The Familiar Art of Pop Music
Over the course of 2020, 75 songs, 70 performing artists, 265 songwriters, 119 producers and 20 record labels charted in the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10. This may seem like a fair and reasonable distribution of figures on the out set, however a closer look reveals that only four of those artists accounted for nearly one third of the songs (Hit Songs Deconstructed, 2021). Has pop music become a standardised product propagated by the Culture Industry? Is pop music a science, easily constructed from careful planning, manipulation and data analysis?
Competing for attention among today’s mainstream audiences is a delicate balance between the familiar and the unexpected. “That’s the recipe for hit songs and all other forms of entertainment” says Dave Pen (2021), co-founder of Hit Songs Deconstructed, which provides compositional analytics for Top 10 Hot 100 hits. You could say the same for TV shows, food or anything else that we love to consume over and over. The main goal is to entertain and engage people.
Popular music saturates both the public and private spheres of our existence. The examples are many. Retail establishments, restaurants, airports, sporting events, and dance clubs are only a few of the public places where music is employed to influence.
Popular Culture is an important site, where power in society is easily demonstrated. All mass culture under monopoly is identical, predictable and easy to digest (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1993). The pop music industry is no different, with a variety of new apps, websites and record labels now able to easily collect data and analyse consumer taste in the market place. This inevitably leads to a standardisation of the music and a depreciating value on authenticity.
Benjamin (2008) argues that even the most perfect reproductions of art are lacking in one element, “Aura”, it’s presence in space and time. I would argue that popular music has never had an Aura, at least in the modern age. There is no original copy available to the public, only mass produced reproductions, marketed towards specific audiences, generally controlled by Major Record Labels or the Culture Industry.
In 2020, one record label alone, Republic Records, accounted for more than one quarter of all top 10 hits (Hit Songs Deconstructed, 2021). In addition, the genre’s of Pop and Hip Hop ruled supreme with almost 90% of the market. (Although in my definition of “pop” I wouldn’t differentiate between the two)
American band Maroon 5’s latest album Jordi (2021) has an incredible 49 writers credited on the album with seven on one song alone. With only 256 writers in the top 10 the year before, it frightening to think that one fifth of all these writers could be on one album alone. Can this method of practice even create anything of notable authenticity? In a review by the Guardian (2021) the author would tend to agree, describing the album as “shallow and calculating”.
“given that its construction comprises a 400-year-old chord sequence that is already a feature of Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger, Village People’s Go West, the Farm’s All Together Now, Ralph McTell’s Streets of London and Coolio’s See You When You Get There — seems a mind-blowing notion, although in fairness, it’s the catchiest thing here.” (Petridis, 2021)
Pop Music is a low culture, controlled environment. Give listeners hooks, but with enough surprises so that songs don’t get too boring or predictable. Too familiar and the audience is going to lose interest. Too atypical and it’s going to be hard for them to easily connect with the song at first listen.
“Blinding Lights” by Canadian RnB singer The Weeknd, was arguably the most successful song of 2020 with 42 weeks in the Top 10 and four weeks at #1 (Billboard, 2021). The song features a meticulous combination of the typical and the atypical, which helps the song sound familiar to people while still standing out from the pack.
For example, its 28-second intro is almost unheard of currently; the average Hot 100 top 10 in 2020 was just 13 seconds. Also, the song’s 1980s-influenced production qualities, a la “Take On Me” by a-ha, come across as new and fresh to younger audiences while creating a sense of nostalgia for older audiences, which ultimately broadens the song’s reach across demographics.
Furthermore, “Blinding Lights” was co-written by Swedish hitmaker Max Martin. When it comes to mainstream hits, Max is the undisputed champion of pop, with 23 number 1's as a writer and 21 as a producer. To date, only Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26) have written more. So once again familiarity reigns supreme with audiences clearly wanting more of the same, over and over again (see playlist of Max Martin hits below).
Benjamin, W. (2008). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (J. A. Underwood, Trans.). Penguin Books.
Billboard. (2021). Chart History The Weeknd. Retrieved from: https://www.billboard.com/music/the-weeknd/chart-history/HSI/song/1179171
Hit Songs Deconstructed. (2021). The State of the Hot 100 Top 10 [Report] Retrieved From: https://www.hitsongsdeconstructed.com/
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1993). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In Dialectic of enlightenment, (pp. 120–167). New York: Continuum.
Petridis, A. (2021). Maroon 5: Pop at its most shallow and calculating. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/jun/10/maroon-5-jordi-review-pop-at-its-most-shallow-and-calculating
The Weeknd. (2020). Blinding Lights [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/4NRXx6U8ABQ