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Is there Still Passion in Mainstream Music?

Photograph of the blog post author, Mary Woodcock

Mary Woodcock

15.2.2013

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Sam Northcote’s take on our question “Is there still passion in mainstream music?”:

Music is dead. I say this sometimes not because I seriously think that there is no good music being produced today but rather because a lot of what I see in the charts seems to be soulless derivative radio-friendly dross.

Just consider the lyrics of the current Number Two track on iTunes, ‘Scream & Shout’ by the ubiquitous will.i.am: “I wanna scream and shout, and let it all out / And scream and shout, and let it out / We saying, oh wee oh wee oh wee oh wee oh / We saying, oh wee oh wee oh wee oh wee oh”. Say what? And the rest of the song is no better. The lyrics are brainless and uninspired. The beats are dull and unoriginal.

Sadly Will.i.am seems incapable of recording anything more substantial than this latest offering of his. Take a quick glance at his back catalogue to see what I mean. Sadder still is that will.i.am is at the top of his game.

That’s right, this man is a seven-time Grammy winner, a highly successful producer, and a judge on prime-time talent show The Voice (don’t get me started on the cultural cancer that is talent show TV). According to Wikipedia he has notched up an astounding 34 Top 40 hits on the UK Singles Chart since 1998, including songs released by his former band Black Eyed Peas and his collaborations with other artists.

To top it all he was invited to record the first song to ever be broadcast from Mars. Effectively he represented the cream of human musical ingenuity for any Martians who happened to be tuning in.

Yes, the king of autotune, moronic lyrics and generic dance beats is our music ambassador to the cosmos. In 1977 the Voyager space programme sent a multiethnic playlist into deep space, including pieces by Beethoven, Bach and Chuck Berry. In 2008 the song ‘Across the Universe’ by the Beatles became the first song to be broadcast directly into space.

But apparently the best my generation has to offer is a musician whose lyrics could have been penned by a three-year-old. Sad times, my friends, sad times.

Am I being a little too uncharitable? Perhaps. I’ve heard it said many times that will.i.am’s talent lies in crafting catchy tunes. As if that were a good thing. I’ve even heard him called a genius.

But does catchiness make a song good? If so I suppose any number of cheap ditties can qualify as ‘good songs’. The theme song for Turkish Airlines is catchy as hell. It’s designed to stick in your head. But it’s one of the most unpleasant things I’ve ever heard.

It’s like nails on a blackboard. Its awfulness combined with its catchiness is a recipe guaranteed to drive any listener insane in the time it takes to write a will.i.am song (i.e. a very short time).

Its purpose is not to please but simply to make the listener remember the name Turkish Airlines, and it succeeds admirably in doing so. Does catchiness make a song good? Of course not. Measles is catchy but last time I checked it was no more popular than any other disease.

So what makes a good song? Well, there are many things involved. But I’d say one of the most important ingredients is Soul. Or Passion. A true artist should invest feeling into their work, as well as creativity.

Unfortunately a great deal of the stuff played on the radio these days is second-rate, mass-produced, disposable, sampled and sterile. The average Top 40 track feels like it was put together on an assembly-line by robots rather than in a studio by musicians. It is precision engineered using tried-and-tested formulas, borrowing from a reservoir of tired old clichés.

Don’t get me wrong, as I said at the start I don’t mean to suggest that no one is making good music anymore. Last year a good number of songs and albums were released which I found to be interesting, emotive and enjoyable to listen to, most notably from Phantogram, Purity Ring, Hot Chip, Frank Ocean, Passion Pit and Tame Impala, among others.

Some of my favourite tunes from last year even did well in the mainstream music charts. But my point is that so much popular music these days is shallow and, well, boring. One of the most played tracks of last year was Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’.

I know it was only intended as a light-hearted feel-good song, and compared to a lot of stuff out there it wasn’t that bad. But still, wasn’t it just a little too cheesy, repetitive and annoying?

I realise that I must sound deeply cynical and perhaps snobbish. I suppose I will have to admit that there is some merit in music which is written purely for entertainment and doesn’t take itself seriously.

Take K-pop icon Psy who took the West by storm last year with ‘Gangnam Style’. I must confess that the song’s music video brings a smile to my face. Is it a great song? No. But it’s not trying to be.

Clearly it was not expected to become the sensation that it did. Psy is just having fun and I respect him for that. As long as he doesn’t take himself seriously I welcome his success. I’m all in favour of being entertained and a lot of mainstream music has motivational value also.

Furthermore I should acknowledge that not every song can be expected to have the gravitas of a Mozart piece or the cultural impact of an Elvis Presley number or a Beatles ballad. The reason those artists are considered great is precisely because they possessed an extremely rare mixture of passion and talent.

I guess what I object to most of all is those mainstream artists who can’t seem to see that their tunes are re-hashed, over-processed slices of mediocrity and who think they are making valuable contributions to music history. Rihanna springs to mind. Unfortunately it seems to me that the charts are dominated by such individuals. So for now I’ll have to just say music is dead.

But what do readers have to say on this topic? Is there passion in mainstream music today? Can you think of some songs which have mass appeal as well as artistic merit? I would love to know your thoughts.

For the record, I’m sure will.i.am is a very decent gentleman. But genius he most certainly is not.

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