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Today’s music is great

| Friday, April 12, 2019

Last week, one of my colleagues at The Observer wrote a column titled “Today’s music is terrible.” In it, Hayden Adams described what he sees as problems within contemporary pop music, and pines for a return to the halcyon days of Huey Lewis and Queen. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Adams, though, and think that his take is guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes pop music — both now and then — great. At best, making a claim like “music is terrible nowadays” is simply an invitation for music recommendations; at worst, it is professing ignorance of the entire form of pop music. 

Mr. Adams claims to “miss the days when most artists could play an instrument, write and compose their own songs and sing it.” My response, put succinctly: what days are you talking about? The history of the Billboard charts (an imperfect way to measure “pop music,” certainly, but the best one we have) is full of artists who could not play an instrument, did not write their own songs and did not sing on their hits. You don’t need to look further than the number-one hits of the year from 20, 30 and 50 years ago: Cher’s “Believe,” George Michael’s “Faith” and The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” respectively. All three are fantastic pop songs, and all three would fail to meet Mr. Adams’ tenuous definition of “good music.” Cher wrote “Believe” with a team of professional songwriters and famously innovated the use of auto-tune on the record; even though he wrote the song, Michael was responsible for zero of the instrumental performances on “Faith” and “Sugar, Sugar” was performed by a band comprised of cartoon characters.

Perhaps Mr. Adams would look at all three of those examples and counter they are merely extensions of another claim he makes: “today’s music is … not artistic genius, it’s marketing genius.” Those two things are by no means mutually exclusive, and the notion of “marketing” an artist didn’t come into play with Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. I can hardly think of two more adeptly-marketed artists/groups than Prince or Queen, who Mr. Adams (correctly) cites as rock royalty and (incorrectly) points to as idols of a better age. When Prince turned his name into a symbol, he was expertly catapulting himself back into the news and got a free bit of branding to boot. The surviving members of Queen are still marketing themselves 27 years after Freddie Mercury died by helping produce a hagiographic rock biopic expressly made to sell greatest-hits records and win undeserved Oscars. Yes, marketing is just as important to pop success as artistic quality — that isn’t a new development, however.

I don’t have the word allotment (or the patience) to go through the rest of Mr. Adams’ claims in detail, so I’ll try and run through a few of the more egregious ones. Bemoaning hip-hop’s movement beyond “racially-charged experience and class struggle” is both dangerously reductive and ignorant of the tradition of party rap songs (for what it’s worth, the first rap hit was “Rapper’s Delight,” not “The Message”). In that same vein, complaining about contemporary country by bringing up Rascal Flatts is like complaining about contemporary cinema by mentioning the “Transformers” movies. Listen to some Kacey Musgraves, dude. Or better yet, knock out both genres with Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which blew up in the time since Mr. Adams published his column and is a perfect encapsulation of why pop music now is better than it ever has been.

As recently as 20 years ago, it would not only have been impossible to conceive of a song that could simultaneously top the pop, country and hip-hop charts; it would have been impossible to even make such a record. “Old Town Road” combines the best of all three genres. The pure bravado of Atlanta trap rubs shoulders with the down-home appeal of cowboy fantasies and the resulting product attains the kind of instant acclaim only possible for the highest echelon of pop hits. Thanks to viral videos, a feedback loop of social-media buzz and a remix helmed by Billy Ray Cyrus, “Old Town Road” has been successful in what Mr. Adams disdainfully refers to “[hypnotizing] the masses.” Engaging the masses is the point of pop music — there’s a reason that our most acclaimed songs are, by and large, our most popular. There’s nothing wrong with listening to music most people like — in fact, if you don’t listen to that music, you just end up writing for Scene.  

Pop music is more wide-open than ever before. Soundcloud and YouTube have allowed songs to become hits overnight, and the Billboard chart becomes more diverse by the day. Yearning for a return to the years when rock music topped the charts is, quite simply, a desire to go back to a time when pop music was less creative, less diverse, less receptive to anybody who wasn’t a white dude with a guitar (“My Sharona” was the number-one song of 1979 — at the height of disco! Donna Summer wept). Mr. Adams, please don’t punish Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift for failing to meet the standards set by older standard-bearers of pop music — celebrate them for remaking those same standards in their own image. And if you find yourself unwilling to do that, perhaps allow me to whisper the same words of wisdom you used in your own column: Let it be.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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