Growing up, I could never escape Del Shannon’s 1961 hit “Runaway.” On long road trips and commutes to school, the anguished refrain and keyboard solo followed me everywhere. My father, a baby boomer, couldn’t get enough of the song, and he played it compulsively in lieu of the ’90s music on the radio.
My parents had strong opinions about the then-omnipresent stylings of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, let alone the rapper Ja Rule. They thought pop music had degraded over the years into an industry of predictable tunes and vapid lyrics, a common stance on the top 40 that seems to renew itself every generation. Pop music today might be cloying and formulaic, but that’s always been the case.
Some selective amnesia appears to be at work in the claims that music is getting worse. Instead of comparing every recent pop party anthem with “Good Vibrations,” perhaps we should stack them up against the Playmates’ unlistenable 1958 hit “Beep, Beep.” The Beatles were still penning meaningful and experimental lyrics in 1969, but the No. 1 song of the year was “Sugar, Sugar,” a saccharine testament to “the loveliness of loving you” by a cartoon band.
Nostalgia’s ability to cloud judgment is particularly strong when it comes to music. This might be due to the physiology of the human brain. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explores the psychology of musical taste in his book This Is Your Brain on Music, and he cites adolescence as a formative period for acquiring musical preferences: “Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged; in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to ‘tag’ the memories as something important.”
Dick Clark defended young people’s music in this magazine almost 60 years ago when pressed about the dangers of rock ’n’ roll, saying, “As we grow older our minds close in certain areas, music among them. The real truth is that you adults are more preoccupied with rock ’n’ roll than the teenagers.” The societal switch from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Elvis and the Everly Brothers wasn’t a smooth one, but Clark’s American Bandstand always kept its finger on the pulse of youth culture. In the 1980s, he was booking Madonna and Run-D.M.C.
We might feel as though we’re in control of our own musical proclivities, but they’re probably thrust upon us. It’s only natural to long for the sounds of Motown or bubblegum pop if they provided the soundtrack to your first courtship. Just the same, millions of young people will eventually feel the same way about “Call Me Maybe” or “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” After all, does Rihanna’s “Umbrella” differ all that much from Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”? Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” may as well be a modern “Red Rubber Ball.”
As a music lover, I didn’t escape indoctrination in my own tastes. Years of exposure in adolescence made me love songs like “Runaway.”
Kanye West’s “Runaway,” that is.
*“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
—Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll