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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Power of Poptimism [1/3]

Editorial by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

Canadian music critic Carl Wilson's 2007 publication of a comprehensive study of music, Let's Talk About Love - named for the Celine Dion album it studied - has become a cornerstone text in the school of criticism known as "poptimism" for treating seemingly disposable pop music as worthy of serious thought.

Of course the question isn't whether we fight about pop music, because we do, the question is why. Anyone who listens to pop radio regularly has probably been hit with this realisation at one point or another - a lot of pop music sounds very similar.

Cue a growing body of research that confirms pop music is actually getting more and more homogeneous. And a new study shows why: Simplicity sells best across all music genres. As something becomes popular, it necessarily dumbs down and becomes more formulaic.

Kind of sad but true; alternative rock, experimental and hip-hop music are all more complex now than when they began, and each has seen their sales plummet. It's only when a breakout hit from a genre leads to its eventual homogenisation that sales will rise.

So human beings crave familiarity. Numerous psychological studies show that people choose songs they're familiar with over songs that more closely match their reported music tastes. Our somewhat manipulative music industry, which chooses familiar-sounding music and pushes it to listeners in massive quantities, knows well how to capitalise on those cravings.

Ubiquitous and uniform, genres standardise over time as a way to plug into this psychology. And then we hear the same songs, over and over again.

Caught by a virulent vibe, what does it even mean to care deeply about music in a world where corporate pop rules the airwaves and the endless distraction of cute cats and Vine fails dominate our time online? Does music-making by machine turn caring about music into a trivial pursuit?

Knocking out a formulaic pop tune for money shouldn't matter in the long run because it has a short sell by date - junk music like junk food is there for thoughtless mass consumption. But there's a point at which that becomes tired, and the space opens for something revolutionary - something that totally shifts the way we think about music.

Evidence, if needed, is scattered all across our musical history. Many of us can hum the opening bars to "Smells Like Teen Spirit", the opening track of Nirvana's second album Nevermind, and fans of the band are now recalling the grunge explosion of the 1990s, weighing what it means a quarter of a century later.

Rebellious teens were looking for an identity apart from the eighties hair bands, and new wave pop of their older siblings. Along came grunge to define the Gen X mood perfectly: apathy and disinterest in anything that would be considered fitting in, fuelled by anger and angst towards expectations from society.

The 1980s never felt right for many: those with no job or future were in no mood for George Michael. The silliness and excessiveness all seemed pointless, and when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came out, it touched a generation who still remember where they were when they first heard it.

Anarchy became acceptable. It was not directed at any one thing, but was an antidote that ushered in a new decade for a generation just entering adulthood and starting to really question their lives. It seemed to suggest that if we're aware of the sort of trends and practices utilised by large labels, we can better resist what they do to our music. Champion the genuinely original and leave aside the derivative. Make a better musical culture.

Reality hits, however, when we realise that when something becomes acceptable it loses something. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has been vastly overplayed throughout the years and it just doesn't have the same impact. Disillusionment is part and parcel of success, though, and it feels inescapable.

Kurt Cobain, as the frontman for the band Nirvana, set a tone for rock music in, and since, the 1990s, and heralded the sound of Seattle's alternative music scene going global. But his nihilism was all too real: the attention on Cobain as an icon of youthful angst saw him withdraw into heroin use and suicide in 1994 at the age of 27.

And today teen angst has been channelled in murderous ways that is far from acceptable. Cobain's death didn't stop his music. The attacks on 9/11 did that, when we in the West faced real anarchy.

Now, however, we have a beef with poptimism because we think it's winning and difference is being shamed out. The upcoming generation feel the need to listen to the pop music of their peers, not because they're feeling it, but because everyone is doing it.

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