menacing quality. At the moment I’m reading an excellent book called 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, in which British writer Jon Savage analyses the culture and politics of that year through the prism of pop music.

By that time the epicentre of the pop world had shifted from America to London. It was the golden era of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks – bands that produced their own distinctive sounds and could never have been mistaken for each other, unlike today’s sound-alikes.

Savage’s book is also a reminder that the sullen, pouty, rebellious stance of bands like the Stones and the Who was seen as a potent threat to the conservative establishment.

It occurs to me that no one could take offence at today’s mainstream pop, other than on aesthetic grounds. Perhaps that’s its problem.

6 comments:

hilary531 said...

People criticise Spotify for the low returns to artists, fair enough..but it opened my eyes to the plethora of tremendously exciting music out there Karl...it's just not on the radio, or rarely. (Actually RNZ is different). I read a good review of someone/thing I've never heard of, get it on Spotify and discover a whole new world. Magic. Kiwi music, too, is booming, stunning...& that's just our wee corner. Who needs pop.

Craig said...

All forms of art have a high point and the high point for pop/rock was probably in the 60s & 70s (maybe a slight revival in the 80s). Until somebody comes up with a revolutionary way to reinvent the form (like Impressionism in painting) we will be stuck regurgitating cliche. While we're stuck in harrumph mode, how about the 100s of channels of crap that are now available on TV? I can remember only having two channels in the dim dark past, yet most nights there seemed something to watch, hell, I even remember BBC's Horizon getting a weekly run. (Another example that springs to mind is 'Parkinson', when you compare this to 'Graeme Norton' the mind spins) I have this theory that with the expansion of modes of delivery (mostly the internet) that we simply don't have enough quality material to fill the voids, hence the endless reality shows on TV and nonsense emanating from the Radio.

Karl du Fresne said...

Hilary, I agree with you that there's a lot of great music being made, some of it right here in NZ. I hear it on National Radio all the time and I'm astonished at how good some of it is. I should have made it clearer that my column was referring to what might be called mainstream or Top 40 pop - the type you hear on commercial radio stations.

hughvane said...

"You ain't heard nothing yet" ... to misquote the Bachman Turner song lyrics. If you want to hear 'boring' pop music, try a workout in your local gym. It comes at high volume, and with excruciating lip-sync video no less. Some of it is NZ music (and was especially so during the month of May - aaaagh!) The fact that it emanated from NZ did not make it worthy.

Expanding the topic slightly, NZ Music - such a generic term - and 'pop' music in particular, has got better, no doubt, it had to, but telling us that it is good because it is homegrown, or 'pure NZ' is condescending and patronising. Let it stand on its merits. No amount of promotion will ever make garbage - wherever it might be from, in whatever genre - into gold.

I think it was Brian Edwards who suggested decades ago on his Saturday morning show on National Radio that NZ Music Month was unnecessary, that the content could simply be included in the everyday presentation from NatRad. That was before the network decided it would become a talkfest, minimising its music content.

hilary531 said...

Karl..yes, I did realise you were referring to top 40 stuff, hence my last wee quip. And I knew I'd be preaching to the converted re streaming, which has released us from any radio at all if we choose. Hugh, agree re NZ Music Week & I suspect we've moved on out of that 'affirmative action' phase..beaut. Fondly remember BE on Natrad. TV Craig? Yeah, what can you say but harrumph..

Damien Grover said...

Hi Karl. I submit that pop music is always bland and boring - always has been. For all the Elvis's, there'd be a Johnny Cash - try listening through his back log - he'd have sung the phone book if his record company needed a new record, or Conway Twitty.
Try listening to a compilation of 60s British pop hits - Gerry & the Pacemakers, Manfred Mann, Cliff Richard & the Shadows etc etc, "My Boy Lollipop" etc etc - what was actually popular back then vs what we think was cool back then in retrospect. Then jump forward to the "New Romantic" phases, Rock over London of the 80s. Complete load of repetitive same sounding crap, with one or 2 transcending the ho hum sameness of it all to create something timeless. Same situation as now.

Best regards, Damien Grover