Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Current Mainstream Music

Hi guys, welcome to Orygyn!

I've made many videos about music and posted a lot about it on HubPages. It's time I said something here.

There is a widespread view that today's mainstream music is terrible. I even did my university dissertation on why people think that and what could be done about it. What I'm going to do in this post is go over the reasons people have given and say whether I agree or not.


Agreed. There are many constructive ways in which autotune could be used. If a singer has already proven him/herself then some vocal effects can be used to contribute to the overall atmosphere of the song. Off the top of my head, the best example I can think of is Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter". A vocal effect is used to make Robert Plant's voice sound watery. Since, by the time of the release of the song, he has nothing left to prove to anyone, there isn't much to object to there, and there's no reason autotune couldn't be used in a similar way but primarily it's not. It's used as a form of vocal correction, a way to mask lack of talent.

Now, it would be wrong to paint the entire mainstream with the autotune brush. Many people in the mainstream  don't use, or need, autotune, and many of those people are perfectly decent singers, but for those who do, they're not going to score many points among musicians.

Don't/Can't play any instruments

Again, for those that this criticism applies to, agreed. I would say that if they don't use autotune, if they actually make an effort to sing, I'm not too concerned about whether or not they can play an instrument, but if both criticisms apply to them, then anyone can do what they are doing. It becomes even worse when you combine it with the next criticism.

Don't/Can't write own songs

If the above 3 criticisms apply to anyone in the mainstream, it's a joke that anyone takes them seriously. If you're reading this post, I guarantee that you could do what they are doing. However, is this particular criticism, on its own, such a big deal? Elvis didn't write his own songs. If millions of people can call such a person "The King", I'm not entirely sure it's a deal maker. Unless, of course, people are hypocrites. There are shades of grey to this one though. Many pop artists co-write songs with other songwriters. The credited artists might write the lyrics or contribute a melody while the songwriters flesh out the background. All of the above approaches are represented in the mainstream.

Many songs sound robotic/artificial/electronic/overly produced etc.

Whether I agree with this criticism depends on what is meant here. I can't agree with people who oppose the use of electronics or fully electronic music in principle. There is still an art in assembling electronic sounds in an aesthetically appealing way, and some people go as far as to develop instruments to play them on, preserving the live talent attribute of their musicianship. What I would agree with though is, like autotune, electronics are often misused. Electronic sounds in mainstream music are, in my opinion, the most wasted resource in current music production. They give us the potential to create literally any sound imaginable, yet we recycle them on identical sounding dance tracks and devalue them by using them as cheap gimmicks to increase the chance that 1 particular pop song will be a mega-hit.

Narrow range of lyrical themes/negative lyrical themes

Even people who claim to otherwise have no problem with sex, money, violence etc. complain about the sheer amount of it present in current mainstream music. Their central criticism is that they use these themes to sell their music: a particular pop star is scantily clad to appeal to teens, rappers that rap about their money and fame and who they iced etc. Even the far more innocent love songs are criticised for their sheer saturation of the market. I want to address each theme individually.


I would encourage people to take care about how they perceive this theme. To me, there is nothing wrong with Lady Gaga dancing in her bikini in the video to "Telephone" or disproving the hermaphrodite claim at the beginning of that same video. This, in and of itself, doesn't concern me in the slightest. There is a criticism that it is used specifically to draw attention to themselves for financial gain. While I agree, this is where I need people to take care. There is more than 1 reason why someone might appear in a video with less clothes on than might be expected of them. I don't rush to judgement that it's because they want the fame and money. Check out Tool's music video for "Hush". All of the band members are fully naked with their mouths taped up and "Parental Advisory" boards over their genitals. Is this for fame and money? Clearly not. It's a dig at censorship.

As far as Lady Gaga and her kind have taken things I would argue that they haven't gone far enough. They are at the very limit of what most forms of media that will air their videos find acceptable, but I believe these limits are without basis. There is nothing wrong with nudity. At some point, I am hoping someone will fully cross the line. As to sex specifically, the problems with it are down to what can go wrong. Diseases, pregnancy etc. Keep making contraceptives, get the word out, educate people about STDs and stop trying to defund Planned Parenthood or any equivalent organisation, and you have nothing to worry about. Honest!


I'd be lying if I said I fully understood why such songs are popular. I guess it would have something to do with looking at their wealth as a life goal for yourself. I don't personally care if people sing or rap about their huge reserves of money, but I certainly see why many would, especially in economically gloomy periods like this one.


Rap is infamous for this theme. Once again it's important to avoid the broad brush: many rappers want nothing to do with it. There are many problems, however, surrounding the ones who do. A few of the most successful rap stars, especially in the 90s, were genuine criminals. Some were rivals, and some were even killed by those rivals. So this is certainly not a new phenomenon. The problem comes down to the big question: does violence on the screen translate into violence in real life? I'll leave anyone reading this to fight about it in the comment section.


This isn't a big mystery. Love has been the forefront musical theme for the whole of music history because it's the most powerful human emotion. Sooner or later, everyone is going to be able to relate to it. In that sense, there's nothing new about the saturation of love songs in the market and there certainly shouldn't be anything surprising about it. I would eat all my CDs if that ever changed.


Otherwise known as female-oriented sexism. We've spent most of history doing just that but it's still alive in some forms of music, and music videos. This is an enormous debate with many different frontiers: are female pop stars sex objects or empowering women? Is an unhealthy body image being promoted? Are dancers in music videos fairly treated and selected fairly? Again, I'll leave this to the comment section, but I'll just say that if the debate can be more public, that gives the industry the opportunity to fix itself.

Repetitive/unoriginal music

This is one of my main criticisms. Many mainstream songs I've heard consist of a repeating 4 chord sequence. In many songs it's even the same sequence. I don't necessarily have a problem with this if the melody sounds original, the lyrics are powerful and unique, the actual note structure is relatively complex and especially if the sequence is unusual. That's not really the case in the mainstream though. Another problem is that, although mainstream songs have always adhered to the verse-chorus formula, that adherence is now more rigid than ever. It's rare that I hear ANY variation on it. This adds to the effect of so many mainstream songs sounding the same.

Bring back <insert old genre here>!

I couldn't disagree more. Not only should we not do that, we have been doing exactly that. What about the indie bands of the last decade? Quite a few, to me, sounded identical to Madness. All of them were pretty much clones of earlier bands from the 80s or even going as far back as the 60s. We should look to the past to see how they did it but not to emulate them. Sure it might be nice to hear grunge in the mainstream again, but that would just paint us as being terribly unoriginal. We need something NEW. New and good.

I would now like to make my biggest criticism of mainstream music and I'll do it by quoting The Simpsons:

"I used to be with it, until they changed what "it" was. Now what I'm with isn't it, and what's it sounds weird and scary to me. And it'll happen to you too." - Abe Simpson

I vowed very early on never to be like Abe. Music that sounds weird and scary to me, generally speaking, is music I like. I want to hear something so unlike what I've heard before and know that it is popular. My biggest criticism is that the vast majority of music I hear doesn't do that. It all sounds identical to what came before.

Having said that, there are exceptions. One of these is Dubstep. When I first heard it in 2009, and I was told it was dance music, I was very confused. It just seemed too slow to qualify as dance music, yet within the next couple of years, it became massive. It was explained to me that the wobble bass was what I had to focus on to really get it. Even hearing this was a breath of fresh air: this was genuinely brand new. Sure, it's not too far removed from drum and bass, there's a limit to what can be done within the genre, and generally the same sounds are reused from song to song, but it is a form of music that's appreciated in a very different way to other dance styles and on that fact alone, I have a lot of respect for it. I predict it will be short-lived, based on what I've already said, but it's a start.

The other 1 is Florence & The Machine. They made a bad 1st impression on me with their cover of "You've Got The Love" but their own songs are incredible. They only pay lip service to the pop formula, they use uncommon instruments in their music, and use the ones that are common in very innovative ways. It sounds weird and scary to me, but most importantly, it sounds awesome!

I just want to leave you with 1 final thought. 1 that really should be obvious. The music industry is more democratic than it's ever been. In the past, record labels had some degree of quality control, but now the mob rules. This, I'd imagine, is 1 of the main reasons for the music in the mainstream at the moment. We chose this. Or, by inaction, we allowed this to happen. So if you agree that music today sucks, why continue to be a bemused spectator when you can do something to help? Here's my suggestion. We look for 1 band. It could be 1 that's already around, it could be 1 that's generally unheard of at the moment. We promote that band and encourage people who think like we do to get behind them. Of course, this means we have to be careful in choosing that band: they have to have talent, they have to be original, they have to have meaning behind what they say. We use the democracy that currently propels crap to the top to change things. We do this by BUYING, not illegally downloading as it won't chart then, but buying the music en masse. Don't think it can work? It already has. Remember the Rage Against The Machine Christmas number 1 campaign in 2009? This just requires the same concentrated effort. The difference is we want to make it last. With the right band, and the willingness to change the status quo, we can do it. The only barrier to that is your doubt, and the inaction that doubt inspires.


No comments:

Post a Comment