Saturday, January 19, 2008

Is Today's Music Actually Good?

Everyone loves to dump on popular music of today, claiming that it is garbage that does not hold a handle to the classics of the past. But I've noticed a trend in the last few years that may be changing things.

Years ago, there were the classic theme albums. Each song was an atomic element of the album as a whole. Songs typically had an opening, bridge, and chorus that were often thematically similar. The success model was to get enough songs from an album on the radio, such that the album would eventually hit a tipping point to become a "must-have" purchase. Looking at songs from my lifetime, for example, think of albums like "Thriller", "The Joshua Tree", or "Nevermind".

Theme albums seem to be a rarity these days. With the advent of iTunes and the iPod, it is all about the individual song. Although albums seem to be weaker in general, my argument is that individual songs are actually getting more varied. I believe this may be because a simple song may no longer be enough (sub-consciously) to merit our spending our hard-earned 99 cents. The new model is to get a song played on the radio enough that it's multiple themes can eventually convince the listener to purchase it, almost as if they are getting multiple songs-within-a-song for the price of one.

For example, here are some sample classic songs I picked at random, along with the number of distinct thematic segments that you can clearly hear when listening to the song:

Old Songs:
Eleanor Rigby - The Beatles (3)
Desperado - The Eagles (2)
Comfortably Numb - Pink Floyd (2)
Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana (3)

And now some "New" Songs:
Clumsy - Fergie (4)
No One - Alicia Keys (5)
Stronger - Kanye West (5)

Note that for the new songs, I just selected the songs that are currently 1-2-3 on the pop charts. I think these are the type of songs that people would typically call "garbage", but in fact you at least have to admit the ambition of how many distinct segments they include. And I am not ashamed to say that I actually enjoy listening to these songs.

I love The Beatles, and can still sing many of their songs by heart, but if a song like "Hey Jude" were released today, can you imagine anyone wanting to put that on their iPod?
Update: A few months after I wrote this, No One and Stronger both won Grammy's. No love for Fergie, however. (But I still think that song is under-appreciated.)


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