You can’t read posts on this site very long without realizing that there are a lot of unhappy pop fans out there right now. I’m not talking about the professional haters who have had their senses of humor surgically removed. I mean just a general feeling that all is not well in popdom.
I have a confession: I’m a pop music fan. Power pop is a guilty pleasure. I’m a sucker for jangling guitars and catchy hooks. But I am more inclined to like those recording artists who take the pop music form to another level where it becomes art without falling into pure pathos. Here I am thinking of people like the Beatles, Aretha, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, U2, REM, Nirvana, Sara McLachlan, Tori Amos, and Alanis Morissette when she’s not wallowing in self-pity about some guy who scr*wed her over when she was nineteen (get over it girl!). For decades this type of pop has stood side-by-side with manufactured dreck competing for the affections of pop music listeners.
Don’t listen to those who say that crappy music is novel. The same decade that gave us the Beatles and Dylan also gave us Herman’s Hermits and Bobby Sherman. When Joni Mitchell was hot, so was David Cassidy. When U2 and Madonna ruled the airwaves, Debbie Gibson and A-ha were making hits as well. While Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, and Sara MacLachlan were scoring hits, the Backstreet Boys were on the charts right there with them. Schlock has its place in history. That isn’t the problem.
So what is the problem? Simply put, schlock is pretty much all there is. There is some challenging stuff being played, but not much. This makes the weakness of the unoriginal music being tossed our way more and more annoying as one boring song after another gets played. I’ve always thought Britney was a lot easier to take sandwiched between Green Day and U2. I’ve also never been one for “niche” radio. The strength of pop radio was its variety. Give it time, and you’ll hear everything. Now I hear the same thing and that thing isn’t very good.
Why this sudden change? A few years back the FCC removed the restrictions on radio station ownership. Large conglomerates could now own an almost endless supply of stations and many in the same area. They went for tight playlists they could control for all their stations in each musical genre. In the past, new artists could break out by convincing some program manager somewhere to play their new single. Now you have to talk to a single corporate manager for dozens of stations who is competing for revenue dollars against some other giant corporation and is inclined to play only those artists he thinks will safely bring in a particular share of some marketing demographic.
This is not to say there is nothing good out there. Established artists like Green Day and U2 make good stuff. Or at least it sounds good compared to the rest of it. Newer artists (particularly in hip-hop) can break out by collaborating with top hitmakers. But overall the quality has dropped dramatically in the last decade. Can you imagine something as intricate as Tori Amos’ “Silent All These Years” making the playlist at Clear Channel? Or Alanis’ explicit description of her sex life and routine dropping of the f-bomb in “You Oughta Know” seeing the light of day in our post-Janet-wardrobe-malfunction world?
If you want good pop now, you will have to search it out. Internet radio and indie music are good places to start. Internet downloading has made instant access to new music possible. For many people, particularly younger fans, the normal points of distribution for new music are being bypassed. This is what will eventually bring an end to the endless parade of dreck.
For now though, the days when some programming director decides to play “Psycho Killer” because he thinks Talking Heads is a really cool band is long gone. Now we have a statistical analysis of which song will eke out that last cent of revenue. And we’re all the worst for it.