Sure, calling out the pop music industry for the drivel that it is can hardly be considered “edgy” anymore. However, if you follow me slightly beneath the surface, past all the weird lyrics and the autotune, we”ll look at how rapidly changing technologies and shifting cultural norms are going to have a lasting effect that is changing music forever (and not necessarily for the best). For example:
1. ‘Shock Artists’ Have Become Victims Of Their Own Success
If being a successful celebrity entails one thing, it’s the ability to capture and retain the attention of the public. Some people can’t handle this reality, and end up crashing and burning in the process (Lindsay Lohan). Others feed on it, almost in a literal way, because that is how they draw their power (Gozer from Ghostbusters). If there is one person who absolutely perfected the latter technique, it’s Lady Gaga.
First, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear her name? Crazy fashion, insane hair, a weirdo, a freak? I want you to watch this video, which will hopefully shatter all preconceived notions you have of her.
That’s Stefani Germanotta AKA Lady Gaga, before she was Lady Gaga. As disturbing as it is that a video from half a decade ago is considered “vintage,” this is actually…good. This is Lady Gaga? Where’s the uncooked steaks plastered all over her face? Where is Alejandro? Who is Alejandro? What is Alejandro?
Now look at this video, taken just a few years later.
It’s the same exact person, playing acoustic ballads on a piano, except this time the piano is full of balls and she’s wearing bubble wrap while she’s doing it. And also there are thousands of screaming fans. She is still just as talented here. The song is even musically similar to the the first one. What gives?
A Youtube comment on the first video actually sums this up nicely (treasure this moment, for it will never happen again):
She’s a Norah Jones
She wouldn’t have made it this way
She knew it, her manager knew it, and everyone in the music industry knew it. It’s been done. She could have had the best voice in the world. It didn’t matter. At some point she re-imagined herself as Lady Gaga, and although there is disagreement over whether that name was from a running joke or a marketing meeting, it doesn’t make a difference. This was a planned changed, and it paid off. By purposefully painting herself as a crazy, what-will-she-think-of-next entertainer, rather than a singer-songwriter, she had free reign to do literally anything because she was now a fake person. She could soak herself in blood on stage, and at the same time get to play and record the songs that she more or less wanted to play, as long as they were in techno form. (It’s no surprise that most of her songs sound good as piano ballads.)
We live in an era where everyone suddenly has the ability to create any content they want. In order to compete, you have to stand out. The easiest way to stand out is to do things that no one in their right mind would do, and do them often. Like wearing a coat made of dead Muppets.
This is the reality. Of course, even if you tried you almost certainly will never reach the level of popularity that she has reached. For that you have to create a perfume made out of blood and semen.
The best part is that there is absolute proof that this works. All you have to do is look at what others are doing, and realize that they too are making money. And they don’t seem to understand it either.
This is the ADD generation. And Lady Gaga conquered it. Well, she did.
The problem is that, like a coffee fiend trying out Monster energy for the first time only to discover it doesn’t do shit, we adapt to stimuli in our environment. So once you blow the lid off crazy, there’s nowhere to go the next time. Like literally, how could anything Lady Gaga ever does in her entire life ever be even close to shocking? She’s already worn every outfit from the Hunger Games. Only in an article about Lady Gaga could the words “barely a shock these days” appear next to “voluntarily gets puked on.” This leaves the door wide open for someone to swoop in and steal her thunder. But it would take like, a naked Disney princess to get the American public to stop what they’re –
2. YouTube Controls the Industry Now
2013 was the most important year for music videos since MTV forgot what the ‘M’ in their name stood for. For the last few years, YouTube has been building itself as an official music video platform with support from most of the big record companies. This is just a matter of chasing the audience, since 2/3 of teenagers get their music from YouTube now, though radio still isn’t that far behind. And this was causing a problem.
It’s important to explain here that the Billboard Hot 100 is the ratings chart that completely controls the music industry. It tells you the most popular songs across all genres, and while there is a separate ‘Pop’ section, getting a single on that ‘Hot’ chart literally means the difference between a hit or not. A song charting usually creates a snowball effect: more radio stations pick it up because it looks popular, which makes it more popular, etc, until you’re at the top. It’s important to explain that, until very recently, the data that gave you your position on the chart was almost entirely determined by radio airplay. But, probably in an effort to make sure the popular chart actually included popular songs, Billboard started included streaming plays and Youtube views in their algorithm. The decision ended up confirming just how off they had been – overnight, the number one song in America changed from “Thrift Shop” to the goddamn “Harlem Shake.” Go figure.
With zero radio play, and no major label backing, an Internet joke became the most popular song in the country. Now imagine what the massive resources of a label and the desperation of a former child star could pull off. Oh ya, Miley, I didn’t forget about you.
“Hey,” said the record executive, “we’ll just make a music video that makes literally zero sense so people will be so distracted by the visuals that they won’t even notice how mediocre the pop song underneath it is! And then let’s make another one AND PUT A NAKED CHICK IN IT even though if the person watching has Google and a ‘new tab’ button they could easily find way more naked-er people but NAKED. CHICK. Cha-CHING!”
“Oh,” said another, more good-looking executive, “that reminds me, we have this guy who’s related to the Dad on Growing Pains and don’t know what the hell to do with him oh ya NAKED CHICKS! HAHA!”
The two clink champagne glasses and proceed to snort blow off a golden table made of money.
By the end of the summer, those two songs were at spots #1 and #2, all because of the new rules. The songs aren’t any better or frankly worse than the other stuff on pop radio, it’s just that they used a shortcut to get to the top. So if you can just direct an insane amount of people to your music video, usually by including some element of controversy, you can easily sneak up the ladder without even really doing anything.
One time, while listening to the radio playing in the background at a party, the DJ came on the air and said, almost begrudgingly, that she was getting so many requests for a certain song that she had no choice but to play it. Granted this was a song that, without the viral power of YouTube, would NEVER, EVER, EVER have gotten on the air. Then, she played this song in it’s entirety:
So, the new algorithm, while technically accurate in assessing what’s really popular, is a complete mess because it doesn’t take comedy in to account, and it’s way too easy to game the system. It also doesn’t help that:
X. The Top Songs Are Old As Hell
While listening to pop radio in the car last year (What? I bet you also do this on the highway while driving alone) I noticed something strange. They started playing this band called Imagine Dragons as if it were brand new music. I thought this was weird, since I was positive I had heard them over a year earlier on an alternative rock station I listened to, and in fact had bought their EP after I had heard it (and one of the first music purchases I made in probably a decade). Then, here’s this schmuck telling me that this shit is brand freakin’ new. I never wanted to use the phrase “I liked them before they were cool!” before that moment, but it was the first thing that came to my mind. Granted, it’s nothing about ‘selling out’ or any of that crap – power to them and their success – it just infuriated me that pop radio was digging into other subcultures for content. On one hand, great, my favorite artists are going to get more exposure and everyone will love them. On the other hand, that ‘everyone’ is mostly made up of pre-teen girls.
Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, Neon Trees, Capitol Cities, Foster the People, Of Mice and Men, Fun, and, more recently, Bastille…all started on alternative radio and were picked up by the pop stations months and months after their release. Very rarely does that happen the other way around.
Now, looking at the Hot 100 chart, you may notice something odd. Between the traditional robotic crap like Bruno Mars and Katy Perry are a smorgasbord of strange songs. Even taking into account that this chart piles all genres into one place, there are still a couple songs that seem like they don’t belong in the list of “most popular songs,” because they’re old as balls.
As of March 2014, all of Imagine Dragon’s old songs are still in the top 80 or so, including one still in the top 20. “Sail” by AWOLNATION is still camping at number 41, even though I haven’t heard that song in about 2 years. “Let It Go” by Eminem is…wait let me just check my notes.
This happened last year too: Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” came out a year before his hit “Thrift Shop” (which was already a year old). Capital Cities’ “Safe and Sound” literally came out before the royal couple even got married.
Weeks, Title, Artist, Peak Pos., Year
76, “I’m Yours,” Jason Mraz, No. 6, 2008
70, “Radioactive,” Imagine Dragons, No. 3, 2013*
69, “Sail,” AWOLNATION, No. 17, 2013*
69, “How Do I Live,” LeAnn Rimes, No. 2, 1997
68, “Party Rock Anthem,” LMFAO featuring Lauren Bennett & GoonRock, No. 1, 2011
65, “Rolling in the Deep,” Adele, No. 1, 2011
65, “You Were Meant for Me”/”Foolish Games,” Jewel, No. 2, 1997
64, “Before He Cheats,” Carrie Underwood, No. 8, 2007
62, “Ho Hey,” the Lumineers, No. 3, 2012
62, “You and Me,” Lifehouse, No. 5, 2005
Notice something else weird? Look at those dates. You’re telling me that in the 65+ years we’ve been tracking music plays, half the list of the most popular songs in history have been released in the last three years? 80% of them in the last nine years? Remember, it doesn’t matter that the numbers are bumped because they factor in other streaming data; all these songs are on the Hot 100 list relative to each other. The only explanation is that the same songs are popular for longer.
Well, that explains why the Pop industry cannibalizes content from other genres. They’re out of goddamn ideas.
Alright only three pictures of Miley. Good effort, self-control.