IN THIS PHOTO: Taylor Swift/PHOTO CREDIT: Valheria Rocha/TAS Rights Management
Will We Remember the Best of the Mainstream Decades from Now?
MAYBE this all circles back to what I have been saying…
regarding music and a lack of fun/joy but, at a time when music is less memorable and buoyant, this is something that keeps coming back to mind; a theme and question that seems complex. I am not going to pick on Taylor Swift but, as her new and acclaimed album, Lover, has arrived and is getting a wave of press focus, it is a good place to start. I will bring in a couple of reviews but, to start with, this is how Pitchfork judged Lover:
“Is it the prickly cotton-candy production or the lyrical detail or the vocal echo or just the event album-ness of it all that keeps Lover in the foreground, song after song? With the possible exception of the steel drums on music-box oddball “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” the album never claims any new ground; some of its best moments are unavoidably familiar. Rihanna or Robyn might intend their new music to sound entirely fresh; Swift, our most conventional pop star, builds atop what has worked already. And with Antonoff behind so much of the sound of pop music in the latter half of the decade, the bold, ’80s-inspired style isn’t inherently more interesting or varied than any other. “I Think He Knows” sounds like Carly Rae Jepsen; “The Archer” sounds like Lorde’s “Supercut”; “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince,” actually a Joel Little joint, sounds like Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die”.
To be fair, Lover has gained largely positive reviews and there has been a lot of affection puts it way. A star like Taylor Swift is never far from the news and everything she releases will undergo scrutiny and deep investigation. People pull apart her songs and dissect her lyrics; so much of her life is laid out in the tabloids that mean there is little mystery left. I know music is a subjective thing and we all have our opinions but, even when an album like Lover is trying to be fun and uplifting, it suffers from a seemingly bland and overly-familiar Pop production. I have been listening to a lot of older music – from a couple of decades back – and seeing how it has changed through the years. Maybe time will be the real test but I have listened to Lover all the way through a couple of times and none of the songs stick in the mind. Yes, the songs are clever and there is emotional honesty; there is variation and ambition but, at the end of the day, it is likely only Swift’s fans will be remembering the songs and recommending them. You listen to a song like Cruel Summer and, whilst it sounds okay when you hear it, you don’t return to it; there is no big hook or nuance at all. I think Taylor Swift is an amazing person and role model and, if you read this recent interview, you will definitely find yourself falling for Swift.
She is a stunning artist but, in terms of memorability, the songs sound awfully familiar and repetitive. I know there have been some great reviews but I do think so many people are judging the album based on the standards of modern Pop. By that, I mean Swift very much ticks all the boxes of what is expected of a modern artist…is that the issue?! There is no denying contemporaries such as Ariana Grande are popular and influential Pop artists who have a lot of fans – her album, Thank U, Next, is one of 2019’s best-reviewed. I have listened to the album a few times and, whilst songs have a slightly different objective to the ones on Swift’s new album, one cannot help noticing that they are very similar. Although there are different writers and producers on the albums, it seems like there is a modern formula. You get the same sort of vocal tones/sounds; there is a repetitiveness that is hard to ignore. Whereas past artists – maybe there was a golden era – have been able to create timeless choruses, a sense of originality and addictiveness, so much of today’s seems to be rooted in formula. I admit that these big Pop artists have their own personalities and merits but you listen to the music and it sounds like so samey. Even more emotional songs lack any real depth and variation and, at the end of the day, you have this brand of music that will appeal to a certain demographic but can one say people will be chanting these songs decades from now – will they be seen as classics that people run to?
I know music is about personal preference and, if it pleases someone, then that is great…but I can’t help feeling so much of today’s music will be forgotten in years to come whereas we will still return to old favourites and certain years where we got so much variety and gold. Studies like this show that, indeed, Pop has gotten more repetitive and simpler. Whilst there are innovative Pop artists like Billie Eilish working away, she is still being overshadowed by more commercial acts; sounds that are less daring, perhaps, and seem to stick to a tried-and-tested formula. One can also claim Pop of the past sounded pretty similar but, even as recently as the turn of the century, there was a lot more width and memorability. I am not bagging on all modern Pop artists but it is alarming to discover so many songs/albums that sounds so similar; so lacking in any soul and heart – when you have finished listening, you sort of move on and struggle to recall what has just been played. I do like artists like Taylor Swift, Sigrid; Katy Perry, Ariana Grande and Maggie Rogers but you could comfortably play their albums alongside one another and get so many similar experiences and aspects. It is wonderful Taylor Swift’s new album is getting kudos but I cannot see how it is more radical and bold than any other Pop album from the last few years.
IN THIS PHOTO: Jack Savorreti/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Away from a style of Pop that tries to be fun and energised – but comes off sounding anodyne, formulaic and soulless –, there is a wave of sadder songwriters, largely male, who are putting their hearts on their sleeves and showing their sensitive side. From established acts like Ed Sheeran and Jack Savoretti to newer artists like Lewis Capaldi, you wonder how much of this music will survive the test of time and endure. I am not going to write off all popular music from this year because, with the likes of Billie Eilish, Jenny Lewis and Lizzo putting out some stunning music, one has to give props to the wonderful artists out there. I do not necessarily the finer artists will survive decades down the line but that has nothing to do with a lack of quality: I think certain periods of music will survive and endure longer than others; perhaps we all will rely on certain decades when it comes to the moments that stick in the brain. I do keep coming back to this subject of Pop and whether it has changed for the worse but, when you listen to these heartfelt male artists, you cannot help but feel bored and unmoved. You do not exactly race back to these tracks and I do not feel they will be talked about years from now. Maybe modern Pop is about the fame and personal lives/loves of the artists. It is easy to emphasise with them and feel involved with their lives but, in purely musical terms, how strong are these songs?
I can admire eclecticism and ambition but, as I said, these songs are not revelatory and any different to what is out there. I don’t know if there is this secret recipe for a Pop ‘hit’ because, time and time again, you listen to albums and they sound so similar and manufactured. I think we recall and rely on older songs because there was something deeper and more interesting working away. Few modern Pop artists employ real instruments in the mix: so much of what is around relies on electronics, machines and effects. I have a lot of respect for modern Pop artists and know they mean an awful lot to so many people. Quality is a subjective measure but think about what is around now and whether it will sustain. For every endeavouring and multi-layered artist like Billie Eilish, there is this rather flat and over-hyped alternative that gets most of the attention. Every time I need a Pop tune with bounce, big hooks and something epic, most of the time, I will go back to what I know. I am always ready to open my arms to the here and now but, even when I listen to albums a few times, it just does not stick. Is it me getting older and more stubborn or are we living in a time when the mainstream is less flexible and daring? My feature’s question regarding the longevity of Pop, obviously, requires time. I wonder whether, in 2030, people will be listening back to the most acclaimed Pop music of today like we do the gems from the 1980s and 1990s? There is a lot to look forward to as the year cracks on. Lana Del Rey is releasing her album, Norman Fucking Rockwell, on Friday (30th August) and there have been so many terrific albums put out this year. I keep thinking about the top of the music food chain and the sort of attention it receives. Whilst a lot of today’s Pop turns heads and gets a lot of buzz, I have the fear that a great majority of it will be…