Never Goes Out of Style
Taylor Swift is telling us something, but probably not what you think.
It’s fashionable to dunk on Taylor Swift. It’s probably because she’s an easy target – she’s kinda everywhere. Especially now that she’s a football WAG, an exhibit in discussions about the dangers of artificial intelligence and apparently, the vehicle for an election-maneuvering psy-op. She’s clearly doing something right, evidenced by her legions of adoring fans and an enduring career with a string of hits. Her concerts have caused seismic activity. But still, I just don’t get it.
Last year, the editorial staff of Time magazine featured her on their famous cover, for achieving the position of “most influence on the world.” (I would think that might be a stretch, but why not?) The choice of Ms. Swift was taken with consideration of the mean-spiritedness of American politics in recent years. ”In a divided world, this recipient found a way to transcend borders and be a source of light,” the editor-in-chief said, “No other person on the planet can move so many people so well.”
I am told that Swift is a very nice person and that her “career is built on being accessible.” Songs about falling in and out of love are “effortlessly conversational and vernacular.” Her tendency to “shout key lines for emphasis” and use static one-note melodies has become a recognizable trait in her music. I may not get it, but Taylor Swift is the epitome of today’s pop culture. Don’t believe me? Read on!
A few years ago, the BBC compiled the findings of several studies into a blog post. Researchers had aimed to investigate the complaint that pop music is not what it used to be and the findings are fascinating. Over recent decades, people who study this kind of thing found that pop songs on average have become slower and sadder, with mixed emotional cues (happy lyrics in a minor key, sad lyrics in a major key.) One study claimed that over the same time period, there was a more frequent “use of the first-person singular pronouns” which “matches a decline in words that emphasize community and working together.”
Even more interesting was the discovery that pop songs today are simpler and more repetitive than those of yesteryear. Researchers of one study used computer analysis to crunch half a million songs from 1955 to 2010 and found that recent popular songs are melodically less complex than in earlier decades. “We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse. 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," according to Joan Serra, who headed up the investigation. The study also found that there is less variety in the instrumentation used and that tracks were mastered to sound louder as the decades trundled on.
At the risk of sounding like someone’s parents, today’s pop songs all sound the same, geared to provide a beat for dancing and working out or an emotionally immersive arrangement to sink into. Not that there’s something wrong with working out nor working out emotions to a soundtrack – music is one of the most versatile of God’s first Article gifts! But often the melody seems an afterthought, as one college music professor complained. Kurt Poterack, the choir director at Christendom College asks, “Can pop songwriters today even write an eight-measure phrase?” A fine question. While a song on the radio can be engaging, Poterack argues that it is usually due to the backing vocals, instrumental arrangement or the drum loop. If you were to sing the melody yourself, you would “likely start getting bored by the third iteration of that opening four-measure motive,” he says.
Poterack goes on to argue that “a tuneful melody is going to have a shape, a waxing and waning, a rise and fall of the pitches, a focal point or two, and a long-term forward motion from note to note to note to its logical conclusion. The melody makes sense by itself…Such a melody is generally something that the non-professional can sing unaccompanied…Such a melody is one that is so appealing that people want to ‘carry it with them,’ sing, hum, even whistle it while they are driving to work, doing the dishes, folding laundry, etc.”
Walking and humming Taylor Swift is pretty straightforward but you might need to concentrate a little more if you take on some George Gershwin or Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, or Stevie Wonder’s Lately. That is not to mention tunes from further back – Holst’s short but memorable Thaxted middle section of Jupiter. Or Nessun Dorma, which is eminently hummable even if no one belts if out quite like Pavarotti. How about The Parting Glass? Or the hymns O Sacred Head and My Song is Love Unknown? I understand not all these examples hail from the world of pop music, but a thousand years of melodic inspiration is there for taking.
Yet today, it appears the music that is most popular is slower, sadder, louder, more self-referential and less tuneful than it was decades ago. Yes, it’s only pop music and popular culture has its limitations as a teacher – it was built to entertain and generate money. However a 30,000-foot view can be useful for taking the cultural temperature. Some studies have shown that “cultural products” like pop music reflect society’s mood, and even correlate with the fortunes of the market. The production of and appetite for simple, repetitive songs probably tells us something about our own times too.
There are many reasons why there is a dearth of pleasing melodies and someone much cleverer than I could no doubt elucidate them well. But here are my observations:
Music is everywhere: Before the discovery of electricity, it must have been hard to imagine the level of ubiquity music could reach in a society. From ancient folks with just their voices or simple instruments, through classical eras where wealthy patrons formed orchestras for their own pleasure and status, on to theater, silent films (accompanied by a pianist) and radio, recorded music then streaming. The idea that sound would pour from every gym and cafe and be within the reach of every kid scooting by on his skateboard would probably be unfathomable.
Given the crowded music marketplace, it makes sense that songwriters and their backers would aim for tried and true, safe and digestible songs; the best way to guarantee profit and fame.
In a study examining the “compressibility” of lyrics – in a word, repetition – the authors note: “Humans are cognitive misers. People have limited information-processing capacities and are known to conserve mental resources…Thus, when there are more products to be evaluated, people may increasingly prefer simpler products as they may require less mental effort to engage with.” I suspect the same is true for melodies – deep work is exhausting in a culture of multitasking and choice. (As an aside, I found this interesting video. Could you sing a tune from James Bond? Star Wars? How about a Marvel movie?)
The lost arts: A post at The Imaginative Conservative points out that sales of pianos have dropped significantly since the early 1900s, representative of the fact that participation in musical performance has dwindled. The loss of music programs in school has lead to musical illiteracy in the general population when it comes to evaluating songs. On that score, songwriting itself may be a lost art, with many celebrity singers leaving the work to a handful of craftsmen. Of course, studios had stables of writers during the middle of last century, churning out hits for their star crooners, but the author notes that a vast swathe of smash hits in the last few years was written by just two songwriters.
It’s hard to excel at a craft if you don’t know the rules to start with, let alone innovate something new. Some pop artists fancy themselves transgressive and avant-garde, (more outrageous lyrics?) but due to aforementioned reasons, today’s charts look less like an exciting match of Calvinball and more like pickle ball – a truncated and less demanding version of more sophisticated game. (No offence meant to all the pickleballers..)
A whole lot of nothing: Can a society that has lost its moral center produce beautiful things? Are we too emotional, too impatient, too busy, too undisciplined, too saturated with inputs to even notice (or care) how bland our pop culture has become? Kurt Poterack argues that to produce great art, one must have talent, yes, but the drive to produce something excellent is essential. Moreover, to make meaningful art, an artist requires “the tools, materials, and forms that his culture has given him with which he can properly express such beauty.” You see the problem.
If you follow CoWo (contemporary worship) trends and are familiar with the standard Sunday morning at your neighborhood Big Box evangelical church, you might have noticed that there has been a parallel movement inside the church. Poterack’s critique of Top 40 hits could apply to songs from Hillsong, Bethel or elsewhere: “Popular music is now a kind of voodoo that is practiced on a very distracted, mute populace. People don’t listen closely and are, instead, subliminally induced to feel a limited number of musical emotions: the feeling of being hip, urban, gritty, sexy, funky, soulful—perhaps even a short-lived elation—before they move on to other distractions.” Worship leaders will no doubt protest the comparison, believing their voodoo leads people to a deeper experience of God.
T. David Gordon, a retired media ecology prof at Grove City College, once said that good art is demanding both of its creator and its audience. In that way, I realize I am expecting too much of pop music and perhaps too much of its consumers. Since its inception, pop art was deliberately tailored for mass appeal and commercial gain, breaking away from high art which had been a vehicle for passing on virtues and skills. But whether you identify as a Swiftie or not, our cultural products are evidence of what is at the heart of our nation. The popularity of beat-driven and melodically-pedestrian songs reveals something about what we value.
For better or worse, the way most people experience melodies is not going to be opera or the symphony orchestra. Yet if the song crunchers are right, there was a time when even popular music transmitted something melodically more challenging and lyrically less self-centred. Even without the nostalgia, the history of the lightweight world of hit song shows there is more beauty to be had, more excellence to strive for; this sometimes gets forgotten in the ever-changing white noise of today. I’m sure I could enjoy Taylor Swift for a kitchen disco or for a moment in the shopping aisle or on a road trip (actually, maybe not for a road trip..), but it’s good for your soul to dip into some of humanity’s back catalogue from time to time.
I can’t finish without comparing mainstream music to the cache of songs preserved by the church for millennia – the rousing ones, the ones which prepare us for battle, the hard-to-sing ones and the ones that stay with us when we head home.. Taylor Swift’s songs will one day be a footnote in history, so too the Beatles’, Burt Bacharach’s and all the rest, but the church will still be singing in Zion. To pause and be refreshed by hymns of the faith, to be taught by lyrics written by saints who found comfort in trial, to hear the melodies from those who came before is a unique gift that never gets old.