Popular Music: A Different Taste from the Same Well

“It’s not even my birthday
But he want to lick the icing off
I know you want it in the worst way
Can’t wait to blow my candles out
He want that cake, cake,
Cake, cake, cake, cake, cake
Cake, cake, cake, cake, cake
Cake, cake, cake”

– Rihanna’s “Birthday Cake,” 2012

“Oh, shake shake shake, shake shake shake
Shake your booty! Shake your booty!

Aah, you can, you can do it very well
You’re the best in the world, I can tell”

– KC and the Sunshine Band, 1975

“Sugar (uh uh uh uh uh uh) oh honey honey
You are my candy girl and you got me wanting you”

“Sugar Sugar,” The Archies, 1970

“You are my obsession, my obsession
What do you want me to be to make you sleep with me?”

The group Animotion, 2013

The beautiful thing about pop culture is, to borrow a pop culture phrase, “It is what it is.” It is purely quantitative. The people have spoken. And whether it’s good, bad, or ugly doesn’t matter; we like what we like (a simple thumbs up) because we like it, and that is who we are as a culture.

Yet there is always some concern among certain critical thinkers that, because much of what we like is really crappy stuff, we are heading down the fast lane to Sodom and Gomorra. All we have to do is look at some of the lyrics in today’s music and it becomes obvious that the line that separates decency from pornography is blurring, and the overall message is more narcissistic than ever. Many music performers and their promoters are seizing the opportunity to feed the frenzy, pushing the envelope of marketing to new levels of appeal through sex, violence, and all kinds of over-the-top freakish behavior.

Of course this is not a new thing. Pop music promoters have never been about educating the public, nor about raising its aesthetic sensibilities. They have been all about profit. From the payola kings of the ’70s and ’80s to the rival rap entrepreneurs of the ’90s, the players and agencies behind the scenes have eschewed any kind of moral compass. They sell product, and they can always claim that they are merely giving the people what they want in a free society.


The point is that, as greedy and opportunistic as these people may be, the crappy stuff they sell springs from the same well as the greatest works of pop art. If we didn’t allow for the Archies, 2 Chainz, or Rihanna, we couldn’t have the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, The Neville Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, Beyonce, or John Legend. This is the modern American paradox, the dualistic nature of free speech.  It is not new; rather, it is an exaggerated version of its earlier self. We’ll have to look in a different direction if we want to explore the question of how pop music has changed over the last fifty years.

What’s different today from the early days of rock and roll has perhaps more to do with technology and pedagogy than anything else. New teaching and training methods have facilitated rapid acceleration of players’ technical abilities, bringing up more virtuoso-type players quicker than ever before. Songwriters have a wider range of social themes and an evolved vocabulary to work with. Advances in digital gear have ensured players and singers quick and easy access to high quality audio. Audiences and journalists now have ready access to critical reviews and can educate themselves and others about the artists and their work through social media. Regarding music production and recording studios, digital machinery makes the process infinitely more efficient.

However, this is a double edged sword. Technological corrections to basic deficiencies of the actual musician (such as pitch adjusters for singers who are out of tune) open the door for less talented individuals, offering them a handicap that, in the long run, can only lower standards for musicians in general. Those with natural musical gifts will be not be rewarded, but rather discouraged. Regarding music engineering and production, fewer and fewer humans are necessary to complete a project, resulting in downsizing of the industry and less overall creative participation. It becomes a Wizard of Oz kind of one-man show and closes the window of opportunity for so many talented individuals.

I think what is most important to consider is that musical aptitude and technological aptitude are two very different animals. According to Sociologist Howard Gardner, musical intelligence can be measured by the acuteness of one’s sensitivity to sound and rhythm. Beyond that, to perform music and/or create songs requires a holistic investment of emotion, physical effort, and intellect. The artist commits to telling a “story” through some kind of extension of the self in a very traditional sense, either through words or the musical instrument. There is a raw exposure of the real human who is telling the story.

I personally can’t speak for technological intelligence because I have very little of it. It seems to me, however, that it is less about emotion and physicality and more about efficiency and accessibility. It is about getting it right, as opposed to making a statement.

sgt pepperWhat has changed most monumentally over the past decade is the relationship between artist and audience. In the olden days, an album or CD was a precious possession, one that cost a pretty penny and was to be protected in a cool looking case and absorbed into our conscious and subconscious selves by listening to it over and over. We developed a strong allegiance to the music. It was a collection of the ideas of a band or songwriter, and there was a collage-like quality, as exemplified by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.

Today audiences tend to download their music for free (according to a recent poll by Harris Interactive, more than half youth between ages 8 and 18 have illegally downloaded music). They do this process one song at a time from the infinitely replenishing web. Their collections may be comprised of about as many songs as artists, so they have little exposure to the artists’ range of work. Their enthusiasm may be as short-lived as the screen saver on their computer as they seek out the next song that seems to speak to them. This is not to say they enjoy their music less, or that their music is of a lesser quality. But what is apparent is that there is a more tenuous relationship between artist and audience.

Music has also been affected by the global market. Because it is now so accessible, and because it is much larger than regional or national markets, the trend is to sell internationally in order to maximize profit. The movie industry pushes for sequels and films with simple dialogue and high action because they translate into other languages and cultures more easily. The same must be true for songs, so it is reasonable to assume that promoters are less interested in subtle messages or deeply reflective poetry in the lyric or the music.

It appears that the great social influence of songwriters such as Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchel is a thing of the past. Contemporary songwriters/poets are subjected to demographic grouping; they are admired and appreciated within their social network/circle, but their relationship with their fans is much like the preacher and his choir. It is not the building of new bridges, and it is doomed to a sort of parochialism.

It would seem that if ever an artist is to rise to a higher, global level of importance based on her or his message, it will have to be a message for the whole world. Hopefully, it will be a song that unites people rather than divides them. Or at least one we can all dance to.