For those of us who know the difference between good and bad music and are not perturbed by the dubious rebuttal that all Art is subjective when making such assertions, the world of contemporary popular music is a ceaseless, soulless, poisonous assault on our auditory system. Its flawlessly disinfected, divisively assembled output is the antithesis of creative passion, musical excellence and narrative substance; worst of all it’s not even fun anymore. On the contrary it takes itself far too seriously.
From a technical aspect the process of making pop songs has shifted significantly, partly due to new technology which has enabled non-musicians to create music and partly due to the increasing primacy of profit and fame within society. The years spent practising an instrument involving one of, if not all of the following; technique, keys, modes, chords, tone, dynamics, melody, tempo, rhythm, syncopation, orchestration, phrasing, harmony, hooks, study of different genres, style, feel, live performance, playing with other musicians, writing music, writing lyrics, song structures, solos, stage presence, instrument set-up and associated equipment set-up will not have been learnt, appreciated nor cultivated. Moreover, the growing and unquenchable thirst for wealth and celebrity status has been a catalyst for both lowered standards within the performers/material and lowered expectations within the audience. Reality culture which has caused standards to drop across the board for entertainment, has not only made it the norm but it has helped lower expectations by promising the attainability of fortune and fame for all. Lowered expectations are more accepting of lowered standards and lowered standards are more appealing for getting your foot in the door and so a downward spiral ensues.
The Unusual Suspects
It is not only the lack of musical experience, knowledge and social integrity which are leading us further into the abyss of a singularly dimensional soundscape, but the process and politics of constructing and marketing big hits. I use the term “constructing” because there needs to be a description that implies something less organic than “writing”. A very common process is that a producer(s) will make a number of backing tracks from samples, synths and drum sequencers without any interaction from live musicians and/or instruments (a detriment I will allude to later). They will then invite a Top Liner to their studio. Top Liners are vocalists who are hired by producers to add vocals to a backing track in order to create a song. Some Top Liners specialise in sounding like particular artists, which can be handy if the producers have a particular artist in mind when making the song. Top Liners can differ in their approach to ad-libbing, but some will take magazines into the vocal booth and select random lines from it whilst varying phrasing, rhythms and melody until the producers hear something they like. Some will literally make noises, ticks and sing gobbledegook, making up words and sounds, anything that comes to mind. This process will be repeated until the producers have enough segments they deem usable, to manipulate and paste together for a finished piece. Some tracks maybe discarded by a Top Liner, or returned to at a later time, and the process can potentially be very fragmented. The emphasis for the vocal line is on the amount of usable hooks; as the average time a person will now spend listening to a song on the radio (whilst searching) before changing stations is just 7 seconds. Therefore, pop songs need to be laden with hooks to keep the importunately, child-like attention spans of the pop connoisseur appeased. Moreover, they are excruciatingly formulaic both in structure and sonically. Such emphasis is put on the vocal/singer, partly due to X Factor culture, that the backing tracks lack any variable details, which to the trained ear, is dumbing down the music and essentially making it uninteresting, even laborious to endure.
The back catalogues of those few pop acts that have managed to sustain a career in recent years are mostly due to the following offenders:
STARGATE – not the charming cinematographic soiree into an Egyptian-esque world somewhere across the cosmos but two Norwegians producers named Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen. These two are advocates of the Top Liner process and produce more contemporary pop hits (including many of Katy Perry’s and Rihanna’s) than nearly everyone else put together. A rather depressing, yet evident fact is that Coldplay used them to produce ‘A Head Full of Dreams’.
MARATONE – a music production company (that sounds like the budget version love-child of Parlophone and Tom Hank’s Playtone) consisting of the two Swedes Max Martin, Shell Back. Unfortunately they are a stark contrast to the creative talents of Swedish national treasures Björn & Benny and they look like greasier versions of mid-life crisis man David Guetta.
Producers Benny Blanco, Dr Luke and RedOne should also get a “shout out” and “big up” for their part in this money making, sub-mediocre farce of a travesty.
Collectively, either as producers or songwriters, these seven have had their laptops fart out nearly all of the hits for:
Too Many Cooks (Win You A Grammy)
It is no longer like the days of old where an artist would work closely with one producer, in one studio over a long period of time to not only develop an artist’s sound and material but to forge strong artist(s)/producer relationships where the producer themselves, at least for a time, would become “one of the family”. The jet-setting lifestyles and demanding schedules of these popstars means that recording is done (in the words of Tim Mitchell, Ron Smith and Gloria Estefan who wrote the song for Shakira) “Whenever, Wherever” it can. The end result is that albums are written, produced and recorded by many different people at many different locations.
‘Unapologetic’ – Rihanna = 51 writers and 27 producers (Rihanna received a Grammy)
‘Get Weird’ – Little Mix = 33 writers and 11 producers
‘Delirium’ – Ellie Goulding = 29 writers and 19 producers
‘Up All Night’ – One Direction = 29 writers and 14 producers
‘I Am… Sasha Fierce’ – Beyoncé = 22 writers and 15 producers (Beyoncé received a Grammy)
‘Prism’ – Katy Perry = 19 writers and 9 producers
‘Because Of You’ – Ne-Yo = 17 writers and 9 producers (Ne-Yo received a Grammy)
This scenario does two things; firstly, it does not enable an album to have any continuity or character. There was a time when live rooms in studios were famous for their acoustic characteristics and where certain microphones and mixing consoles added their own subtle qualities to the mix. When this was paired with the vision of one dedicated producer, the result was an album that had its own distinct character and sound, it took the listener on a sonic journey and each individual song was recognisable as belonging to that album. There are an interminable number of examples from ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ to ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ to ‘Return Of The Space Cowboy’ to ‘Led Zeppelin II’ to ‘Bad’ to ‘Philadelphonic’ to ‘Simple Things’ to ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’ to ‘Sabotage’ to ‘Tracy Chapman’ to ‘London Calling’ etc.
Secondly, it brings into question the level of creative input that that particular act is contributing, and consequently their real, not perceived or insisted, level of talent and due merit. Many of these act have their names in the writing and production credits because legally they are entitled to, just by changing a phrase or a word. With so many other writers and producers involved in the writing process it only requires some simple deduction to realise that the contribution of the acts themselves, cannot be a great deal. Bob Dylan has recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, now whether or not he deserves it on literary merit can be debated, but what cannot be debated is that 50 other people helped him write those lyrics. So do Rihanna, Beyoncé or Ne-Yo deserve a Grammy and the preceding worldwide acclaim that ensues? Furthermore, auto-tune (once a dirty word) is capable of making many acts sound much better than they really are, so even their vocal talents can be called into question. When all of this is stripped away, what is it about these individuals that is really being celebrated; a fictional ideal, a sexy body, an attractive face, a glorified lap-dancer or maybe just a glorified karaoke singer?
Thousands of songs can get pitched to the more successful acts and many will never make it past their respective management teams. It’s like the Dragon’s Den of songs, where they are passed around looking for the best deal. When songs are rebuffed by the first choice of act, they often find their way to other acts. For some, such as Rihanna and Britney Spears, these “sloppy seconds” were to launch their careers.
“Don’t Cha” – Pussycat Dolls (offered to Paris Hilton)
“Toxic” – Britney Spears (offered to Kylie Minogue)
“…Baby One More Time” – Britney Spears (offered to TLC)
“Umbrella” – Rihanna (offered to Britney Spears)
“Disturbia” – Rihanna (offered to Chris Brown)
“We Found Love” – Rihanna (offered to Nicole Scherzinger)
“Telephone” – Lady Gaga (offered to Britney Spears)
“Gold Digger” – Kayne West (offered to Shawnna)
“Since You Been Gone” – Kelly Clarkson (offered to Pink)
“Rock Your Body” – Justin Timberlake (offered to Michael Jackson)
“Irreplaceable” – Beyoncé (offered to Shania Twain and then Faith Hill)
“Halo” – Beyoncé (offered to Leona Lewis)
This fairly indiscriminate passing around of material from one act to the next is indicative of an industry that regards these “individuals” as nothing more than all singing, all dancing dollar signs. Furthermore, with teams of people worrying about every aspect of their musical direction, musical content, appearance, wardrobe, public persona, diet and choreography, there is no requirement for individuality between these individuals, beyond what their genetics have gifted them aesthetically. You only have to witness the behaviour and language of will.i.am, Nicole Scherzinger, Justin Bieber or Cheryl “Do The Fandango” Tweedy-Cole-Versini to realise that they lack any significant intelligence, charm or wit and are in fact very insipid and uninspiring characters which is so ironic and frustrating considering the social platform that they are afforded.
The process of wholly creating one’s own music (for the best part); naturally developing one’s persona through life experience on and off stage; plumbing the depths of social commentary, vivid imagery, poetic metaphors and subtle wit; inspiring or embracing movements and starting your career as a naïve and sincere journey without any preconceptions (which X Factor culture has destroyed) has been scrapped for a line-up of malleable, clone-like vessels. When this undiscerning, interchangeability of characterless music between equally banal individuals is paired with the aforementioned lack of creative input/talent from said individuals, it is clear to see that the idolising and worshipping or these people as “talents” or “artists” is the symptom of a façade behind which there is no interest in the integrity, creativity, originality or quality of the creative musical process or its output.
So remember next time you hear, “Little Mix are busy writing their next album…” or “Nicole Scherzinger has been working on some new material all about her recent breakup…”, they probably changed a word in a line of a song that 9 other people wrote. Even acts like Taylor Swift or Ellie Goulding who are marketed as having much more control over their material have gradually shifted towards having more and more people contribute towards the creative process in order to sell records and make money. Both women have appeared in television adverts selling consumer products. Whenever Ellie Goulding’s digitally manipulated face appears on that Pantene Pro-V advert telling women, “Strong is beautiful!” I cannot help but utter the same riposte at the television every time, “No, strong would be having some professional integrity!” Imagine Joni Mitchell being the face of Allied Carpets in 1971 “Shag-pile is beautiful!”
In my opening statement I very boldly asserted that there is good and bad music and that the subjectivity of music can be called into question. So far my focus has been on the credibility of the acts themselves and the process by which pop songs are constructed. I shall now allude to the content of the music in more detail.
Rihanna’s performance of “Work” feat. Drake at the 2016 Brit Awards is a perfect example of bad music; musically, lyrically and from a performance perspective. Musically the backing track is saturated with sequenced hi-hats, an electronic clap sample, a lifeless “boxy” bass drum sample that quietly pops away in the background during the chorus and some staccato synth which is fairly indiscernible and subdued. To the trained ear, it is easily recognised that this “soundscape” has been used to death. It is minimalist, unchanging and resembles something that my toy Casio keyboard used to play when I selected ‘No.85 – Latin Fusion’. The song lacks any melodic or rhythmical progression of any kind, and so leaves the more sophisticated listener feeling as if someone has just relentlessly hummed the same note in their ear for 3:50. As I referred to previously, the emphasis is all on the vocal; the backing track itself is neglected and displays an absence of any melodic, harmonic or rhythmical complexity or diversity. Put plainly, it is lazily constructed and musically incompetent. The absolute reliance on programmable synths, sequencers and plug-ins to create pop music is quickly putting the session musician out of business. This is disturbing for two reasons. Firstly, it leaves us with countless backing tracks that all use the same hi-hat/clap formula such as ‘Hello Bitches’ – CL ,‘If I Were A Boy’ – Beyoncé ,‘Cry Me A River’ – Justin Timberlake, ‘On My Mind’ – Ellie Goulding to name but a few of literally hundreds and hundreds. The tonally monotonous and rhythmically mechanical sounds of the minimalist drum loop do not compared to the plethora of sounds that a drum kit can provide or the infinite rhythmical and stylistic nuances that a live drummer can add. When this is complimented by the beautiful, interweaving language of live musicians playing together to create a rich tapestry of melody, harmony, call-and-response, fills, chops, breakdowns, solos, techniques and human imperfections (which actually gives the song groove), then you end up with something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Motown pioneers The Funk Brothers are the perfect example of this in action. Even an instrument as overlooked as the tambourine took a leading role in Motown music because musicianship was celebrated and an integral part of the music. Electronic music can be great and definitely has a role to play. However, when it is used as a cheaper alternative to hiring session musicians and/or by someone who is lacking the musical experience and knowledge that was outlined at the beginning of this article, then it is nothing more than a lesser version of much greater music.
The message that a song conveys through its lyrics, and just as importantly in pop music, through its accompanying video or live stage performance, can have a large impact culturally and by extension morally. The lyrics to “Work” which are grammatically awful and difficult to interpret (possibly because they are grammatically awful) are the combined efforts of, wait for it… 8 lyricists, yes 8! In all its inelegantly, ambiguously, nonsensical glory it is a good example of songwriting by committee, where phrases and lines are cobbled together and the chance for some deeper meaning or theme is obviously clumsily suggested as an afterthought.
The following examples display the stark contrast between good and bad lyrical content and if you fail to see this or simply do not care then you are blinkered by ignorance and probably a lost cause on the subject.
Bad Lyrics “Been working extra service to give it to ya, Didn’t mean to make you nervous you motherfucker.” ~ M.I.L.F $ – Fergie
Good Lyrics “I dig my toes into the sand, the ocean looks like a thousand diamonds strewn across a blue blanket, I lean against the wind, pretend that I am weightless and in this moment I am happy.” ~ Wish You Were Here – Incubus
Bad Lyrics “I’m the one “for a good time call,” Phone’s blowin’ up, ringin’ my doorbell, I feel the love, feel the love.” ~ Chandelier – Sia
Good Lyrics “She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes, She can ruin your faith with her casual lies, And she only reveals what she wants you to see, She hides like a child but she’s always a woman to me.” ~ Always A Woman – Billy Joel
Bad Lyrics “And you got me singin’ oooooh, Oh your body makes me go oooooh, I throw up my hands, say thank you to the man, ‘Cause just a touch, you is a blessin’ and I’m glad I can.” ~ Religious – Ne-Yo
Good Lyrics “Golden slumbers fill your eyes, Smiles awake you when you rise, Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry, And I will sing a lullaby.” ~ Golden Slumbers – The Beatles
Bad Lyrics “Smack that all on the floor, Smack that give me some more, Smack that ’till you get sore, Smack that oh-oh!” ~ Smack That – Akon
Good Lyrics “You whisper “Come on over”‘ cause you’re two drinks in, But in the morning I will say good-bye again, Think we’ll never fall into the jealous game, The streets will flood with blood of those who felt the same” ~ Friends, Lovers Or Nothing – John Mayer
And then there is the performance itself where Rihanna can be seen simulating standing sex, bent over whilst provocatively grinding her behind into Drake’s crouch. Remove the ‘singing’ and she is a glorified backing dancer at best and a pole dancer at worst. If she is selling herself, or more aptly, if her PR team are selling her as a music artist, then why the need for such an overtly sexual display? The answer is simple, because sex sells and that is particularly important when your music is terrible and the lyrical message forgettable and meaningless. And here is the crux of why I would deem this music to be bad, objectively. It simultaneously appeases and sustains the continuously degenerative, libido fuelled, intellectually inimical and commercially imposed penchant of the infamous ‘general public’. Which furthermore acts as an opiate and distraction from the reality of just how unmusical it is. Rihanna is not an isolated case by any stretch of the imagination, just watch the video for M.I.L.F $ by Fergie, it is verging on soft porn. As a heterosexual man I would be the first to admit I find it incredibly pleasing to the eye but even after the sudden rush of blood leaving my head, I am still not too blind to see that it has nothing to do with musicality (which is meant to be her chosen profession) and everything to do with tapping into our primitive sexual urges to make money. More disturbing still, children are increasingly subject to such provocative material which is instilling these degenerative values before they even have the chance to know better. Whereas women in pop can be seen using their bodies to sell “their” music, it is commonplace for the men to convey chauvinistic messages and actions. This is evident in the live performance as Drake cockily gyrates his pelvis into Rihanna’s booty’s airspace or in the endless videos of rappers surrounded by bikini clad girls like the archetypal bull surrounded by his harem.
A great many people will say they love or at least like music; it is woven into the very fabric of human existence, for our bodies themselves are instruments. Melody, harmony, tone, timbre, rhythm, tempo, pitch, dynamics, orchestration; they all have a physiological effect on our bodies whether it be dancing, crying, smiling, goose bumps, tapping feet, an elevated heart rate or a release of dopamine in the striatum creating a moment of blissful, euphoric ascension. Lyrics can evoke, inspire, reflect, suggest and create ideas, imagery and meaning for any situation, thought, feeling, place or time. Moreover, it is capable of creating equally antonymous feelings of upset, despair, boredom or annoyance. Therefore, I must concede that on this level music can only remain subjective. However, it is apparent that there is a lot that is objectively bad about pop music and so even though people may get enjoyment out of it we must remember that people enjoy all sorts of things that are shit for them, from smoking through to scatophilia. Some people just prefer to have the shit in their ears!