If you listen to today’s mainstream music, you’ve probably arrived at the conclusion that art for art’s sake is a thing of the past. Now, the consumer seems to rule the airwaves and labels, so the focus is more on high quantity than high quality. Walk into any supermarket and count up the different kinds of cheese, beer, pickles, potato chips, or just about any other product you can think of. You’ll notice that the American consumer is fixated on having a decidedly wide variety of options. Unfortunately, the supermarket phenomenon has manifested itself in music – where a few talented mavericks used to get more attention, now pop stars with cult followings are producing more music for more money. And while they focus on keeping their fans happy with more hit singles, they’re not holding themselves accountable to their music.
A Shift in Focus
In a sweeping and unfair generalization, I would like to point out that mainstream music is no longer about music. It’s a consumer-driven popularity contest that has almost nothing to do with talent, skill, or musical innovation. Just compare a chord analysis from any song by The Beatles, The Eagles, Pink Floyd, or even Lynyrd Skynyrd to Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, The Jonas Brothers, or Lady Gaga. Even the demographic has changed – much of modern music is aimed at teens (and the teen at heart), and it shows. There’s a distinct discrepancy over the past few decades between music of substance and random variations on the simplest of chord progressions.
Much of American culture, including literature and TV, has been “dumbed down” over the years to accommodate an audience composed of individuals who don’t want to think while they’re being entertained. Music is no exception, and it goes far beyond the chord progressions – the lyrics, melodic lines, and even instrumentation are simplistic at best. Phrases repeated over and over again are now called songs, and even nonsense syllables are becoming a staple of modern mainstream music. If you’re looking for complex harmonies, any instrument besides the keytar, or words you can find in the English dictionary, you’ll just have to look to the past. Classic rock is dead, and we haven’t found anything better to replace it yet. So instead of music, we have onstage costume parties, shouting contests, and circus acts. I wouldn’t call that progress.
Exceptions to the Rule
Of course, I’m no music hater and this rant isn’t aimed at all modern musicians. It’s just the big picture, and it’s pretty disappointing. But there are plenty of talented groups and individuals out there now who are providing us with high-quality music. For example, Tori Amos, Sufjan Stevens, Muse, Iron & Wine, and even OK Go’s latest album have a little more to offer in the way of innovation, complexity, and fresh perspective. Hopefully, musicians like these will be a bigger part of the future than today’s popular “artists.”