Monday, May 30, 2011

Thoughts on the Evolution of Popular Music

One thing that troubles any music addict is the possibility that, despite diligently casting his net into the vast sea of European pop and dance music day after day, he might still have missed some choice fish. This worry prompted me to perform a more thorough analysis of the European pop and dance charts from years gone by.

I began my research by compiling a few dozen European countries’ pop charts from the year 2000 (in some cases pulling data from every pop chart from every single week of that year—pretty arduous). I selected 2000 because that was the year I first fell in love with Europop music. Back when I actually mucked around in 2000, I got most of my relevant music education from one Romanian radio station on the internet. Certainly, I reckoned, there were many songs that had not only had escaped my net; they had swum in entirely different oceans. So I collated my chart data and then jumped onto YouTube, which houses an impressively large percentage of those songs.

My 2000 Excel spreadsheet wound up with 1084 unique songs on it. That might seem like a lot, but in fact it’s a low number. In a typical year of combing today’s charts I usually hear about 5000 songs. The 4000 song gap is explained by the fact that many countries today produce and publish weekly top 40 charts, but they don't archive these, so digging a decade into the past is a bit of a challenge. I should add that I continue to uncover interesting chart archives, and so the 2000 experiment remains one in progress—with plenty more adds to come. But even if 1084 is a relatively low number, it's still quite a lot of tunes to get through; I spent months digging through them, in fact.

Anyway, I got through that, and then I moved on to the music of 2001. After that, somewhat confusingly, I went backwards, tackling 1999, which I figured would be more interesting to me than moving forward to 2002 since 1999 was the year before I had fallen in love with the Euro sound, and thus I figured it would yield more surprises.

So here I was—and still am—listening to thousands and thousands of pop songs from these years, and with more years to follow. Considering this insane level of diligence, naturally, some friends asked me, perhaps hopefully, if I had learned anything interesting at all. I answered lamely that I hadn’t really gone into this with the intent to learn anything; I was just looking for good songs. I admit I also enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia (watching old music videos is a pretty trippy time-travel experience).

Now, thick in the throes of 1999 music, I feel I am beginning to see an emerging picture of pop. This essay is an attempt to crystalize my current impressions, which will undoubtedly change next week. But let’s start a conversation.

We’ll start that conversation with a hypothetical question from you. You might ask me, “How much has music changed, on a scale of 1 to 10, over the last 15 years, with 1 being ‘no change at all’ and 10 being ‘completely fucking different music’?”

“Five!” I might once have barked back, because "five" is always the answer when one is asked to rank something on a scale of 1 to 10, unless that something is the attractiveness of your significant other. But now I would say that the question itself is flawed in this instance. That’s because it implies an assumption, which is that music evolves in a steady, progressive way, linearly transforming at a slower or faster rate (our 1 to 10 scale indicating the speed of that transformation). But in fact, while gradual evolution in music is certainly real (consider how changes in recording technology have changed the sound of pop), and ideas are sometimes exchanged between genres which reinforces the impression of a chronology of change, this is only part of the story, and might even be the less important part.

I wrote “music evolves in a steady, progressive way” because I wanted to highlight a popular misconception about the theory of evolution, and this is important to our understanding change in popular music. Evolution is, generally, not progressive. It’s simply a mechanism for change in organisms. The thing that makes change possible on the genetic level is mutation. We often imagine dramatic X-Men levels of transformation via mutations—mutations which bestow either super-beneficial advantages to the recipient or, on the other hand, fatal hindrances. In other words, mutations that greatly help or greatly hinder one’s competitiveness in the battle to be “naturally selected" to fuck and make babies which carry our genes onward—currently our only bid for biological immortality.

But most mutations are neither helpful nor harmful. They’re just random. Maybe I carry a gene that can metabolize the pint of Guinness I am enjoying right now at Meehan’s in Vinings, Georgia 0.5% more efficiently than the average person. So what?

The dinosaurs were as well-evolved as any group of animals living today, and they might still be here had it not been for a random cataclysm (a 6-mile wide asteroid) that, to be honest, most of modern life would not survive, either. If one could clone a dinosaur, Jurassic Park-style, the animal might very well outcompete today’s species. The dinosaurs did not become extinct because “something better” came along to shove them out of the way, or “progress” occurred in mammals and the dinosaurs “failed to innovate.” It was, in fact, quite a cosmic joke: the mammals survived the asteroid impact precisely because they had been out-competed by the dinosaurs, and thus were tiny, scurrying things that, thanks to their tiny size, were capable of subsisting on vastly smaller amounts of food than a 177-foot long Diplodocus.

My point is that music evolution is similarly non-progressive. Rather than picturing popular music as something evolving steadily in a continuum, becoming more advanced year by year—whatever that means, music being “advanced”—music is really more accurately thought of as a series of overlapping, random fads. Most of these fads have about a three or four year lifespan. There is the year of build-up, perhaps punctuated by one good idea that catches fire. This is followed by a year where the imitators step in and the sound becomes inescapable. Then, there is the dying-off, a two-year period of steadily waning interest. An interesting thing is that these fads generally seem to be independent of one another, and they are not especially dependent on particular technological innovations either, which means that each of these fads could effectively be exchanged with any other fads from different years. Thus, chronological dependency is destroyed. Any sort of progressive evolution in pop music is illusory.

I will start with smaller examples and build up to bigger ones.

In 1999 and 2000, pop songs were filled with Spanish guitars. Whether this was a result of Carlos Santana’s remarkable career second-act with his single “Smooth,” or whether he was buoyed by a pre-existing Spanish guitar trend I do not know, but Spanish guitars were de rigueur in Y2K-era pop music (Kaci’s “Paradise,” is one example, so is Christina Aguilera’s and Ricky Martin’s “Nobody Wants to Be Lonely,” and the list goes on, probably by the hundreds). Today you hardly ever hear Spanish guitars in pop music. In fact, peddlers of the Spanish pop sound from 2000 (consider Enrique Iglesias) were themselves fully enveloped in the arms of electro-pop by 2011 (“Tonight [I'm F**kin' You]”).

1999 is known by dance aficionados as the Year of Trance, the energy of which was perhaps best captured by the mix compilations Gatecrasher: Red and Gatecrasher: Wet (so called because they were tie-ins to Sheffield’s Gatecrasher club). 1998’s Energy 52 “CafĂ© Del Mar” remixes were a significant warning shot of the Year of Trance that was to follow. In 1999 we had it, and by 2000 trance was also infecting popular European pop music (e.g., Alice DeeJay’s 2000 single “The Lonely One” which is effectively a poppier version of Agnelli & Nelson’s 1999 trance monster “Everyday”).

But the dying-off period for trance came quickly. People grow tired of any genre, and at some point will move on to just about anything else new and novel. Benny Benassi’s delightfully screwy electro hit “Satisfaction” in 2003 was one of the biggest of those trance killers; after its success a flood of pop dance tunes were released with those distinctive buzzing sounds (usually roughly appended to sampled 60s, 70s, 80, and 90s pop standards—Royal Gigolos’ “California Dreamin’” is a perfect example). It’s worth noting that the Benassi-esque fad, like trance before it, also lasted about three years.

And finally, we get to boy bands (a silly aside, but I can't contain myself: I never understood why they were called “bands,” since the fellows in them only provided the vocals; alliteration evidently trumped common sense). In conducting my currently ongoing research into the year 1999 I have had to listen to five treacly love ballads from the band Boyzone, which was a miserable experience because I am not a 13-year old girl from 1999. N-sync, Backstreet Boys, Westlife, and Five are but four examples of boy bands putting out singles in that one year—and those are just the English-language groups. They were wildly popular. Clearly, they made a lot of money for somebody. But in 2010 you couldn’t find a single boy band. No money in it anymore. The extinction event seems to have occurred sometime around 2002.

The Spanish guitars, the boy bands, the sound of melodic trance—all of these pop cultural indicators seem so far away, now. We hear these elements and think to ourselves, "How old the music seems!"

But why couldn’t the year of trance have been 2009, with the music sounding exactly the same? For that matter, today’s electro-house/hip-hop could have been created in 1999—the technology existed then. And why aren’t we just coming into the boy band phase now?

I realized then that we were not seeing progressive evolution, but a series of fads. The fads and the associated memories we hang on the years during which those fads were in progress are generally the source of our impressions of old music sounding, well, old. The fads seldom cross-pollinate in any significant sort of way; they seem to be started by random ideas generated by people working in relative isolation.

I can tell you why fads die out—boredom. There are only so many boy-bands, trance songs, and Spanish guitars one can take before one pines for the next new thing. And I can even tell you that you can expect each fad to last around three years. What I can’t tell you is what the next trend will be.

Anyway, that’s what I think about the evolution of pop music right now.

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