5 Reasons All Modern Pop Music Sounds The Same
When someone writes about mainstream pop music on the internet, it broadly falls into one of two camps:
A) Right-wing cultural warriors holding up Lil' Umlaut's hit single "Coochies and Lutes" as the final unimpeachable proof of America's moral decline or;
B) Contrarian music review sites posting that Sarah Karen-Jenna's new album I Hate My Boyfriend (I Love my Boyfriend) qualifies as the Great American Novel, and if you disagree you should go back to the combination vinyl store/activated charcoal gastropub, you insufferably pretentious asshole.
The thing is, both camps are wrong. Pop music is getting worse, but not for the reasons people have always been saying it's getting worse since Australopithecus first hit a decaying bison carcass with a slightly smaller decaying bison carcass. You see ...
Every Song Is Subtly Turning Into Every Other One
Before we start talking about why pop music is worse now than it's ever been, first allow me to offer some proof. Now, it is indeed true that I broadly have the musical tastes of a sad divorced dad (still desperately in love with his high school sweetheart) who can't seem to get sober no matter how hard he tries, and am therefore not the market for music largely meant to be consumed by people who need sounds to shop for shower rods at Target.
I'm going to make fun of pop music a lot here, so in the interests of fairness and to illustrate where I'm coming from, I will magnanimously disclose that my favorite musical acts are Modest Mouse, The National, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Tom Waits. Anyway, if this article makes you mad because I say shit like "Arianna Grande sings like a horny cyborg desperately trying to convince the board of the Walt Disney Corporation that she can experience love before they slough off her cyberskin and repurpose her metal skeleton for Rutherford B. Hayes in the Hall of Presidents" you can use these facts about my taste to make your own jokes at my expense. But in a quiet way, to yourself. (Maybe write it in your diary? That would really show me.)
So yeah, if I make a broad generalization about pop music and you want to provide a counterpoint, consider instead going outside and screaming it into the night sky. I'll know. Here, a visual aid I've made for you to track your own music-discovery journey:
This whole article falls apart if pop music just isn't to my taste, which is actually is getting worse -- or, at the very least, it's getting more monolithic and simplistic. This isn't just because we're looking at the whole and not the distillation, such as when we look at music from previous decades and remember the Beatles and not Herb Alpert, a man whose music is so aggressively milquetoast that even the most mild-mannered tax accountant would want to give it a swirly and shove it in a locker.
In 2012, Spanish scientists ran a study that compared about 500,000 songs over fifty-five years of what broadly be called popular music. What they found was that, over time, music has become more and more homogenous. Which shouldn't be surprising -- even to casual listeners, it seems apparent that vocalists have begun to sound more and more alike. There's a really weird pseudo-Estonian affectation among female pop vocalists where they kinda slur together multiple vowel sounds and needlessly add '-ow' phonemes. In the last few years there began a phenomenon in which singers would pronounce 'love' so that it rhymed with 'stove,' and what happened next? (COVID-19, just asking questions.)
It's not just vocal quirks that are becoming more same-y, of course: the music itself is becoming more simplistic (and louder, in the hopes that you won't notice). Maybe you've noticed things like the mistakenly-named millennial whoop. (I say mistakenly-named because the real millennial whoop already exists; it's the sound we make when we get hit by a bus and we realize the insurance payout will alleviate ten percent of our student debt.) The millennial whoop is one of those things that, once you've noticed, you'll hear everywhere, like the Scotch Snap, or the Triplet Flow, or the Amen Break. Whether you think these things are passing fads or not, ultimately it's true that ultra huge pop music has steadily been becoming more and more similar. But the question is, why?
The Emphasis is On Individual Artists
You might have noticed that the concept of 'bands,' which once totally dominated music, are now more of an oddity, like someone who likes the flavor of artificial banana. Looking at the Billboard 200 Albums for 2020 shows this, and also makes me feel really old. For example, the first band you'll find is Queen's Greatest Hits at #25. But to find what might properly be called a contemporary "band" you have to go all the way down to #106 to find Imagine Dragons.
There's been a shift in focus to individual artists, and there's a few reasons for this. Bands, by their nature, introduce friction -- and friction can threaten productivity. What if the singer threatens to quit the band unless they make a concept album about the plight of the endangered Norwegian sewer lamprey but the bassist's father was killed in a lamprey-related accident? What if the drummer converts to MegaMormonism? The more members in a band, the more possible vectors for failure and instability. That's why most music is made by what ethnomusicologists call "just some guy." This sometimes has hilarious results, like how we are all forced to know about the horny Cabbage Patch doll who came to life:
Besides this, branding is easier when it's just one individual. And if there's one thing social media has taught us, it's that people are fucking banana-time wild about brands. Music made by individuals makes those individuals more than commodities; it makes them characters. When I'm not getting paid to write shit like "Yesterday I farted so nasty in the shower I started gagging, watch out, I am the bad boy" on here or yelling about obscure movies on my podcast I'm a screenwriter, so I'm a firm believer in the power of storytelling. It's why even popular acts like BTS with multiple members have carefully cultivated public images for each.
But focusing on individual artists is part of what makes pop music sound so same-y. Having music be less collaborative has advantages, of course, but the fewer people contributing the less diverse the creative energy. In my experience, sometimes the best things in a creative endeavor come from a sudden improvisation or misunderstanding. Besides these Middle School Band Teacher musings, there's also a more immediate reason why it's making music sound more homogenous.
In an age where everyone has computers and cellphones, it's easier than ever for one person to create a song. But the downside of these tools is that their extreme precision makes it difficult to create something new, rather by accident or necessity. Part of The Clash's whole sound developed because Joe Strummer couldn't pluck individual strings well -- hence the stage name he chose. The tools beings used are built for precision: The Click is an entire documentary on how the digital metronome of popular recording software has made certain time signatures far more popular than others, further making pop music sound like one very long and boring song.
And when everyone uses the same tools, it's no surprise that everything starts to sound a little similar. If you listen to anything besides Symphonic Hungarian Turbofolk you've probably heard music recorded fully or in part on GarageBand or Logic, its paid counterpart. Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, St. Vincent -- GarageBand is ubiquitous as hell. Rihanna's song "Umbrella" is famously built around a slightly modified GarageBand loop, and Usher's "Love in This Club" is built almost entirely from free loops included on every Apple device. If you have an iPhone or a MacBook, the only thing stopping you from being Usher and writing hit songs is perfect six pack abs and a disease where wearing a shirt makes you burst into flames. Listen to enough music and you'll start hearing the same thing over and over again. Not just the same melodies or phrases or time signatures; the literal, actual same music.
Albums are Just Singles Collections
When I think about some of my all-time favorite albums -- stuff like Joe Pug's Nation of Heat, Busman's Holiday's A Long Goodbye, Company of Thieves' Running From a Gamble -- I feel that it's possible for an album to be greater than the sum of its parts. The best albums can be regarded as a gestalt work of art, telling a story or making a thematic point. The songs on the albums I mentioned can shift between bawdy, catchy bombast and delicate, mournful dirges, each song giving more context to the others.
Taking one song by itself is fine, but it's kinda like going to a friend's house because she said she wants to watch The Phantom Menace but only puts on the podracing scene? Which is cool and all, but we're really missing the subtext of Anakin learning to overcome his fear as well as the foreshadowing of his fall to the Dark Side with how he callously rips apart Sebulba's pod, as he himself shall one day be pulled in twain by his love for Padme? And then she's all like, "Hey, I have an idea for something else we can do..." and starts unbuttoning her shirt? (Look, if you're too warm, go turn on the air. I'm trying to appreciate podracing here.)
The point I'm trying to make is that many pop albums cast a narrow thematic net. Sure, they might throw in a token ballad or two, but by and large there's much less variance track-to-track than you'd see in something like, say, indie hip-hop. And that's because they're not really albums, per se: they're just really long singles collections. Every song is developed to be catchy and radio-friendly. They're meant to be enjoyed piecemeal rather than experienced start-to-finish as an album. And that's because you, the consumer, aren't really the consumer. You aren't who music is being made for. Individuals aren't the target audience.
You likely have questions. "Will, that sounds insane." (It does, yes.) But the real question I want you to ask me is this: "If you hate pop music so much, why do you listen to it?" And the answer is: I don't! Not voluntarily! That shit is inescapable! I can't watch TV without hearing twenty one pilots in a commercial and thinking that the invention of agriculture was Humanity's Greatest Mistake. I can't shop at the gas station without hearing the caterwauling of a Troll doll forgotten at the bottom of the toy shelf of a Goodwill:
I used to work retail, and the store would blare a rotating playlist of fifty or so top hits, so know my brain will occasionally spasm and I'll involuntarily hear "I'M NOT A SNACK AT ALL; LOOK BABY I'M THE WHOLE DAMN MEAL." I am absolutely convinced that this is what I will hear when I die. I literally had to start sleeping with a white noise machine so that my brain wouldn't fill the silence with Drake. (Which is weird, since usually the only people who hear Drake at night are the underage girls he's texting.)
Point is, there's an entire industry that's just businesses paying to have a semi-curated playlist, because most businesses are too goddamn dumb to just use Spotify. Once, at my old job, that service went down and my manager told me to play "similar music" through my phone, so if you were once shopping for high-end clothing in Sherman Oaks and heard the Doom soundtrack, that's why. I only chainsawed like two customers in half that day.
For many popular albums, every song is a product. They're meant to be sold for advertising purposes. To understand why we have to go back to Moby, the pioneering sample artist and cultural punchline (1999-present). Before we go further, a confession: I actually kinda like Moby's music. If that makes you lose all credibility in my taste, I understand. I saw him live in Chicago and he puts on a fun show. (Look, when you put out as much music as Moby has, some of it is bound to be good. A broken clock is right twice a day, or in Moby's case every two or three albums.)
Anyway, in 1999, Moby's album Play released to the cultural impact of a high school theater production. The album wasn't immediately a hit. In fact, it was widely considered the death knell of Moby's career. Even Moby himself was considering packing up his sustained chords and becoming an architect. But then, largely out of desperation, his label licensed a song for a commercial. Then another. Then another. Pretty soon the album exploded in popularity from a top-down model: first came the licensing, then came the album sales. Like every single song on Play was used in commercials. If you were making memories in 1999, you'll recognize Porcelain. And in the years since Play dropped, its model of success has become even more common, because ...
There's Less Money in Music than Ever
That might sound a little counterintuitive in the days of ever-more-elaborate music videos. And, to be fair, people in the US are spending more money than ever on music -- but only about 12% of that is going to the artists themselves. Why? Streaming. Think about it -- when was the last time you bought physical music? If I'm at a concert I'll usually buy a vinyl album to support the artist, but the last time I bought a CD was ... shit, I don't even know if I own anything that plays CDs anymore. Does a PS4 play CDs? I genuinely don't know. Where does one even buy CDs anymore? The antique mall? A cursed curiosity shop that always has exactly what you want...if you're willing to pay a hellish price? Maybe Best Buy?
It's hard to lock down exact figures, but it seems like for every stream on Spotify the artist gets about $0.0038. Other streaming services aren't much better. The best-paying streaming service is, hilariously, Napster. Which means that for an artist to make the annual full-time minimum wage of $15,080, they'd have to have a song streamed just a hair under four million times -- and that's assuming it's just one artist and that revenue isn't being split between multiple people. Which is why, say, critically-acclaimed indie darlings Grizzly Bear famously couldn't afford health insurance. The only way for a musician to make money is to license out music. Isaac Brock, sad Dust Bowl-era hobo/genius and frontman of Modest Mouse, was once asked if licensing his music had been a hard decision. His reply really sums it up: "Figuring out ways to pay the rent isn't really a tough decision."
There are still a few holdouts, of course: Tom Waits wrote a whole song indicting advertising, which Frito-Lay then tried to use to sell Doritos because capitalism will always find a way to commodify criticisms of it. When Waits wouldn't sell, they recorded a soundalike and Waits sued the shit out of them, saying if musicians need money they should do something honorable, like "robbing a 7-11."
But Tom Waits is an exception to every rule, of course, like the rule that a professional singer should be able to sing. He records his music exactly the way he wants (through two rusty cans tied together with barbed wire) with exactly whom he wants (a chimpclown who murdered his masters and fled the circus and now mixes Waits' records in exchange for cigarettes). The point I'm trying to make up is that the recording industry is surprisingly cut-to-the-bone. With big money being concentrated into ever-smaller groups of artists, it's no wonder that the record labels choose to bet big on artists that are sure things. It's the same mindset that's resulted in blockbuster Hollywood films being a quagmire of reboots, IP, and sequels. If something worked once, a very similar thing ought to work again! It's a feedback loop of promotion that pushes the most bland to the top. It costs between $500,000 and $2,000,000 to 'break in' a new artist, and you'd better believe record labels aren't going to bet that kind of cash on someone they deem to be anything less than a guaranteed success.
Pretty grim shit, right? Well, in a way, the complete conglomeration of popular American music has had a very positive side effect.
There's a Bright Side!
So, if you ask me, the biggest reason that pop music all sounds the same is that it has to appeal to as broad an audience as possible to maximize value. Sorry that I made you read four entries for something that I just summarized in a single sentence! There are plenty of other factors at play here, like how a staggering amount of pop music for teenage American girls is actually made by the same handful of middle-aged Swedish computer nerds -- between 2010 and 2014, 40% of top singles were produced by the same ten people. Between 2010 and 2017, thirty-two top singles were produced by a Swede named Max Martin.
But there's one last factor I haven't mentioned about why pop music has to appeal to the broadest base possible, which is the same reason the state of music is actually probably better than it's ever been. With the advent of the Internet, the power of the musical gatekeepers has been vastly reduced. Once upon a time, if you were lucky, you lived in a city with a cool radio station like XRT or WFMU that would play weird stuff or feature local artists. There was a time when virtually the only ways to discover new music was what the radio chose to play, buying something at the record store with cool cover art, and whatever albums your friend's older cousin who said doing DMT was how he knew real life is fake recommended to you -- probably Trout Mask Replica.
With pop music becoming more and more homogenous, the inverse has also become true. The Internet has completely splintered genres so far they've pretty much become meaningless. It takes very little music to discover kickass new music that appeals to you. Like, say, traditional Mongolian Tuan Khoomei-hybrid metal.
Music has become so accessible that it's allowed musicians to make music that's absolutely not commercially viable and still ... well, I was gonna say 'still make a living,' which might be overselling a bit, but now awesome bands like Budos Band are more than a regional curiosity. And since now people can find music they actually like, pop music has to fill the void by taking as few risks as possible. Radio DJs are no longer the arbiters of taste that they once were. It doesn't even require effort to seek out new bands! Spotify recommends me new music every week, and it seems to know me better than I know myself. Maybe letting The Algorithm control all of our lives has some advantages? Oh, I mean the math equation Jeff Bezos uses to rule the world from his Scrooge McDuckian gold hoard, not the EDM/metal fusion band of the same name.
Our current music distribution model is far from perfect, especially in regards to paying the people who actually make the music. There's a whole wonderful world of music out there, and it's easier than ever to find it. In a world as stupid and miserable as ours, it's wonderful that one of life's greatest pleasures comes in so many new forms. And people can make their music the way they want to, no longer constrained by the tyranny of 'radio friendliness.'
Still sucks that I have to know who Ed Sheerhan is, though.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter looking to get staffed. He is also 33.3% of the podcast Bad Movies for Bad People, the world's first comedy podcast about movies (available on all major podcast platforms!). You can also find him on Twitter.
Top image: Sirtravelalot/Shutterstock