Pop Music Is Better Than Ever!

Pop music today might be cloying and formulaic, but that’s always been the case.

Woman with headphones listening to music on her phone.

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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.

Some selective amnesia appears to be at work in the claims that music is getting worse.

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

This article is an expanded version of the interview that appears in the September/October 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. You make some good points regarding music and the brain. Supposedly it’s about ages 11-29 that have the greatest impact. For myself that’s 1968-1986, which is about right. Although there were bad songs in those years, the good to truly great far outweighed the poor to terrible in the top 20 in any given week between the psychedelic and New Wave years.

    You had tremendous variety not seen before or since: The Doors, Supremes, 5th Dimension, Grass Roots, 3 Dog Night, Don McLean, Pink Floyd, (early) Doobie Brothers, Chicago, The Temptations, Steely Dan, Yes, Seals & Crofts, Deep Purple, ELO, Styx, The Moody Blues, The Cars, Carole King, Chaka Khan, Gladys Night, Roberta Flack, Carly Simon, (early) Foreigner, Blondie, Oingo Boingo, Sheena Easton, Falco and so many more.

    I put in musical comments recently on this site in both ‘MTV Raps’ and ‘North Country Girl’ Chapter 56.

    Music, television, auto design and films are the huge areas where creativity and originality have been pretty well gone since about ’88. Occasionally there’s originality, but rarely; and you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that. TV commercials are constantly using music from 40 or 50 years ago because there are few original jingles anymore, and no ‘hit’ songs from recent decades that lend themselves to it, with the exception of Sheryl Crow.

    Bob Taylor, I agree with much of what you said including the 60’s being a Golden Era and Steely Dan being one of the best of the ’70s. With Stevie Wonder though, his peak was really in ’72-’73, not the later section of the decade. You’re spot on about the creativity of the music and the brilliance of Motown.

    Richard, your mention of how lyrics have degenerated into the vile garbage, cesspool we’ve been in since the late ’80s. Of course the ‘f’ word being used so commonly in films since then have caused it to be used much more in real life. Wreckless driving and the near constant scenes of fire (as standard crutches) in films over the past 30 years have played a significant role in speed, crashes and arson happening with terrible consequences. Glorifying crime and bad examples so pervasively for so long? It’s a wonder things aren’t worse than they are.

  2. Richard Stebor said something so valid,and it gives me a chance to mention a treasure from the 60s I omitted: Motown. Listening to it today,one is struck not just by the excellence and creative of the music, but by the sweetness, the heart, of those songs. They were true love songs,so unlike the trash the author of this article likes.

  3. Pop music, by definition, is created for the largest common denominator, and as such, is primarily motivated by financial return. “Art” music is the result of a composer accessing their highest level of creativity utilizing a great many influences and skills, and usually asks the listener to invest effort towards the rewards.
    Is there such a thing as “nutritious” literature versus “junk” literature?
    Is there such a thing as “nutritious” films versus “junk” films?
    Is there such a thing as “nutritious” visual art versus “junk” visual art?
    Is there such a thing as “nutritious” food versus “junk” food?
    Occasional indulgences in junk are likely harmless, but a steady diet??? I takes work to grow!

  4. One thing the writer forgot to mention is how lyrics in much of popular music degenerated into vile, degraded garbage. A prime example is the disgusting rant: “Runaway” by Kanye West, which the writer says he loves. I checked out Kanye’s lyrics. Horrible stuff! Give me Del Shannon’s “Runaway” any day. A positive example of the best of the ’60’s music is the Moody Blues. Their music was a beautifully unique sound and their lyrics were always elevating, lifting the listener higher. Most of the ’60’s bands had class. They sang of true love, the pain caused by cheating, and the hope of finding a real relationship. Compare the lyrics of the ’60’s songs with the debased cesspool of writing that came later. There is a good reason for: “Parental Advisory” warnings. Color me “old school.”

  5. Some of these tunes mentioned as #1 may have been in the writer’s living area but, not even close in mine! Music that was played at weddings, bar/ bat mitzvahs, house parties, that you could dance to or sing to are greatly missing in the past generation of tunes. Can anyone dance to rap?

  6. There was a shocking decline in the quality of popular music between 1945 and 1955. Rock juiced things up a little, but was dead by 1960. The 60s were a sort of Golden Era, with everyone from Beatles to Bachrach to Jobim, and the 70s had a nice jolt from Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder, but if you don’t recognize the plummeting since then, I pity you.


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