Can We Stop Complaining About How Music “Isn’t As Good As It Used To Be”?
Why is ‘Call Me Maybe’ written off as a dumb pop song but ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is a work of genius?
Millennials just can’t seem to catch a break. We’re locked out of the housing market, saddled with sky-high student debt and struggling to find full-time work, all thanks to our proclivity for smashed avocado.
In times like this, I like to turn to music for comfort; whether it’s my all-time favourite band, U2, or Ariana Grande’s huge pop bangers. But some also seem to take offence at this: the idea that we could enjoy modern music. To many, contemporary pop music is everything that is wrong with millennial culture: it’s vapid, it’s dumbed down, it’s “not as good as it used to be”.
The Truth Behind The Viral Videos
This lazy, demonstrably false idea that music isn’t as good as it used to be is one I’ve heard countless times over the course of my 26 years, but has recently gained even more traction.
Back in August, an American musician named Patrick Metzger coined the phrase “millennial whoop” on his blog The Patternin. He described it as a “melodic phenomenon” which includes “a sequence of notes that alternates between the fifth and third notes of a major scale, typically starting on the fifth”. “The rhythm is usually straight eighth-notes, but it may start on the downbeat or on the upbeat in different songs. A singer usually belts these notes with an oh phoneme, often in a wa-oh-wa-oh pattern.”
That’s a fancy way of saying this:
The theory then made its way to Reddit and was soon picked up by websites all over the world. Quartz made it seem like contemporary pop music had a bad head cold, calling it an “annoying whooping sound”, and put together a 90-second video citing 18 modern pop songs which contain this “very specific interval and sound that has become incredibly common over just the past few years”.
The problem? The millennial whoop — and more broadly the idea that modern music is becoming increasingly homogenised — is novel but ultimately meaningless. Basically, it’s a load of shit.
It hardly needs stating that the singing of the phoneme oh is not new and certainly isn’t confined to millennials. Take Hanson’s ‘MMMBop’ (1997), U2’s ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’ (1984), Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ (1976), The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ (1966): all songs off the top of my head that contain sung ohs or oohs or a variation on that. Further back in the 1950s, doo-wop was all the rage, with most of its songs also containing oh sung underneath a rich vocal lead.
Quartz’s video actually pointed these kinds of patterns out with two even older examples of songs with repetitious notes: Beethoven’s 19th-century masterpiece ‘Für Elise’ and bird calls. (This is not to mention that the songs cited by Metzger and in the Quartz video, which has been shared and re-appropriated hundreds of thousands of times, are all different — anyone with functioning ears can tell you that Frank Ocean’s ‘Ivy’ doesn’t really sound that much like Katy Perry’s ‘California Gurls’.) And yet the “millennial whoop” went viral, taken as definitive proof that modern music is either inferior or lazier than the music of yore.
This same idea was peddled in a video this week posted by popular YouTube comedian Friendlyjordies. Claiming all contemporary pop music sounds like shit — literally, he sits on a toilet then says “this is what 300 years of musical progress from Bach sounds like” — he goes on a four-minute rant against Top 40 music — his latest effort in playing off soft targets which have previously included the Liberal Party and reality TV.
Several minutes are devoted to ripping on Sia, specifically her claim that ‘Titanium’ was written in 40 minutes (never mind the fact The Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me was recorded in less than a day, or that David Bowie penned ‘All the Young Dudes’ in the space of an hour). He then complains “pop music devolved from “give peace a chance” to “I’m in the club drinking motherfucking alcohol”, which gleefully ignores that 2016 alone has seen a huge amount of artists releasing protest music including Beyoncé and A Tribe Called Quest in the US, and A.B. Original and Dispossessed here in Australia.
Let’s Cut It With The Snobbery
There’s a huge element of snobbery purported by the “music isn’t as good as it used to be” crowd. Firstly, contrary to what the millennial whoop sensation seems to infer, the copying of certain riffs or melodies is hardly new — Jet’s ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ drum beat was stolen from Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’, which borrowed from the Armed Forces Network call signal, as well as ‘60s Motown hits ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ by The Supremes and ‘I’m Ready for Love’ by Martha and the Vandellas.
Secondly, while it’s true that there has been tonnes of great music released in the past, we tend to remember the good and overlook, forgive or flat-out forget the bad. “Remember when…” people say thinking about The Beatles, or Joni Mitchell, or Prince, ignoring crap songs that all came at the same time. (Personally I really hate ‘Achy Breaky Heart’, ‘We Built This City’ and anything by Journey — and none of those were penned in the millennial age.)
Thirdly, all this ignores the great and vital music being released by artists right now. Bon Iver and Radiohead are some of the many critically acclaimed acts to offer introspective and nuanced records about love, loss and self-doubt. Music has also recently offered huge social and political statement and influence. The Black Lives Matter movement has been soundtracked by artists like D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar and Common.
Revisionist history also ensures that modern-day music is compared unfavourably with older music. “Remember when music used to mean something?” people say. But this is nonsense too — why is ‘Call Me Maybe’ written off as a dumb pop song but ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is a work of genius? Why can’t two great, catchy pop songs from different eras live in harmony? Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum — I can rock Carly Rae Jepsen on the way to work and then play The Beatles on the way home and love both. It’s not a crime.
I could go on, but mostly this claim that all modern music “sounds the same” or “isn’t as good as it used to be” is just head-smashingly ignorant. It is a view based on snippets of television ads, radio in a taxi or department store and viral videos like the millennial whoop or Friendlyjordies rants. But you hardly need to dig deep to realise that the truth couldn’t be further from this distorted fiction.
Music is just as good now, in 2016, as it has ever been. The year’s not finished and there is a huge amount of terrific music that has been released across a vast array of genres. The year was barely a week old when Blackstar, the wildly experimental David Bowie parting gift, was released. Since then a huge swathe of great albums have been put out by artists as diverse as Chance the Rapper, Car Seat Headrest, Angel Olsen, Rihanna and many more. Beyoncé dropped Lemonade, simultaneously empowering black women and enraging Andrew Bolt, while Disney actor-turned-artist Ariana Grande served out mega-hits at a rate of knots.
A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Perspective
The first time I heard the “music isn’t as good as it used to be” line was from my dad in 2001. I vividly recall seeing his knuckles whiten on the steering wheel on a family trip as I insisted on playing the new Scooter single I’d just purchased. It contained six remixes of their cover of the Supertramp classic ‘The Logical Song’. “What is this crap?” dad demanded as Scooter frontman H.P. Baxxter’s asinine cocaine-fuelled ad-libs punctuated the incessant technobro beat.
In time I changed my mind and decided the Scooter cover was irredeemably awful and an insult to the 1979 original. But neither track stand as an example for their whole era and neither are definitively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to all people. You know what else was on the charts in 1979? ‘Heartache Tonight’, ‘Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)’ and THE PIÑA COLADAS SONG. Now, I personally may loathe all those songs, but they were all hits, and there are people out there who will defend them to the hilt. And that’s okay because, ultimately, music is subjective!
All I’m asking for is some perspective regarding modern music. It is perfectly acceptable to enjoy the latest pop stylings of Justin Bieber or Rihanna and still consider The Beach Boys musical touchstones. To love the former doesn’t make you an idiot; it just makes you open-minded. Pretending music reached its zenith with the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd or grunge means you’ll miss out on a lot of fun.
So sure, there’s some crap songs doing the rounds at the moment. There’s a few modern indie pop songs that contain vague similarities. But to use that to justify a bogus claim that modern music is inferior is lazy AF.
I might lose a few with that last phrase. Dictionaries aren’t as good as they used to be.
Daniel Paproth is a Melbourne writer who been featured in FasterLouder, The New Daily, The Weekly Review and other places. For tweets about U2, cats, Pokemon, Outkast and plain chips, follow him at @pappy90.