Not Your Pop's Pop Music

By Rob Patterson

I grew up listening to Top 40 pop radio on the AM band, starting with when I got my first transistor radio for Christmas in 1959. It’s safe to say that it had a major affect on my life in which music has been a major thread.

The pop radio of my youth played many styles of music. The common denominator being the song: A composition catchy enough to catch the ear and hold it, usually what is called a “hook” somewhere in the chorus, and with a almost ineffable quality the allowed it to bear up over repeated listens.

Then as the 1960s flowed into the 1970s, the FM band began to flourish. And musical radio formats began to split into narrowcasting of different styles or ambiances of music.

As that happened I started writing about music and for a good many years got many of the major record releases in the mail. And my radio listening also narrowed, and now over the last decade almost stopped listening to terrestrial radio altogether.

Over time what popular music I listened to became a function of my tastes and what I would spin because in some fashion I was writing about it. So in recent years I would read and hear the names of top pop acts and have no clue what they sounded like.

Given that music is such a big part of my life and I do continue to write about it, I recently decided that it was long overdue for me to listen to what the masses are enjoying. It was an illuminating if also painful experience.

I started by checking out a few acts that were featured new releases on Spotify and then some of the most popular artists. Then I decided to go to the Top 10 of the Billboard magazine Hot 100 singles.

I will use one word to describe what I hear: wretched.

This is not the ages-old gripe of some old guy decrying the loud and lousy music the kids today are into. It is rather the result of judging it in aesthetic terms of quality.

For starters, the craft of the song seems almost lost in today’s hit pop music. The lyric writing has been reduced to strings of the most banal clichés. Rather than choruses with a clever turn of phrase expressed within a catchy musical hook, they are simply the most simple of the clichés repeated again and again to drill it into the listener’s brain.

As for the music, it is almost all created by electronic rather than natural instruments, making most of it feel rather cold. To its merit, in a way, almost all of it is set to a dance beat, which I have to at least say I was happy to hear as so much modern rock isn’t made as music to dance to. But rather than something that grooves and gets your hips to shake and sway, it’s very strict metronomic beats per minute.

It’s almost impossible for me to judge the singers as I am certain they have been subjected to digital “autotuning” that is used on virtually all of today’s pop recordings and many country chart-toppers.

It’s not that there aren’t some pop artists with talent and skill I appreciate such as Adele and Lady Gaga. But for the most part the performers really don’t even qualify as artists, as they are simply cogs in a formula.

Yes, the pop music created in my youth was better, more imaginative, human, truly emotive, musically skillful and I am certain will be more lasting, even the fluff and treacle. I’m afraid that the brave new world of pop music is largely sensation for the moment that will not endure. And it makes me fear for the future.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2012

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