One summer a couple of years ago I travelled in my Jeep from Jacksonville to Memphis to meet up with my sister and her husband who, in turn, had driven south from Michigan to join me for a little mini-vacation. Following a few pleasant days in that famed city, I set out on the first leg of my return trip. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and with all that drive-time coming up I decided to see what I might find on the radio. I was curious to hear what people were listening to nowadays.
As I clicked through the static and sermons I found myself looking for something akin to the old Casey Kasem American Top Forty that we listened to back in the seventies, or maybe something like Dick Biondi’s countdown on WLS Chicago before that. What I stumbled upon was John Tesh hosting his Intelligence for Your Life program, which, among other things, included the airing of some of the day’s most popular singles. That should work, I figured.
I listened to Tesh’s song list for an hour or so only to find that much of the music simply did not appeal to me at all. Why is that, I wondered?
Well, upon reflection, it seemed to me that many of the tunes I heard that morning are seriously over-produced. And those blaring and overwhelming arrangements are often accompanying a singer belting out indecipherable lyrics in that annoying melismatic style that seems to be all the rage (you know, where each syllable requires the vocalist to hit four or five different notes, often obliterating any notion of a melody—the vocalist Adele comes to mind). And judging from my viewing of the Super Bowl half-time show this past February I could easily imagine these songs being accompanied by screeching guitars and sexy costumes and lasers and sexy dancing and explosions and fireworks.
Of course, I must acknowledge the generational chasm. I suspect that much of the popular music I heard on Tesh’s program is aimed at the “Gen Y” audience and younger. I’m several decades away from that. And, come to think of it, I never really cared much for most mainstream pop music even in my high school days, which was often referred to at the time as music for “bubble gummers” or “teenyboppers”.
Dominic Green, in his review of The Poetry of Pop, a book by Adam Bradley, observes that “…although almost all pop music is shallow, cynical and commercially standardized, we often experience it as poetic—as expressing our deepest, most sincere emotions.”1 So, perhaps the genre to which I was listening on that Sunday morning is essentially the modern version of the “bubble gum pop” from my high school days: music for an audience variously seeking love, joy, fun, fame and fortune while enduring depression, heartbreak, separation and despair, all from the perspective of a wide-eyed adolescent.
And, lastly, I confess that it remains a stretch for me to wire into rap. This music and its lyrics are typically urban-oriented and I admit I am a country boy at heart.
In decades past, the big record labels, such as Capitol, Phillips, EMI, Motown and myriad others, acting as clearinghouses, decided which bands and performers would make it all the way to our ears. Music was typically introduced first through radio broadcasting and then followed-up with the traditional sale of phonograph albums, CDs and concert tours. As an audience, we unconsciously accepted the fact that we would not discover anything new on vinyl, or even CDs for that matter, without emerging performers having first nailed a “record deal” with a recording company and then getting a ton of radio airplay. Those days are gone.
So, we find that the fuzzy little fledgling that was once the commercial music industry has taken to the sky, soaring on the wings of the internet. And thousands if not millions of bands and performers have descended upon social media, YouTube and digital song streaming technology in search of a direct worldwide audience for their music. The down side, of course, is that trying to find some quality music from these sources is like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose.
Well, for me, at least as far a pop music is concerned, it’s back to my iTunes collection to cherry pick some of my favorites from the seventies and eighties (the nineties? Meh). And even those songbook standards from my parents’ era, to which I was introduced as a child and which, in my opinion, remain true classics to this day.
1 Wall Street Journal, Review Section, Sunday, April 3, 2017.