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Is It Time to Look Back and Bring the ‘Pop’ Back into the Mainstream?!
I have touched on this subject a few times…
ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: Jamie Cullen
but it warrants a bit of a repeat. One of the reasons I tend to look back when listening to music – rather than looking at the now – is the sense of uplift I get! Maybe it is easy to hark back to the music we grew up around and know we are in for something wonderful. This music is tried and tested and we know, whenever it plays, we will be in a better mood. I will bring in an album that keeps coming back to my mind but I have to ask what is happening in the mainstream. I know it is not the be all and end all of music and the only thing that matters. There are wonderful artists working in every sector of music that does not get the spotlight deserved. I know genres like Soul, Grime and Folk have some mainstream inclusion but not as integrated as they should be. When we see the word ‘mainstream’, our minds look at Pop and maybe Rock. That is fair enough, I guess, as this is what is played on the biggest radio stations and what is hovering around the charts. In terms of the sensation we get from the mainstream artists; can we truly say the music coming through puts us in a better mood?! Most of the songs I hear are either really quite defeatist in terms of their lyrics or, if the words are quite sprite, it is let down by a rather lumpen and unaccomplished compositions.
There are some great Popstars who can bring some genuine fizz and excitement and, more often than not, are genuinely trying to have fun. Fun does not mean compromising substance and projecting something meaningful. It is a hard act to balance but I have noticed, more and more, the mainstream is a lot more resigned, inward-looking and, well...miserable. I was researching for this piece and came across a Pitchfork article that holds the same onions:
“Quick: Name the fun song on the Billboard charts right now—the celebratory one, the one about embracing life, about living like tonight is the last night. Not just the fun song, but the FUN! song, the one accompanied by glitter bombs and T-shirt cannons. Normally there are at least five flouncing around the upper reaches of the Hot 100, impervious to trends: “Uptown Funk” or “Shut Up and Dance”; “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” or “Happy” or “Shake It Off.”
Still looking? Yeah, you won’t find it.
Skip across playlists or tangle with a car radio dial and you will quickly absorb that the world is an awful, squalid place, where emo-rap stars like Juice WRLD take “prescriptions to feel A-OK” and where “Sicko Mode,” a hit song released in the dead of summer, begins with the words “sun is down, freezing cold.” Bebe Rexha, a songwriter whose persona and style switches completely from song to song, is currently at No. 39 with “I’m a Mess,” where the line “It’s gonna be a good, good life” is chased with a bitter “that’s what my therapist say,” and the chorus rewrites Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” for the age of pure anhedonia: “I’m a mess, I’m a loser, I’m a hater, I’m a user”.
It seems the mainstream market has streamlined and there is a move towards a more ‘realistic’ view of the world. Artists, for some reason, feel the realities of heartache and life kicking you in the scrotum is a much more marketable vibe than promoting the wonders of life. We are told, more and more, that there is a mental-health crisis (and there is) but I wonder whether we are being flooded with this message. It is great we can connect with an artist because they feel the same way as us but, rather than providing inspiring and positive messages, there is this negative and submissive impression that is getting rather heavy. Once was the time when Pop was there to get us all happy and move the body; when artists could be heartbroken but there was this sunshine and chance to get better. When was the last time you checked out what was in the charts or on the radio and heard a song that genuinely, without irony, was talking about moving on up and embracing life?!
“Aren’t pop songs generally meant to lift us up? Or at least make us forget, for a moment, how terrible everything else is? One good working definition of a pop song might be “a three-minute reminder that hedonism exists.” How and when did things turn so morose?
The armchair-cultural-anthropologist answer is the easiest one: Everything is garbage! Who wants to celebrate when the world is crumbling? It’s a seductive explanation. After all, many of us are currently grappling with the reality that the Earth will probably be partially drowned within the next four or five presidential administrations (assuming presidential administrations keep happening)”.
It is not just the Pop genre that is to blame for the funk. I think there has been a move, through the years, away from the mainstream star who was promoting something pumping, energised and catchy to the more private, anxious and ‘aware’ artist. Maybe the state of the world and the feeling of depression a lot of us feel needs to be presented in music and we need to feel musicians understand us. Other genres are less keen to explore this side of life so, as they are the leaders of the mainstream, the Pop elite have to address this. I do wonder whether we need to assimilate other genres into the mix in order to find some more energy and optimism. You can say Hip-Hop and Rap is at its best when not entirely entwined with the mainstream and left to its own devices. Whilst there are powerhouse newcomers like Cardi B, Travis Scott and Anderson .Paak out there at the moment; I tend to find I am rarely uplifted by what they are saying. The energy is there in the music and one can hear some warmth but the lyrics are not the sort that stick in the head and make me smile – maybe they are not supposed to. Is Rap and Hip-Hop in need of a bit of a shake-up?
“Crippling depression amid unspeakable luxury has been a default setting in rap for a long time now, from Kanye to Drake to Future. And the spiritual avatar of this feeling right now, at least on the pop charts, is Travis Scott. Scott has been involved in Kanye’s work for at least five years, dating back to the sessions for Yeezus. Now, he is atop the charts with a massive and sprawling work of his own, ASTROWORLD. The fundamental presumption of Travis Scott music is that nothing feels good, especially not the stuff that’s meant to. “She thought it was the ocean, it’s just a pool,” Scott mutters on “Sicko Mode”—not the mindset of someone particularly enamored with their spoils of success, or impressed with the company it has brought them”.
IN THIS PHOTO: Travis Scott/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
I have mentioned a lot of the classic Rap and Hip-Hop artists like the Beastie Boys and De La Soul and what they were all about. I love the humour and the comedy you can get with Beastie Boys. Think about the way they could splice in cutting jabs and weird sentiments with some brilliant sounds that punched in the heart. Maybe there were a bit of a rarity but the scene around them was not plagued by depression and a lack of hope. In the modern-day lexicon; there is not a sense there is much to shout about and feel happy about. We are seeing artists succumb to addiction and depression and, as such, the music has to reflect that struggle. I am not sure when the emotional decline began and how we got here but, more and more, the quick-listen, playlist-in-the-background culture has seen a move away from the more rousing and fulsome number to the slightly less challenging and more downbeat mood. I said I was going to bring in an album – and I have already mentioned a couple of Hip-Hop artists who are guaranteed to lift my mood. Now That’s What I Call Music! 24 is the first album I ever bought and I remember the sheer delight of hearing it on my cassette player for the first time.
Not only was it thrilling walking into the music shop and finding this shiny cassette on the racks but playing all the music in-full was scintillating. The songs from this period (1993 and the previous year) stay in my mind because of the uplift and cheer. I am not saying music was all happy back then – Grunge was responsible for a lot of gloom and destruction – but these songs were indicative of the spirit of the time. Even when the songs were talking about something more strained and anguished; there was a more melodic note or sentiment that lifted the track up. Maybe The Bluebells’ Young at Heart was a cheesy way to start things but you could not argue against the optimism within. You have Take That’s Could It Be Magic and Informer by Snow. The latter is about the rapper being hassled by the 5-0 (the police) but its sheer energy and fun is hard to escape. Shaggy and The Stereo MC’s keep it going and you have World Party and Paul McCartney retaining that pace and energy. Peter Gabriel brings some Steam to the kitchen and there is a cracking offering from Lenny Kravitz (Are You Gonna Go My Way). It is an album that does not hide heartache more anxious songs but the abiding theme is joy and positive energy. The mainstream back then had to compete with the same issues as today regarding the more gloomy songs/artists but there was plenty of delight and energy to be found. The Dance scene was inspiring a generation and Britpop was around the corner.
Maybe I am idolising past days but I can see how things have changed and, the last few years especially, we are seeing this slide into a funk that will be hard to get ourselves away from. Even when artists try to write happy and gleeful songs – such as Happy by Pharrell Williams – it comes across as more grating than memorable. Pop artists are still capable of getting the heat on and making us move but there are few songs out there I can see lasting through the years. This BBC article looks at modern Pop songs and how they have changed – the use of the first-person narrative is rising:
“A year before that, the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts published a report which looked at how the language of popular song has changed over the last 30 years. Researchers took a sample set of the Top 10 most popular songs in America from 1980 to 2007, and looked at how words are used to try and assess how pop fans used music to soundtrack their emotional state at the time. The report suggests that, "Simply tuning in to the most popular songs on the radio may provide people with increased understanding of their generation's current psychological characteristics."
They found that the use of the first-person singular pronouns (the word 'I') has increased steadily over time, suggesting that fans have become more interested in reflective first-person songs. This matches a decline in words that emphasis community and working together. They also noted a rise in antisocial and angry words, suggesting that pop hits are reflecting a growing sense of personal fury and social unrest. Accusations with which Eminem will be familiar”.
PHOTO CREDIT: @cbarbalis/Unsplash
Not only has Pop got more personal and first-person; it has, as Pitchfork have laid out, gotten darker and a lot sadder:
“As pop gets softer, sadder, grimmer, darker, more intimate, something else happens—it shrinks. If pop music used to blare at us, it did so out of a certain confidence, a bone-deep certainty that it was one of the most important voices in our lives. We were a captive audience, or at least pop treated us that way. Like many cultural institutions, pop music feels chastened now, in retreat. The ground beneath it is shaky and it finds itself with no mountaintop to scream from. Now pop music lies coiled up inside our phones alongside everything else—the banalities of friends and strangers, the horrors of the news. It’s there if, and only if, we need it”.
Minor keys and slower tempos are becoming more popular and even when an artist is bringing the energy levels to dangerous heights, often their messages are not about togetherness and embracing sheer fun – you find a lot of accusation, bitterness and generic salaciousness coming out. Even though life can be a miserable shell and it can be really crap to get out there; do we necessarily want that reflected back at us through music? The reason music is so potent and inspiring, yes, is because we can relate to it but where does one go for escapism?!
I can hear a lot of 1980s sounds and vintage wisdom coming into modern music but those who are lifting the spirits are few and far between. Is subjectiveness and age playing a role in this grumble and assertion? Are we down on new music because we go back to our childhoods and remember the music we adored? This article explains when our musical tastes are locked-in and how brave we get with our tastes as we get older:
“The New York Times has proof. They recruited author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, whose Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, And What The Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are is a must-read, to discover why so many people still go to Gin Blossoms concerts (besides the fact that they still rule). Spotify provided the data, and Stephens-Davidowitz measured every Billboard chart-topping song released between 1960 and 2000 and the ages of their biggest fans when those songs first came out.
The results are illuminating, if not all that surprising. According to the data, the average man’s musical taste is developed between the ages of 13 and 16, while a woman’s takes shape between the ages of 11 and 14. Data also revealed that the early 20s are “half as influential” in determining adult musical tastes as their early teens. Radiohead’s “Creep,” for example, is the 164th most popular song among 38-year-old men—who would’ve been 13 when the song was released—while it’s not even in the top 300 for those born a decade earlier or later. We twenty- and thirtysomethings will never understand Ed Sheeran, nor will the children of our children, who will roll their eyes every time their parents play “Perfect” for the 30th time”.
PHOTO CREDIT: @hyingchou/Unsplash
Maybe I am being a bit cranky and nostalgia-drenched but, if the above is true, it means we are breeding a generation whose musical tastes are defined by what is out there now. Given the growing rate of mental illness and issues out there; shouldn’t music act as a contrast and lift the emotions to a special and safe place? If a child now is raised on modern mainstream and absorbs this for the rest of their days; will we have them humming depressive lyrics and gloomy synths instead of the big beats and rousing choruses that was rife in the past. Look at music from the 1950s to the early part of the last decade and there are years filled with joyful music and songs that will last the rest of time. It is counterintuitive writing music in a minor key and being closed-off in a society that is struggling with its mental-health. Music needs to rebel against this ill and is there to lift the spirit! One can write about their own lives and heartache but it is just as easy to throw in some top-notch bangers that grab life by the neck and hug it. I do fear the mainstream has gone too far down the rabbit hole to come back. How do we get to where we are now and have a scene that brings back that optimism and sunny disposition?! Say what you want about the reformation and touring of the Spice Girls but, even though they had their fair share of cheesy moments, the music they were putting out was designed to inspire and lift. Give me the choice of the modern top-forty and one of the finer Spice Girls cuts and that is...
NOT a hard choice to make.