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The Problem With Modern Music

Music: one of humanity’s greatest companions. Our accompaniment in our darkest hours and brightest glories. When we may feel alone on a planet of billions, or hopeless in a world feigning its last death throes of optimism, music remains a faithful friend, and with good reason. Music is as old as humanity itself; with our sonorous mouths, and readily sound-producing limbs, it is an intimate and fundamental part of our existence. It ought to be something we passionately protect and treasure. Yet in the modern world, we have rid ourselves of this obligation, having passed the baton of musical production on to computers, self-absorbed narcissists, and pretty faces with the talent of a blunt steak knife. The result is that good music can still be found, but it’s harder to do so, and unites us not in the way it once did.

Times have changed since the days of our ancestors playing melodies to their hearts’ content around the “red flower” of a campfire, a phenomenon that kept them warm against life’s chill. Thankfully, campfire singalongs still exist, albeit typically under the direction of a blaring loudspeaker and a slightly unnerving Spotify playlist, rather than that of a human being with palpable musical capacities. Similarly, we still have concerts, just like our Roman predecessors had, in their grand and glorious auditoriums (or auditoria, if you’re a stickler). However, we have utterly barbarised them; we have replaced purpose-crafted, acoustically-perfected amphitheatres with barren, commercialised concert halls. In these concert halls – surrounded unfailingly by tacky stores selling overpriced gloop and “merch” – the music tends only to reach the furthest sections of the audience because of booming amplifiers that seem purpose-built only to deafen all those in the vicinity. Yet, tragically, at many modern concerts being temporarily deafened in this way is a blessing, not a curse.

After all, why would you want to listen to most of the utter rubbish that is churned out nowadays? If it evokes anything at all within you – and oftentimes it doesn’t – it is typically but a sense of acute upset that we have let the cultural life force that is music descend to such a lifeless, hopeless, senseless place. The three slopes of descent down which good music has rapidly skied are commercialisation, technology – to be clarified – and the general culture that we now demand music to adhere to.

We ought to consider this idea of “good music”. I know one must be careful, for uttering such an idea may render you a target of pure vitriol and hatred, merely for having an opinion. But in the context of this article, and in the context of society in general, I observe that there are some songs that are genuinely, objectively “good”. I’m not talking in an academic way about marvellous orchestras or unimaginable operas. Think more so like pizza, or pasta, or burgers; these are examples of “good” food. Food that the majority of people who eat food enjoy, the sort of food that you would buy if you were hosting a party and didn’t know everybody’s tastes. In a parallel vein there is ‘good’ music such that, were you to be granted the honour of the AUX cord in a milieu not entirely known, it is the music you would play first; you know if someone were to reproach you for this choice of music, it is surely them in the wrong. This is the music that pleases and unites the masses.

Such music is plentiful! My gripe is that it’s not recent. Sometimes when you play it, and the listeners recognise how painstakingly long ago such beauty was crafted, you can see the hope flee from their eyes as they come to terms with the barrenness of the present landscape. Think of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, which was, and remains, so good, that it has been appropriated by football fans, is used to teach English abroad – as has been attested to me – and is cherished by listeners the world over. Nothing like it has been written since, and it was released in 1968. That’s 54 years ago. Delving into the 70s you find ABBA and Queen, two bands who wrote good music so prolifically that their songs have movie spin-offs. These are the dizzying heights of superstardom, attained also by the likes of Elton John, another gem from the 70s without a modern counterpart (admittedly, because he is still producing music).

We finished off the high-flying 80s and the low-rolling 90s with what was ultimately the end of good music flowing as freely as if it were on tap: from Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5”, to Roy Orbison’s “You Got It”, to Oasis’ numerous masterpieces which elevated the status of their Mancunian hometown and still inspire millions of fans and aspiring musicians today. So, what happened? I’ve just mentioned the aspiring musicians, those trying to emulate their role models who once wrote the musical cornerstones of our culture. Where do these youngsters go, why don’t more of them make it to the top? Why is it so hard, at the top, to find more of this iconically good music, which unites all in the pleasure it brings?

The first barrier to good music is how the industry has commercialised: it ensures that what rises to the top is not always those who merit it. Before their rise to worldwide fame, The Beatles played over 250 nights in Hamburg in a little over two years. In a country that wasn’t even their own, they played at least 1000 gruelling hours. At the time, there was no YouTube, no Spotify, no algorithm that decided who heard your music or to whom it was advertised. You went and played where you could. There are still bands working themselves to the bone today, as The Beatles did back then, in pubs and clubs. But it doesn’t work in the same way. Who needs live music when you can find a DJ, who will take your music and stream it for peanuts, leaving the group with a decimal of pennies? Bands cannot now survive without a digital profile, but by having one they cannot just go and show wherever they wish; there are laptops and iPads there to replace them. Additionally, in the past, there were a finite number of bands or musicians playing each night. You could find your favourites and frequent their shows. How can you say the same about Spotify, where the artists are still ‘finite’, but in their millions, and where finding good music is delegated to a flimsy algorithm?

Such technology has at times been of use to the music industry; there is no denying that the use of electronic instruments, recording software and editing tools has made for a musical environment that is richer than it was before. We now have sounds and melodies that before would have been unimaginable, required unfathomable skill, or immense manpower. Now we have such things at the press of a button. On paper, it sounds like a charm, but surely in this way it also devalues the musical industry that it has aided. No longer do all performers master their art to the point that they can no longer get it wrong. Some still do achieve this mastery, no doubt, with a proper instrument, or their voice. Yet that is a very different kettle of fish from this which is largely pre-recorded, autotuned, and played at the press of a button. Unfortunately, this distinction is seldom still respected.

Finally at fault is the culture we have crafted around modern music. Music used to be perceived as something almost transcendental: the chords played and words sung had a meaning above and beyond themselves, revealing stories and truths to humans who could find them in no other way. It had this effect even in politics: in 1997 Tony Blair’s use of D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better” (1993, by the way) was iconic. Its optimism mobilised voters through a shared vision. I eagerly await any American politician employing Cardi B’s “WAPin a similar fashion, intrigued by the shared vision that may bring.

In Bo Burnham’s gem “Repeat Stuff”, he parodies, “Though meaning might be missing, we need to know the words after just one listen.” Sadly, as the audience demands it, and the system rewards it, yet more music shall continue to be stripped of meaning and complexity.

Illustration: Marios Diakourtis

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