Sunday, 12 August 2012

Pop music's decline

Looking back at the decades since my youth I have noticed a steady decline in the overall quality of pop music. I had attributed this to an inability to keep up with changing tastes, thinking that since the 1960s the music has gone steadily down hill as I have veered towards classical music, soul, gospel, blues, heavy metal and folk rather than chart offerings. Today’s pop music, when I hear it, seems less adventurous: it lacks real inspired melody and lyrics. It must just be me and my generation, I thought. People of all generations always think that the old days were best, possibly because of the memories they evoke.

However, a recent artificial intelligence study of timbre, pitch and loudness  reported in a Scientific American blog seems to back up the intuition of many of my generation who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Almost half a million pop songs released over 1955-2010 were analysed for sound colour, texture, tonal quality, chords, melody, tonal arrangement and loudness.  They show a clear peak in the early 1960s, after which the music gradually got blander, less diverse and less adventurous while its loudness and violence increased, possibly as a compensation for the dullness of inspirational content. (We are talking about averages. There were obviously exceptions.)

The lyrics were also examined and it seems these got darker, more negative and more self-absorbed. This may well be the clue. Pop music came to life rather like the Cambrian explosion of marine life half a billion years ago – suddenly. It came from the gospel, soul and blues music of black African slaves liberated by the Holy Spirit. It reached a peak very quickly and on the whole the lyrics were wholesome and positive even in adversity, the tunes were powerful and memorable. For me the apex of this era was exemplified by the Ben E King song Stand by me, released in 1961.

Somehow I can't imagine a song of such innocence, depth, power and simplicity coming out of the music world today. It did not make so much of an impression at the time as it did recently, three years after becoming confirmed as a follower of Christ. I now see it as portraying the steadfast and robust nature of true faith and feel it must have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Since coming to believe this I  discovered that it has been voted one of the 500 all time greats ( Rolling Stone magazine).

 By the end of the 1960s, the music had lost much of its innocence and  power. The lyrics of Don McLean’s Bye Bye Miss American Pie   say it all:

Can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

 He was referring to the death of Buddy Holly, another giant of the era, who died in a plane crash in 1959. Albeit with ups and downs it was predominantly down from then on.

Ideas of right and wrong, non-sexual love and devotion to truth gave way to moral relativism, post-modernism, obsession with sex and iconoclasms. The monstrosity of the Vietnam War was in my view, on balance, a betrayal of Christian values, because although it might have helped prevent attacks on the relatively free societies of the west - and even this is debatable - it was at least partly, if not mainly, motivated by the wealthy classes’ fear of losing their wealth should communism ever make it to the USA.  Apart from the appalling dehumanisation and loss of life it had another consequence. Befuddled thinking emerging from the anti war protesters led to the rejection of Christianity itself, the denial of the divine source of being by many, and a revolt against not only the bad in western society but the good. This was despite the Christ-inspired Martin Luther King as he led America towards the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

New mantras and beliefs began to ring through society: if it feels good, do it; whatever turns you on; what’s true for one person may not be true for another; all leaders are bad; all attempts to improve society are corrupt conspiracies – a belief which if stated sufficiently often will be self-fulfilling.

 In the UK, at least, a new version of the 'upper class twit' appeared in the media – so-called intellectuals who preached liberalism and free love; they diluted and denigrated the sacred, they ridiculed the values and weakened the Enlightenment foundations on which western society was built. They misled young people into a downhill spiral of promiscuity, consumerism and debt, the consequences of which are only now beginning to be apparent.

A lot of what was thrown out deserved to be thrown out. Love was elevated above religion by The Beatles (All you need is love) and Jefferson Airplane (You need somebody to love) precisely as Christ taught. Yet mad theories about Him being a space traveller or social worker undermined belief in the Divine Truth of the Holy Trinity, the triune nature of the Creator and reality itself. Many of you reading this now will scoff at the very expression of Divine Truth.

So in retrospect it is not surprising that pop music, too, has gone into decline. The focus on money as the object of life discourages originality. There are still excellent bands and musicians about (my own brother is a US rock musician); but increasingly even young adults have to rely on re-issues and collector’s items to get good music as an alternative to angry self-pitying rap or soulless heavy metal (not all of it, some is brilliant) or bland disco fodder or pretentiousness or those who resort to shock or tastelessness. For live music there is an increasing reliance on tribute artists and old or reformed groups. As for the selling of recorded music this increasingly relies on repackaging commercially safe music from the past.

This is no doubt an oversimplification. Some social and environmental reforms have been made since 1955 and there are some excellent rock, folk and blues musicians about. Occasionally an inspired mainstream pop song hits the charts. Also, new ways of marketing music without destroying its integrity are being explored, making use of the web.

Is this situation likely to change? Yes, I think so. But first people have to recognise and relate to the divine, because it is only transcendentally that great music of any kind is generated within us. It comes from the same source that peace on earth must ultimately come.
see also
(this link added 13 November 2012)

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