Re: The Tyranny of Pop Music by Perri Prinz

This video seems to require some commentary. Though I agree that modern Pop Music has been boiled down to its most basic components, is mostly composed and produced by the same 4 people creating a noticeably limited range, and tends to be compressed down to lo-fi, I feel like this commentator is going a bit overboard. So you are about to see an old-time Art Rocker put in the position of having to defend Pop Music.

The commentator addresses the music he disparages as “Ambient.” This is obviously incorrect. The music I hear in grocery stores is not, by any proper description, Ambient.

Growing up in the 60’s, “Elevator Music” was a popular genre that had two or three terrestrial radio stations in every city entirely dedicated to it. Those hipsters who are into the “Space Age Pop” thing will no doubt have encountered quite a bit of this almost exclusively orchestral music that consisted for the most part of de-fanged pop songs. No vocals, no modern instrumentation. Just very familiar melodies be-reffed of anything that might offend or distract.

Well, Rock fans found it offensive, because Rock music was designed to be rebellious, and they looked on anything Middle of the Road (MOR) as watering down the rebellion. But on the whole it was just ignored, as it was designed to be.

To hear this fellow talk, you would think he was talking about 1960’s MOR, rather than 21st century Pop Music. But, even if he was, even those who were offended by MOR would have thought such an extreme condemnation of it a wee bit excessive.

“Ambient Music” is what took over from MOR in the 1980’s, more often referred to as “New Age Music.” And this type of Background Music (BGM) certainly did fit the description he gives. Ambient Music, unlike MOR, was not based on recognizable melodies. It was based on being devoid of any kind of memorable or attention grabbing hooks. It was literally pure atmosphere, not meant to be seriously listened to or to register on the brain in any way. But still, though it was dismissed as music, it was generally thought well of as a healing device.

Beyond the 80’s, BGM stations abandoned the idea of special music for background and went into what was called “Lite Rock.” This was basically concentrating on the normal versions of the least offensive Pop Chart material. Thus BGM was no longer considered to be an instrumental thing. Though such stations continue to exist, this is not the format that I hear in super markets and drug stores.

Many store chains now maintain their own internet based radio stations which tend to include store commercials. And the music played on these radio stations tends to be programmed according to the stores main customer base. For example, the Save-A-Lot where I do most of my shopping programs no music designed to appeal to me as a 55 year old white person. They program music for Hispanics and 55 year old black people.

Fortunately I love old Soul and Funk Music. So this isn’t a problem for me. But I have to say, some of those extended James Brown tracks would never have qualified as BGM under any definition. And they do visibly irritate some of the white customers, because it’s an old black culture thing the younger white people have never been exposed to. So it comes off as music from another planet.

Now, Walgreen’s Drug Stores also have their own radio station. And they program some current Pop songs midst various oldies. And the new Pop songs they play only offend me if it’s a really terrible and unimaginative cover of an older song. But the other new songs are usually bouncy and provide a good feeling. Though there is nothing memorable about them, and nothing that would have made me run to the record store back in the day.

So I have to dispute what this fellow says that you hear some kind of droning, mind destroying sound everywhere you go in the world today. You are far more likely to hear oldies while shopping than the new, musically dead crap the record companies are pushing now. And oldies serve to remind the younger generation that music was not always as it is today, and open them to exploration of the classics.

Now, I can not say what people might hear in bars, or on modern Pop radio, because I don’t go there as a general rule. Second Life is the only space I get to share with the younger generations, and when I DJ they mainly want to hear oldies, because nobody there really disputes that oldies are better than newies.

However, there are some DJ’s in Second Life who specialize in newer genres whom I occasionally listen to. And some of the newer genres, particularly if they build on something retro, like Electro Swing, will actually get me punching up Amazon to buy an LP.

Where I think what this guy is saying actually applies would be various Techno genres that are so monotonous they could easily be composed and performed by computers with no human input at all. DJ’s have been fired from my virtual night club for concentrating too much on such genres.

But then he says you hear this music in every restaurant. I have never heard Techno in a restaurant. Techno, as far as I know, is mostly a club thing.

Then he talks about how music is no longer something you listen to as we did in years gone by. And I find this is true. But it’s not because I’ve changed the music I listen to. I play mostly vinyl. So the bulk of my music is between 30 and 100 years old. And it was all intended to grab the attention and be anything but ignored. Yet I continually find that I do end up tuning it out and ignoring it as if it were BGM.

This has nothing what so ever to do with the quality of the music. It has to do with my modern lifestyle. I simply am not able to divide my attention between the vinyl spinning on the turntable and whoever I’m typing to on Second Life. I am always doing something else, maybe as many as 3 things at once while the music is playing. I simply can not feel comfortable just sitting and giving my full attention to music, because I’ve been conditioned to feel like I’m being unconscionably wasteful of my time if my hands and eyes are not busy with something while the music is playing.

And, of course, while I’m composing something, like a story or this essay, no music at all can be played. Because composing is output mode. Nothing can be coming into my brain while it’s in output mode.

Then he says there is no law against noise pollution. And that’s just wrong. There are such laws in public space. And there’s no law that says you have to frequent private spaces that play music you don’t like. Seriously, why is this old white guy in a Techno club. Why isn’t he at symphony hall, a Jazz club or whatever? Or better still, just go home and play your records. Nobody’s forcing you to listen to Techno. Even in Second Life when the Techno or Death Metal gets annoying you can always turn the stream off and substitute your own music.

Then he talks about how the 2nd grade level of today’s lyrics probably has something to do with the diminishing vocabulary of the newer generations. I wouldn’t go that far. I would say that lack of creativity in Pop music hits them more in cultural terms. If all you’ve ever heard is Lady Gaga you’re not really prepared to tackle Beethoven, are you? You’re not necessarily even aware that there ever was such a thing as sitting down and listening to music.

I would think there are other things far more likely to be diminishing the new generation than music. TV, Video Games, Social Media, and above all else, an education system that ranks 14 midst other countries and 2nd in ignorance. Not to mention most children growing up with absent parents.

From every angle, the cards are stacked against the education of the new generations, and I really don’t think more stimulating Pop Music would do a hell of a lot to improve things. Especially when older, more intellectual music is out there if anyone wants it.

He recommends giving children an instrument to learn. Well, that’s all well and good if they take to it. But my recommendation is simply to do what was done for me. At the age of 4 I was given a record player and access to the record collections of everyone who lived in my house. I was thereby exposed to all the Pop Music of the early 20th century, Classical, Jazz, Folk and music from foreign cultures. As well as all manner of spoken word material.

Most people only read The Bible. I got to hear it fully dramatized. I was exposed to Shakespeare, poetry, history, famous speeches, literary classics, all before I had even begun to learn to read. I knew the entire evolution of American Popular Music before I started kindergarten because I had a record on the subject.

Thus I say that the true advantage to children, in terms of education, lies with the parents and what they choose to have in the house to expand the minds of the children before the educational system and the current pop culture get their mitts on them. Once that opportunity is missed, the education of children is out of the hands of anyone who really cares. And if the parents don’t care, kids are just screwed.

Anyway, in defense of Pop Music, it’s important to remember that there was a time when Pop Music sounded like this. And, by the grace of some future backlash against uninventiveness, it may eventually recover its former glories.