(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.