“Pop music” is an interesting genre. As its name implies, “popular music” is a catch-all phrase for music made for a widespread, common audience. This isn’t a bad thing; actually, given its wide appeal and accessibility, it can be a very powerful form of music.
Unfortunately, modern pop music has gotten pretty bad in the last few decades. Just the other day, a relative was asking me, “Brian, since you’re a music teacher, can you tell me why modern music is so awful?”
Given how trends change over time, it makes sense that popular music changes too. Change isn’t the problem; rather, it’s a combination of agendas and mindsets that have caused popular musicians to “sell out.”
Below are seven of my own reasons as to why pop music sucks today.
Table of Contents
Reason 1: Pop is Not Musically Complex
Among professional musicians, this is the most popular explanation for why pop music isn’t good. With one caveat, I agree.
Back in 2012, the Spanish National Research Council conducted a study of popular music’s complexity over the past seven decades. They analyzed 500,000 songs using three criteria:
- Timbral diversity: “timbre” refers to all the different sounds in a song.
- Harmonic complexity: this one is self-explanatory.
- Loudness: The study was interested specifically in how loud music was, not volume in general.
The results gave clear evidence that diversity and complexity in pop music has gone down, while songs have gotten louder. Modern pop musicians are more interested in attention and popularity than quality music.
The result is heavy-handed music screaming for attention. Complexity and creativity aren’t for “snobs” – they explore the human condition and celebrate individuality. Even “fun” music like pop gets old if it all sounds the same.
As mentioned, I do have one caveat: simple timbres, easy harmonies, and loudness aren’t bad qualities. But they become problems when musicians use them as lazy means to undeserved popularity.
For example, the Beatles used relatively simple chord progressions throughout their existence. David Bowie, on the other hand, used complex progressions. “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars?” both used major-third transpositions and diminished chords!
Does this make David Bowie the better musician? Of course not! Compared to modern pop, the Beatles still had more timbral diversity and melodic creativity.
However, sadly, the days are long gone when a common household name like Bowie dares to write jazz-inspired progressions for his next hit.
Reason 2: Watered-Down Lyrics
“Kitsch” is an adjective referring to art with questionable quality. Often, it tries to fake an authentic emotional experience with overused, cliché methods.
Nowadays, most pop lyrics use the same ideas to say the same things about the same situations. The worst part is, when this happens, they don’t even end up saying anything about anything!
There isn’t anything wrong with talking about the same experiences. There will always be songs about breakups and love, because they’re intensely human things.
However, when everyone says the same things, and they aren’t authentic, you have problems. You end up reacting with fake emotions to a fake representation of something real.
Worse yet, when all you hear are songs faking experiences, you begin to think those representations are authentic portrayals of rich human drama. Yikes!
For example, take Joan Baez’s raw reflections on a past relationship in “Diamonds and Rust.”
Now you’re telling me
You’re not nostalgic
Then give me another word for it
You who are so good with words
And at keeping things vague
‘Cause I need some of that vagueness now
It’s all come back too clearly
Yes, I loved you dearly
And if you’re offering me diamonds and rust
I’ve already paid
Contrast that with Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Swift’s lyrics are easier to understand, but you trade Baez’s richness in the process.
I used to think, that we, were forever ever ever
And I used to say never say never
Huh, he calls me up and he’s like, I still love you
And I’m like, I mean, I mean this is exhausting, you know
We are never getting back together, like ever
Like, huh, I’m like, you know what I mean?
Reason 3: Pop is Formulaic
To be fair, 3 is a combination of 1 and 2. However, it’s still different, creating a transition to the other reasons.
When you whack your listeners’ ears with unoriginal music and write mundane lyrics, you end up creating a mediocre blueprint for songwriting.
To be successful in today’s industry, you have to use their rigid formula. Rather than fostering genuine artistic expressions, this pushes a product. Your potential for expressing humanity is reduced to a price tag.
There are many unique individuals today, but even their uniqueness is wrapped up in an image that sells a product. Legends from times past were legends because they were visionaries.
Even musical “weirdos” like David Bowie and Ozzy Osborne backed up their images with groundbreaking ideas. Nowadays people like weirdos because they’re … well, weird-looking.
Analyzing their music? … Why? We just wanna see them.
Reason 4: Record Labels Are Self-Serving
You could argue that record labels were always self-serving, and I agree. People always look to the past with rose-tinted lenses.
However, record labels were willing to take more chances. That is unfortunately not the case nowadays. Rather than seeing their musicians as unique artists, they see them as a potential for profit.
This approach to music-making only encourages the aforementioned formulas and fakeness. Without risk and diversity, you end up saying a million words that say nothing.
Gone are the days when the Sex Pistols and Rage Against the Machine had the freedom to voice their frustration with the system.
Reason 5: Technology Often Discourages Developing Performance Skills
Technology is always a controversial topic in artistic circles. Personally, I think if it can create brand-new modes of expression that are ripe for diversity, then go for it!
Unfortunately, there is a dark side of technology in art. In the case of pop music, anyone can produce an entire song – complete with drums, chords, and riffs – on a computer without ever giving a second thought to how musical it sounds.
When anyone can produce a song, you end up with an oversaturated market of mediocre music.
Computers can encourage creativity. But when they’re used to cut out the hard work of creating unique music, the result is dull. It’s like a conveyor belt reproducing a replica of the same product.
As much as we might not like to admit it, there was a positive side of expensive studios back in the day. In order to actually use one, you had to prove your talent as a musician.
Reason 6: No Live Music
The last two reasons don’t require much explanation because they’re natural implications of reason 5.
Obviously, with an increase of computer-made music comes a decrease in music that’s produced live. This encourages laziness and takes the immediacy out of music.
First, when there is no creative drive, there’s no soul to your music. Second, when you take the time to perform, you get the enjoyment of creating in real-time.
The simple fact is that more dedication and time means more satisfaction. All this is lost when you don’t learn technique, scales, or repertoire.
Observation 7: All Profit, No Soul
Everything culminates in the conclusion that modern pop wants to make money, not be a human artifact. For all the problems the pop industry had in the past, it still created an environment where expression could thrive.
Nowadays, both the studios and musicians have sold out to each other, and there’s almost no room for real art.
Conclusion: Take Back the Music!
I want to end by asserting that good pop is out there. It would be absurd to say that talented pop musicians suddenly stopped being born in the ’90s.
You just have to look harder. While the major labels might be making kitsch, smaller labels are dedicated to solid music.
Back in the day you could trust an artist’s popularity to mean they had something unique to say. While that’s not the case anymore, it certainly doesn’t mean they’re all gone.
Many artists interested in past popular styles – classic rock, folk, blues, funk, you name it – are more intentional about the music they make. I do have to make a shout out to hip-hop, which has always had a solid stream of artists, given its solid community and roots.
And while you’re at it, sometimes the major labels do sign fantastic artists. You just have to do your homework.
This brings me to my conclusion.
As good or bad as musicians are, they can’t be successful without an audience. As a listener, you’re just as important as the labels and artists.
Listen to the good stuff, advocate for it, pay for it. You can make a difference. Good music can be popular, and you are crucial to making that happen!