Pop Music Isn’t Really Getting Worse… Is It?

Have you ever listened to Insane Clown Posse’s ‘Miracles’? If not, then do so post-haste, for it is the daftest, maddest song ever recorded in the history of humankind. In a nutshell, the Juggalo rap duo scratch their noggins and puzzle over the of the world’s deepest mysteries. Mysteries such as the genesis of “long-necked giraffes” and the murky magic behind “fucking rainbows”. And then Shaggy 2 Dope takes it a step further and demands: “Fucking magnets, how do they work? And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist, you motherfuckers are lying and getting me pissed.”

Far be it for me to pick holes in Shaggy’s attempt to unravel the secrets of the universe, but if he really is consumed by a burning desire to get a crash-course in the mind-blowing brilliance of magnets, he could do a lot worse than consulting a scientist. They do usually know what they’re talking about, after all; it’s a side-affect of all those years researching, studying and doing experiments. They’re almost certainly more qualified to tell you about the Theory Of Relativity than a man in his late 30s who still dressed like a scary crown and is guzzling cans of Faygo.

I couldn’t help but think of Master 2 Dope’s words this week, though, after a scientific study in Spain claimed to have proven that pop music is much shitter than it used to be. “We found evidence of a progressive homogenisation of the musical discourse,” said Joan Serra of the Spanish Nationl Research Council, after he and his team analysed pop songs recorded between 1955 and 2010. “In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations – roughly speaking chords plus melodies – has consistently diminished in the last 50 years.”

Serra and his pals basically claim that pop music’s louder and duller than before. They also say it’s “timbre palette” has become less extensive, ie songs feature fewer and fewer sounds. But we sounded out Dr Dai Griffiths, musicologist and lecturer in music at Oxford Brookes University, for a second opinion, and he wasn’t convinced.

I’m sceptical about the claim concerning chords and melodies, and consider that it depends a lot on the records examined. The one that sounds counter-intuitive concerns timbre: I’d have thought that multi-track recording, electronic sound, digital sound, sampling, and so on – all those expanded the range of sound available, rather than diminishing it.

Every few months, it seems, some music genre will be having its obituary written: if people aren’t solemnly declaring that pop music used to be vastly superior in the past, they’re insisting that guitar music is dead. And it’s always seemed to me that there’s still great pop music out there – you just have to look a little harder for it. You only need take a look at some of the finest releases of the year so far, from Grimes to AlunaGeorge, to conclude that there’s still pop out there with just as much fizzy goodness as ever before.

That’s the outer fringes of pop music, though – what of the mainstream chart-fodder? And it’s when you look at today’s crop of Top 40 mainstays – Jessie J et al – that you might have to concede that the Spanish National Research Council are onto something. Not necessarily because it’s any louder, or less creatively valid (although if you cast your mind back to the beginning of the century, when we had the likes of ‘Cry Me A River, ‘Crazy In Love’ and ‘One Thing’ getting heavy radio-rotation, they possibly have a point), but because of the sheer lack of variety. The charts today are manifestly bereft of surprises and shocks, and are full of dreary identikit filler.


In contrast, we had a quick squizz at two weekly chart listings at random – one from the 80s, and one from the 90s – to contrast and compare. You can see the results for yourself above and below, but what strikes me is how much wider-ranging it is. And this doesn’t even mean that the songs were any better – in particular, a rather irksome Number One-Two double whammy in our 80s example of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ and ‘Mickey’ somewhat scuppers that argument. But look at the variety: there’s novelty rubbish, goth synth-pop (Depeche Mode’s ‘See You’ and heavy metal (Iron Maiden and the mighty ‘Run To The Hills’); there’s The Jam, ABC and Soft Cell. That’s a pretty damn good mixed bag. In 1995, meanwhile, we’ve got Britpop (Oasis), RnB (Bobby Brown), boybands a-plenty (Take That and Boyzone), immensely irritating gibberish (ah, Scatman John). Compare it to today and there’s no comparison, is there?


I never want to be one of those dullards who bangs on about how “there’s no good new music”, or that it “used to be better back in the day”. It’s utter bollocks, it’s a fabrication, and the only people who say it are a) too bloody lazy to get off their derriere and hunt for stuff they like and b) probably hanker after the glory days of Ocean Colour Scene, and thus should be ridiculed anyway. But I do wish the charts rediscovered a bit of spark and a bit more unpredictability – even if it meant something as colossally silly as ‘Miracles’ gatecrashing the Top Five, it would be a whole lot more entertaining.