Tony Visconti, the renowned music producer behind some of the most iconic musicians and sonic works in history, including those of David Bowie, Paul McCartney, T.Rex, Iggy Pop, the Sparks, Luscious Jackson, the Dandy Warhols, and Morrissey, was barely able to hold back his tears as he prophesied where pop music would end up by the close of the 2020s.
In a fictionalized account of a young Sydney-based Music Manager, aptly entitled The Universe, he solemnly told the story of a man trying to get a record label to sign his talented client. To their discontent, they find that no company is willing to sign this modern Hendrix-incarnate. In this futuristic dystopian short story, which sounds more like the present, major labels are only signing barely-legal, female, internationally marketable pop stars. There are no musical movements (like New Wave, Psychedelic Rock, Motown, Disco). Just sterile, interchangeable pop stars whose tunes are written by computer software designed to yield the most money.
The moral of the story, he explains, is:
“Our music industry is one where singles all sound the same, where sales aren’t that great, where people are streaming and if you get 20 million [plays], you get enough for a nice steak dinner … [The Universe] is the way the future can be. You don’t have to be a psychic to be a prophet.”
A man who helped produced some of the world’s most enduring hits like, “Space Oddity,” and “Band on the Run,” knows how music is made and how the industry functions, having been an active since the 1960s. With the decline of album sales, the restructuring of distribution, and companies uneasiness in investing in new talents, he fears the future of pop music will be homogenized, computer generated garble.
The Queen of Pop Agrees… Finally!
Even the resilient, future loving Queen of Pop has lamented the death of creativity, quality and artistry in pop music. While recording her last album Madame X (2019), Her Madgesty seemed to get quite nostalgic as the 20th anniversary of the critically acclaimed, Grammy winning, chart topping Ray of Light (1998) album rolled around.
Madonna who became the wealthiest, most influential woman in music due to her uncanny ability to adapt to trends and changes (on both the business and cultural side of the industry), now struggles to produce albums with the cohesiveness, lyrical strength and quality she once did.
Last summer, she half-jokingly pleaded to her longtime manager Guy Oseary on Instagram:
“Remember when I made records with other artists from beginning to end and I was allowed to be a visionary and not have to go to song writing camps where no one can sit still for more than 15 minutes…….”
Juxtaposing Ray of Light‘s creative process to her last four album’s, it is no surprise that Madonna seems to have realized even her usually high standards have had to fall in order to follow the industry trends of the 2010’s.
Her critically acclaimed albums, like Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005) and Music (2000), once had a small, tight knit team that hunkered down in one location for an intense recording session. They produced strong conceptual albums that blended mainstream and underground influences. Since Hard Candy (2008) , when she decided to get “double teamed” for the first time by Timbaland and Timberlake, she fell into the trap of working with dozens of collaborators, producers and songwriters, and as a result produced half-baked results geared towards tours and brazen marketing gimmicks.
Although her efforts still sounded more unique than other Billboard hits, many of which are indecipherable from the other, her career offers a perfect allegory to this wavering industry. And sadly, she realized this too late into the production of last year’s album as she ended up repeating the same mistakes. Hopefully for the last time.
From Visconti to Madonna, from Morrissey to Damon Albarn, from Nile Rogers to Diana Ross, icons across the genres know that the environment, communities and factors that allowed them to blossom creatively and touch the heartstrings of millions, just aren’t there anymore. As a result, the quality of pop music is suffering.
It’s Not Just Greying Naysayers. It’s scientific!
Interestingly, several quantitative studies using different metrics to asses the quality of songs have proven these musical veterans are not just greying naysayers, but actually correct. As the Smithsonian and Scientific American reported:
“The Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona… examined three aspects of those songs: timbre (which ‘accounts for the sound color, texture, or tone quality,’ according to Serrà and his colleagues); pitch (which “roughly corresponds to the harmonic content of the piece, including its chords, melody, and tonal arrangements”); and loudness (more on that below).”
Their study analyzed millions of songs from 1955 onwards. What did they discover? Pop music peaked in the late 1960s and has been on a fast decline since the late 1990s. It has gotten louder, dumber and more vulgar to the surprise of few.
Another study showed that 21st Century pop lyrics are darker and more self absorbed than ever before. Even the current Dark Princess of Pop, Billie Eilish, admitted on James Gordon’s Carpool Karaoke, that her vocal style and song structure is basic with only a few chords.
In 2008, Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University published one of the largest studies of musical tastes ever conducted. After surveying 36,000 people, they found that contemporary pop music devotees were defined as being the least creative people. The study noted, “Music can nourish our minds like almost nothing else, so when a mega-industry is devoted to selling the least inspired music they can, they’re short-changing all of us.” In other words, contemporary pop music is simple, addictive and trains the masses to be just this. Quality music inspires creativity, feeds the soul and uplifts society.
Without Soul, What is the Point of Music?
The beauty of living in the Digital Age is that we have access to all the greats of the past, as well as whatever contemporary artist might push through the pavement tracks. So some might ask, is the decline of pop music, icons and the industry a bad thing? Why does it matter if the charts become a whirl of undistitnuigblish, lyrically simplistic, homogenized ear bugs?
As Victor Hugo said, “Music can express that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” What will our modern societies have without the development of musical movements or artists who are able to produce soul-touching works? One can’t help but notice that generational anthems have become few and far in between. What is Justin Bieber’s, “Yummy,” exactly inspiring us to do? Or Meghan Taylor’s “Nice to Meet Ya”? And why do all the chart toppers collaborate with one another?
Even the astounding chart diversity of the 1990s, from Oasis to Nirvana, from Tupac to Lauryn Hill, from Alanis Morisette to Ace of Base, has totally dried up. We’ve had the same people in the charts, song credits, and awards shows for decades, with the same fashion, and generally the same sound.
One solution, as proposed by Tony Visconti, is somehow making the profession profitable for new artists. Like many other industries, Visconti sees the younger generation’s inability to make money as low-hanging fruit that can be tackled. He told Forbes Magazine:
“People need to make a living making music. When you go to a pub with your band, you should make money. You shouldn’t do it for the exposure. A bank teller doesn’t work for the exposure. A doctor doesn’t work for the exposure. A scientist doesn’t work for the exposure. Music isn’t taken seriously, and it should be. Every part of our lives is affected by music. If you walk down any street in any city, people have earbuds in, and they’re listening to music. If you get married, you have certain music for your wedding. You die, you have certain music for your funeral. You have sex, you have certain music for sex. It’s behind every human activity. People sing, they dance…whether they are going to do it professionally or not. It’s really a shame how it’s been devalued.”
Without true artists that are able to capture the imagination and express the soul of a community one wonders what people will turn to in order to find that expression. Will people just resign themselves to AI generated symphonies and voluptuous virtual reality holograms?