I’ve just started studying the Performing Musician course at college and as a part of this I have a music history lesson to attend once a week. .
We’ve so far talked about the entire history of rock music, and at some length discussed the development of record labels and the evolution of music as a whole over the last few decades.
I’ve learnt a lot, but some of the things we’ve mentioned over the last few weeks have given me an awful lot to think about. Inspired by a conversation I had this morning about Bohemian Rhapsody, I’d just like to explain my irks with modern music.
The popular music scene of late has been very monotonous: female solo ‘artists’ all releasing their next number one hit single, each usually following the same basic 1-4-5 chord progression and the same theme (either sex or feeling empowered).
There are, of course, male vocalists committing the exact same offense, with uninspired lyrics about beautiful girls or, as is apparently customary in music, sex.
Music is a business after all, and sex sells, so that’s what major record labels gravitating towards. They want to make money and the easiest way to do that is to find somebody who looks and sounds like every other pop artist, because that’s what’s popular. Following that line of thought, it’s probably fair to say that the majority of labels are going to manufacture their stars. They give them an image and an identity – a genre and a label – and sell them to the public.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get anywhere as a musician, and if you’re a unique individual who indulges in creative freedom with their music, it’s even more difficult. You’ll stand out, I guarantee, but if it isn’t pop music then it isn’t easy to crossover.
Some rock artists do well, and I am in no way disputing that; I love rock music personally but if you want fame with the masses, pop is the way to go.
This method for selling music isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. It has, in fact, been in place for decades, but that is not to say that it’s been left completely untouched all these years. Even around the 1930s and 1940s, which ushered in the beginning of Frank Sinatra’s career, there was power held by large record labels. The racial situation was very different and, as such, what was then considered to be ‘black music’ was completely underground. Larger labels wouldn’t touch it. There was always an audience for it, though, and this came from the indie record labels who were willing to take a risk on politically controversial music.
Whilst indie labels were great for bands that bigger companies wouldn’t have bothered approaching, that didn’t give them the financial strength to overturn the industry. White artists signed by big labels dominated record sales, and as the industry developed, so did the stars.
At that time, most music that was given any sort of radio time was gentle and classic. Teenagers will always be annoying (I am one and even I’m not particularly keen on us) and though we have more privileges now than we probably did back then, that did nothing to lessen our rebellious attitudes. What was popular wasn’t cool, so teenagers began to rebel, as we like to do, and were ‘fighting the man’ by moving to indie bands.
Bigger record labels weren’t particularly fond of this loss of business nor the sudden shift in popularity for ‘black-music’ and so tried to attract the younger audience back, which is where manufactured stars come into things. Just in the same way as today, artists are chosen because they fit specific criteria, these artists, known as ‘teen idols’ were given identities and sold to try and attract young people.
As music itself developed, the industry began to shape around it, with labels picking up on what was popular, grabbing onto it, and pushing it until the next phase came about.
The general evolution of music is that it became harder, faster and angrier. Music was heavily controlled by large record labels right up until the late-60s and early-70s, where something strange happened. Although big labels still had control, the mindset that an artist had to have a number one and achieve fame in a matter of one record, or they’ll be dropped, just didn’t exist. In particular the 60s and 70s were great for this, as that particular period was the home of so many popular albums.
Record companies were open to experimentation and allowed their artists to play with new sounds and instruments, making way for concept albums. What is perhaps the most famous of these albums is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, released in 1973 (even I have this one on my iPod!) but this period saw the release of albums by David Bowie and The Who, too, neither of which needs any introduction. It’s worth noting at this point that a disproportionate number of best-selling albums are from the 60s and 70s, right around the time artists were free to experiment.
Fast-forward to today, and we’re back to manufactured stars, although these seem to have an altogether more pungent presence in the industry than ever before. I appreciate that my quick explanation of music development over the decades has a few gaps and isn’t in the greatest detail, but I don’t want to spend this column giving a lecture about history. My real focus is the difference in music now, compared to older, timeless artists.
The music industry truly flourished when artists were given artistic license to produce music that was unusual and personal to them. Some of the most popular bands now came from decades ago (and excuse me for only listing rock bands, but that’s where my true expertise lies): Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and The Who. They’re classic artists who’s music is still popular now and they had so much more freedom than artists do now. I can guarantee that almost everybody will have heard of most of those, and I can also promise that even after Katy Perry and Rihanna’s music has been lost in time, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and David Bowie will still be popular.
Their music is timeless. Most modern pop tracks are written to be popular in the moment, rather than to stand the test of time. They’re just a part of a fad and as soon as the industry changes they’ll be history and people will move on. It’s the personal, individual music that lasts forever.
A part of the current music fad involves some sort of thematic persuasion. Seeing as it’s current, let’s look at Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’, and compare it to ‘Against All Odds’ by Phil Collins. Unfair comparison? They’re both popular tracks and I’m not a huge fan of either artist, which means I’m less inclined to be biased.
Lyrically, ‘Roar’ seems to be about...well, it could be about anything. There’s nothing personal about it and if I’m honest most of the lyrics seem like clichés ripped from a five-year-old’s story book. I mean, this is a real lyric from the song: “I’m floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, I earned my stripes, I went from zero to my own hero.” There is absolutely nothing inspired about that in any sense. If you listen to the track she doesn’t sound emotionally attached to it. It isn’t a passionate piece of music that she’s sang from experience, to express herself. It’s a generic pop song written to get sales. I appreciate that by leaving the meaning of the lyrics vague and open to interpretation, they appeal to a larger audience, because people will associate them with their own lives and feel connected in that way. It works in the same sort of way to horoscopes, or fortune tellers. They give you something vague and your brain will instinctively try to make sense of it.
However, music is a form of artistic expression, and if you write a song that’s personal to you and perform it passionately, the audience will sync with your own emotions and it brings everybody together, rather than trying to attract everybody (which doesn’t work as there are other people like me who see through the industry gimmick). Onto ‘Against All Odds’, then. This song was written when Phil Collins’ wife left him, and although the lyrics never directly mention her, there’s a distinct sense of realism about them. They’re raw and quite bitter, which indicates that they could only have come from his heart and from the real emotions he was experiencing at the time. Listening to the song, it gives me goosebumps. I’m not a Phil Collins fan but I appreciate the musical quality of the song and you can hear in his voice that every performance is hugely cathartic to him. I don’t experience any such sensations when I listen to Katy Perry. There are decades between the release dates of these songs, but my own opinion is that ‘Against All Odds’ is far more impressive in every way. The lyrical content, emotional value and musicality are all so much more interesting and supportive of the theme of the song. I could have compared ‘Roar’ to almost anything (except maybe ‘Pour It Up’ by Rihanna – don’t even get me started on how much I resent that woman) and it would have come up short.
‘Roar’ did have one thing going for it though: Katy Perry wrote the lyrics. That in itself is impressive to me, as so many artists don’t write their own songs anymore. Elvis Presley didn’t write his own songs, I’ll admit, but it isn’t just the lack of personal lyrics. It’s the combination of that with the lack of any sort of personal stamp on the sound and genre of every single pop song. It’s the fact that none of it’s real anymore.
Years ago, musicians played real instruments, and if they weren’t very good, they wouldn’t be signed. It’s as simple as that. Everything you heard was really being played. Now, if you listen to an album, it will have been played with guitar parts that might have been cut and pasted from one part of the song to another, vocal ad-libbing may have been altered in pitch and moved elsewhere in the song – even if that movement is only slight, just to shift it back in time with the song because the vocalist has so little about them that they can’t even sing in time with the other musicians around them. Everything is played with now. Some musicians don’t even record with their bands. They’ll play to a metronome, on their own, in the studio, and then layer each individual recording over the rest to make them into a song. It’s not just the guitarists and vocalists either. Some pop drummers play to metronomes because they can’t keep time on their own. I’d love for somebody to explain to me how those people could become drummers if they have no sense of timing (no seriously, I welcome any suggestions because it’s completely baffled me). The sole purpose of a drummer is to provide a solid beat with a steady time for the rest of the band to play to. If you can’t do that you don’t have any right to be playing for a famous band, whilst other, far more skilled musicians are stuck playing pub gigs because some talentless clot has taken up the space.
Some vocalists abuse auto-tune as though it instantly makes them a musical prodigy. No, using a computer to make you sound like you know how to sing in key does not make you any good. Athletes aren’t allowed to use steroids so why can singers use auto-tune? If you can’t sing, don’t. Simple. Anybody who’s ever heard the likes of Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez sing live will know exactly what I’m talking about.
The fact that there’s no skill involved in music anymore is the reason why I hate artists that don’t write their own songs. The difference between today’s ‘artists’ and the likes of Presley, is that he was actually talented. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t write his songs, because he could sing. He had rhythm. Those are two things that it doesn’t seem you need to have to be a part of the music industry today (crazy, right?).
I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that a lot of songs now follow the same 1-4-5 chord progression. That refers to the notes in the major scale: the 1st note, the 4th and the 5th. Play these chords and you’ve instantly got a good progression. It’s so overused in pop songs that it isn’t even worth the energy it’d take to rant on about it.
What else? Well, Miley Cyrus: nobody likes her. She’s famous anyway, though, and that’s because nobody likes her. We all give her the time of day because we want to watch her fail. It’s inevitable, after all, and it’d give so many people pleasure to watch a spoiled pop singer fall flat after a shaky career (schadenfreude is a beautiful thing). She’s a brilliant example of my problem with musical controversy. She released a video recently for her song ‘Wrecking Ball’. In the video, she licks a sledge hammer and is sat naked on a wrecking ball. Parents everywhere relented, as if that isn’t normal! Haven’t they ever seen a hip-hop video? Sex is a culture when it comes to music, and apparently it all depends on the genre you’re playing. Write a hip-hop song and you can be misogynistic as much as you like. Go ahead, talk about sex or drugs, so long as you aren’t a pop singer. You have to be clean to write pop.
What’s surprising is that a lot of rock artists don’t ever touch sexually explicit material, nor drugs. That’s what they’re known for though, isn’t it? Yes, but the ones who do approach those subjects with their music are doing so in a personal way, because they have experiences that they need to express. Music is how they choose to do that. Yet it continues to be that rock music is expelled from radio because it encourages rebellious behaviour and immature decisions regarding sex and drugs, whilst explicit hip-hop tracks are everywhere.
The amount of times I’ve heard Rihanna’s ‘S&M’ on the radio far outnumbers the times I’ve heard something like ‘In Loving Memory’ by Alter Bridge (who are insanely popular in the UK market, by the way). What’s ‘S&M’ about, I wonder? Oh that’s right, it’s all in the lyrics. It’s explicit and poorly written. ‘In Loving Memory’ is an emotional song written by Alter Bridge guitarist Mark Tremonti for his mother, when she passed away. It’s musically beautiful and the vocals are so much more emotional than Rihanna’s. The reason I’ve never heard it on the radio? Rihanna’s ultimately more popular, but she’s playing a genre that allows for sexual exploitation. Rock is always bad no matter what it’s about, where it seems that pop and hip-hop can span any subject and still be radio appropriate.
The worst part of all this is that there are so many naturally talented musicians out there who never get a chance, because they’re doing something a bit unusual and labels won’t touch them, or because there just isn’t space for them amongst all the below-average manufactured artists out there now. I’ve been to a lot of small, local shows and it breaks my heart to see such skilled guitarists, vocalists, bassists and drummers, stuck playing for a hobby because they just can’t get a break. They deserve the fame and the publicity for their talents, not these superfluous orange-faced caricatures we call musicians today.
It may be too late to change the industry now, but that doesn’t mean in any way that it’s right. I have a special sort of hatred for the music industry. I love music; it’s a huge part of my life and I’d be a bit lost without it, but the way the industry works is wrong, and it’s deeply saddening that it’s come to this. I can cope with the odd one or two talentless celebrities. There’s always somebody, somewhere, who is utterly useless but still manages to make their name known, but I can’t understand how it is that almost every household name is just that: Talentless and useless.
Column by Ruby Hryniszak (pictured, inset). Ruby is a regular columnist/contributor to the Harborough Mail online.
Follow Ruby on Twitter, @13eautifulLife.