But lately, I’m thinking about music — popular music, to be specific. It seems a certain family member has recently discovered pop music, and I can’t help but hear it on a daily basis now.
I grew up with popular music, listening to my favorite DJs “Cousin Brucie” Morrow and Dan Ingram “spin the tunes” on Musicradio 77, WABC-AM, during my formative years in northern Jersey. I remember taking my portable radio into the bathroom so I could listen to “my songs” while showering. I couldn’t get enough.
That early exposure to music no doubt influenced my later interest in incorporating songs into lesson plans. Called “literary lyrics,” I connect words from songs to themes, symbols, and characters from the literature we read in class.
Granted, the songs I employ as a teacher are not usually Top 40 fare, but still, it’s all music – the universal language, as they say.
When judging popular music, I’m biased, of course, towards the music of “my generation.” That’s not surprising, as a recent study found that “Americans typically stop keeping up with new music at the age of 33.”
But despite my limited knowledge regarding today’s Top 40, I’m curious. Is the quality of popular music declining or does “old-guy bias” skew my perception? And just how, exactly, does music today become “popular” in the first place? Time for a little research.
Scientists from the Spanish National Research Council found in 2012 that today’s music “is louder and less varied than any time since the 1950s.” In addition, music fans now “demand the same songs, over and over again.”
The research also shows that “familiar music is easier for the brain to process.” Therefore, “the less effort it takes to think about something, the more we tend to like it.”
Conversely, “Alternative rock, experimental and hip-hop music are all more complex now than when they began, and each has seen their sales plummet,” reported scientists from the Medical University of Vienna in Austria.
That’s why “music all starts simplifying and sounding similar.”
So maybe the popular music of my day wasn’t necessarily better as much as it was more varied. Top 40 radio stations of the ’70s like Musicradio 77, WABC-AM, were one of the few options for listening to pop music, so the stations’ playlists needed to be more diverse. As a result, my personal “music bubble” reflected that diversity.
On the other hand, the options for listening to music today — personal iTune libraries and customized Internet radio stations, to name two — have stifled such variety, encouraging people to create customized bubbles of repetitive music.
Moreover, today’s record executives rely on computerized programs like “Shazam” to predict hits, exacerbating the homogeneity.
“Our data has shown that we can typically predict 33 days in advance what’s going to be at the top of the Billboard Hot 100,” says Peter Szabo, Shazam’s head of music. “It’s fun to see the epidemic start to spread — the growth of these songs, starting in a city.”
Furthermore, once these automated methods identify “the next hit,” that song gets more airplay than ever before as radio stations “are pushing the boundaries of repetitiveness to new levels. According to a subsidiary of iHeartMedia, Top 40 stations last year played the 10 biggest songs almost twice as much as they did a decade ago.”
The upshot of today’s data-driven and repetitive Top 40 scene is that groups like the Beatles “probably wouldn’t have had the success they did if they released their music for the first time today. Our EDM- and autotune-trained ears probably wouldn’t allow it.”
Rush, a band whose success has transcended much of the changing music landscape, was ahead of its time when singing these lines in 1980:
All this machinery making modern music
Can still be open-hearted
Not so coldly charted
It’s really just a question of your honesty, yeah
One likes to believe in the freedom of music
But glittering prizes and endless compromises
Shatter the illusion of integrity
Even though Rush was never a Top 40 band — “The Spirit of Radio” peaked at #51 — one wonders if the song would be heard at all today.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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