Does all pop sound the same to you?

If you’re over 30 and think pop music is bland or overly sexual, then face it: you have finally become your dad.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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It’s an eternal truth that parents don’t like or understand their children’s tastes in music. For example, mine didn’t care much for Metallica and Megadeth, just as their parents’ generation didn’t approve of the Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley. And before that, all our grandparents were possibly ordered as teenagers to turn down that bloody Bing Crosby. Parents not only find their children’s music unfathomable, but shocking: it’s too violent and overly sexual.

Until now. Parents these days, and their peers, seem to have bucked the trend. The common complaint now of thirty- and fortysomethings is how boring and bland pop music is today, compared to when they were young.

Take last month’s Brit Awards ceremony. Most middle-aged critics were decidedly unimpressed with the event. ‘Welcome to the new boring’, wrote Daily Telegraph music critic Neil McCormick, describing winners Ben Howard, Mumford & Sons, Emile Sandé and other winners, One Direction: ‘All – to different degrees – extremely talented, vibrant, emotional, committed, entertaining musical performers beloved of enormous audiences. And all as dull as dishwater.’ He concluded: ‘I just hope there is some young punk out there, watching that, thinking the music business needs a right royal kick up the posterior.’

Nick Hasted of the Independent thought the evening ‘depressing’, while the Sun‘s Gordon Smart, declared: ‘Rock’n’roll is officially dead. Where have all the rock stars gone?’ It all reminded me of a recent, amusing article by James Delingpole, in which he relates teasing his teenage son for his taste in music: ‘You’re like a Crap Hound. You’ve got a nose specially designed for sniffing out the kind of crap so bland and commercial and mainstream that lame-brained teenagers all rush out to buy it.’

This superficially could be seen as an ironic take on the Embarrassing Trendy Dad stereotype: show you know what the kids are listening to by relating how more rebellious you were back in the day. (‘When I was your age, I used to gob at musicians.’) Or perhaps it’s merely one rite of passage into middle age, like finding yourself saying – without irony – that ‘the country’s going to the dogs’. Or maybe it’s because pop music actually has become blander.

Last year, a study by the Spanish National Research Council, based on algorithmic analysis of pop songs from 1955 to 2010, found that the variety of chords, melodies and types of sound being used by musicians has become ever smaller. The ‘timbre’ of songs – the number of different tones they include, say from different instruments – has also become narrower. It ‘found evidence of a progressive homogenisation of the musical discourse’, and of that the ‘diversity of transitions between note combinations – roughly speaking chords plus melodies – has consistently diminished in the past 50 years’. The Daily Telegraph – the newspaper to which one writes if you ‘remember when you could leave the front door open’ – was duly delighted: ‘The scepticism about modern music shared by many middle-aged fans has been vindicated by a study’, the paper crowed; ‘Today’s hits really do all sound the same.’

Well, I’m not convinced by any of this. First of all, music charts and award ceremonies are not barometers of popularity in the way they once were. People get exactly what music they want digitally: songs from the present and past are downloaded and seen on YouTube. Top of The Pops disappeared for these reasons, and even radio stations don’t dictate tastes the way they did. My mother could only hear Buddy Holly by tuning into Radio Luxembourg; I now listen online to Catalan folk and an Italian pop-music station. (This is actually worse than it sounds: Mumford & Sons and Coldplay are seldom off RAI Radio 2.) Judging music tastes on the charts is as useful as judging TV-viewing habits by the listings of the five terrestrial channels. Never has it been easier to access any type of music.

In content, as well as form, I’m not persuaded. We don’t have political songs any more, say nostalgists: where is The Clash or the Billy Bragg of today? We merely have the simpering Coldplay, the sixth-form poets that are the Mumfords and infantile novelty ditties such as ‘Gangnam Style’. But we have no protest or angry songs precisely because of the dire state of the world, one that ‘is going to the dogs’. Jokey and soppy songs were also a hallmark of the crisis-ridden seventies. That was the decade that gave us Abba and Richard Clayderman, ‘Kung-Fu Fighting’ and ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, before everyone had enough and punk turned up. Likewise, in the 1930s people turned to jazz, Gershwin and George Formby because they sought escapism and cheap thrills.

As Will Hodgkinson of The Times observed of the Brit Awards: ‘When times are hard people behave well and hang on to their jobs, which is why the high jinks and chaos of the past, like Jarvis Cocker wiggling his bum at Michael Jackson, was sadly absent.’ And if you think today’s music sounds all the same, remember what grown-ups once thought of yours. Congratulations: you are now officially middle-aged.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland and author of Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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