I don’t have a very good relationship with “popular” music. Especially recent popular music. But over the last couple weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about it. For some reason. And I’m starting to think that it is popular for a reason. It has to be, right? There has been a lot of talk recently about what makes a hit song. If you look at the number one songs of the last fifty years you’ll see a list that seems very diverse. In 1964 the Beatles had 6 number one hits, but most of us snobs (while waxing poetic about the quality music of yesteryear) seem to forget that Bobby Vinton, Roy Orbison, and Manfred Mann each had one too (remember Do Wah Diddy? God I loved that track when I was eight). Compare that to 2011 and it’s tempting in all our snobbery to claim the list is much less diverse. It was 19 straight weeks of candy pop vapidity – including my personal favorite, an entire week where the country listened to a victim of domestic abuse sing about how much she gets off on pain – before Adele came in and destroyed the world. But even Adele’s record, with all its soul, and all its obvious attention to quality control, doesn’t strike me as being as good as the Beatles, or the the Beach Boys, or the Four Seasons, or the Supremes, or Michael Jackson, or Boston, or U2. Even typing out that list I see a decline in quality over the years, and they’re the number ones I picked out as good!
So the obvious question is: How is this possible? How could there be such a drastic swing in the quality of number one hits? Am I just that susceptible to nostalgia? Am I turning into that guy that thinks all the music made after I turned 18 is crap? I’ve been operating under the assumption (as I think most pseudo-intellectual art snobs do) that my personal taste was just better than the millions of people that download the iTunes #1 single every week. But those links above suggest that isn’t true. Those links suggest I have maybe the exact same taste as those millions of people. A hit song is a hit song. It’s a hit the minute it’s written. The ingredients that make it a hit may come together differently from song to song, but they are largely the same set of ingredients. As a person that enjoys expressing myself with music, that idea is more than a little depressing. Is it really possible that Justin Bieber is objectively indistinguishable from the Beatles?
I’m exaggerating to make a point, obviously. But if there is even a shred of truth to that, it means that the reason I hate Justin Bieber’s music is not, in fact, because I have a more highly evolved aesthetic sensibility than the 14 year old girls of America. It is simply because I’m a giant dick. Me and the 14 year old girls of America look for exactly the same set of ingredients in a song we like. I just created a bar for myself above which was usually loud guitars and powerful male vocals, and a live drum kit, and the expression of strong emotions – and below which was, well, Justin Bieber. And Rhianna, and Katy Perry, and so on and so forth. And then as I started to make music I set out to emulate those artists that rose above that completely false bar that I invented for myself. And I rejected anything out of hand that even approached the top ten.
This suggests a terrifying possibility. Maybe I haven’t been making the music that truly represents me. Maybe I’ve just been making the music that represented the artists I liked growing up. Maybe I’ve just been making music that represents who I thought I wanted to be when I was 15. With this in mind I only have one real option. I have to start listening to these songs. I have to start figuring out why I don’t like them, and why tens of millions of other people do. And to do that I really only have one option. I have to cover them. Having something productive come out of it is the ONLY possible way I’ll be able to listen to them over and over again without wanting to blow my brains out. And I’m honestly hoping to learn something about myself, both as a fan of music, and as a person who makes music.
And so begins another half-baked project idea. I will produce a cover of the #1 song on the Billboard 100 every time it changes, from now on. For as long as I can stand it. My money is on two or three weeks. Tops. Wish me luck. And brace yourself.