JEFF SHATTUCK MUSIC

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• The state of the song: Why is today’s most popular music fundamentally less interesting than yesterday’s? (part II of III)

Welcome to part II of my III-part series on the state of the song:

1) Have all the great songs already been written?
2) Why is today’s most popular music fundamentally less interesting than yesterday’s?
3) What can we do, if anything, to restore pop/rock music to its former glory?


First off, music is subjective and so when I lament over the quality of today’s music I am merely expressing an opinion, not a fact. Plus, I should point out that I’m focusing on hit songs as opposed to music in general, although music in general might also be in decline a bit. So what, in my humble opinion, is behind the fall in quality of hits? I think there are three factors.

FORMULAS WORK

If you’re at all interested in music beyond casual listening you’ve heard and uttered the word formulaic a lot. Personally, I don’t believe there’s a can’t miss formula for hits (if there were, big artists would be a lot more consistent at producing them) but still, we all know formulaic songs when we hear them: the quiet intro, the big chorus, the repetition, the high production values, the familiar chords, words and even melodies. In the case of the worst offenders, there is no reward for a listener as there will be no surprises, no twists, nothing fresh at all. Classic example, “We Built This City”, by Jefferson Starship. In the good cases, we will here little surprises, little touches of greatness, something cool and irresistible. Perfect example, “Simply Irresistible”, by Robert Palmer. And in the best cases, the truly great hit songs, we know we are in the hands of a master who is leading us on a journey at once new and old. Think Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.

So, formulas are not really the problem, as Michael Jackson, U2, Prince and many others have sown by releasing hits that are undeniably formulaic, yet also great. No, what’s happened, I think, is that the lead formulas have had the life optimized out of them. Over the years, as most radio stations across the country were bought up by Clear Channel and then divided up into genres and then dictated by master playlists, ad revenue went up, because marketers could target better. For songwriters and bands, the brave new world of national radio took away one of the best outlets for new ideas, the DJ willing to take a chance. And so the formulas for hit songs churned out less and less variety, because the artists wanting have hits were all writing to the same checklist. Thankfully, as with all other formulaic approaches, the ones ruling today’s airwaves is breaking down, as the Internet crashes the party.

One last thought on this. Back when I was at GIT in the mid-80s, an old jazzer named Howard Roberts addressed one of my classes and said, “People like what they know.” He was right, but I would add, “True, but they LOVE what they know when there’s a twist added.” Think about it: the biggest, hugest hits are all just a little more fresh than they are familiar.

ROCK IS NO LONGER COUNTER CULTURE

Back in the sixties, if you were a long-haired musician you were an enemy of society. Then, in the seventies, long hair became a little more acceptable, so rock bands had to push things further and further to stay offensive or at least outside the mainstream. Everything reached a zenith with The Sex Pistols, I think, and then, where else was their to go? The 80s saw a weird revival of glam and glitter, coupled with punk’s penchant for short, punchy songs and then punk was sort of reincarnated as grunge and then Curt Cobain killed himself and, well, besides Michael Jackson, there hasn’t been much weirdness (and Michael was weird for all the wrong reasons). The kids who grew up with Dylan, The Beatles (post-Epstein), The Stones, Iggy, Led Zeppelin, Elton, Queen, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Kiss, The Clash, etc., well, they’d seen it all and wanted to see it all again and so these bands and many others kept releasing music and touring and next thing you knew a rock concert wasn’t a bunch of kids high on drugs watching a band high on drugs and everyone feeling a little rebellious but instead a bunch of parents sipping bottled water watching bands sip bottled water. As a result, the notion of writing rock music to challenge society, to tap the fire of a revolutionary, just isn’t there anymore. I mean, who’s going to write The Times They Are A Changin’ today? A rapper, maybe, but not a rocker. And without this zeal, it’s all a bit mushy.

ARTISTS ARE SPREAD TOO THIN

When I read accounts of the Stones working on Exile at Nellcote, or Deep Purple holed up in Switzerland working on Machine Head or especially The Beatles at Abbey Road no one is doing much besides writing music, recording music or rehearsing for a tour. And the intensity is just beyond: the days spent awake, the fights, the mistakes, the lost tracks, the money wasted. It was all or nothing. Now, when I read about bands, they’re talking about their music, their web site, their mailing list, their merch strategy, their synch deals, their apps and phones and laptops and on and on and on and on. No wonder they can’t come up with a fresh hit; they don’t have the time to figure out that little (or big) twist. Instead, they heap on the production because that’s easy today, but just like a cake mix is not made better with more and more and more ingredients, neither is a rock mix. The culprit, of course, is today’s DIY music culture and on this I am conflicted. I love that I and other artists are no longer locked out of the music making factory because we can’t afford to record or distribute music on our own. Hell, we can do EVERYTHING on our own, and that’s the problem. Despite technology's mega advances, there are still only 24 hours in a day and to write great music, you need the majority of them for music.

What to do about all this? Stay tuned.