While Pop is one of the most popular music genres, it is also one of the more bashed genres out there. Due to reduced attention spans and corporate music labels, Pop songs have fallen into a monotonous form of music with the same song structures and melodies.
Why does so much modern pop music sound so re-hashed, boring, and lacking in creativity? To put the question more bluntly, why does modern pop music suck?
We’re not here to take a dig at an entire genre. It would be ridiculous to deride Pop music (or any music) as an entire genre, and of course, some artists deserve respect for their musical releases and creativity.
We’ll approach this topic with some insights, in hopes that it can help you avoid (or embrace!) these pitfalls knowingly.
1. It’s More About Looks Than Music
The music video “Larger Than Life” by Backstreet Boys cost well over $2 million. This was in 1999!
Gone are the days when the radio and records were a means to discover new artists. Today, with the advent of music streaming and video platforms, most people consume their music through social media. And, social media is a lot more visual than anything we’ve witnessed before.
Now, Rolling Stones, Guns N’ roses, and other rock acts have also spent extravagant amounts on music videos. Yet, it isn’t the cost but the rambunctious and repetitive content that is becoming the issue. Based on a majority of what we see on TV, it feels that more time is spent in filming than in composing and recording.
If you think pop music is all about selling songs then you’re wrong. They sell packages, which comprise a pop star’s image, publicity, hype, and dressing.
After all, many of these “megastars” will join megastores to launch fashion lines. For better or worse, music videos have usurped the creative kingdom.
2. It’s Way Too Corporate
Major labels control the contracts of many of the biggest pop stars. Also, many major pop hits can be attributed to a small number of pop producers and songwriters.
This isn’t very different from the time when record labels were controlling the bands that toured the world performing in arenas.
Yet, back then, people would bet their money on creativity and uniqueness. From Freddie Mercury’s camp theatrics to Prince’s funk-synth-psychedelia to ABBA’s pop maximalism, we’ve seen some extraordinary musicians emerge from zilch to zenith.
The magic behind these unique artists is that they wanted creative control and wouldn’t bend over to corporate demands, despite their contracts. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of a majority of pop artists.
Sure, we’ve got the odd example of Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé who are willing to experiment, but only after they’ve created their empire and no longer need the support of the music industry giants. For those still trying to make their mark, abiding by a corporate vision, as opposed to a creative vision, is the only line to tow.
3. Generic Song Structures and Chord Progressions
What do Katy Perry, Usher, Justin Bieber, Pitbull, Flo Rida, Ke$ha, R. Kelly, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, and One Direction have in common? Lukasz Gottwald and Max Martin. Confused?
A quick look at the credits of various pop albums will reveal an astonishing truth: two songwriters/producers are behind the hits of over 2 dozen pop stars.
Now that you know this, you are less likely to be infuriated by the disconcerting similarity between the hooks, riffs, and beats that dominate the charts.
Pop music is made to sound familiar and comforting. In one of his videos, Rick Beato brilliantly demonstrates how the I-IV-V-vi chord progression has become a staple among artists and audiences. As we said, it is corporate. And, corporations are risk-averse and tend to stick with “trends”.
The artists have producers doing all the work and creative inputs are mostly disingenuous. This means the “hit factory” is making assembly line songs that aren’t even pretending to be difficult, unique, or interesting. Yet, some blame is to be shared by the audiences as well, who willingly embrace the monotony, as is evidenced by commercial charts.
4. Music is Made Specifically for Spotify Playlists
Artists are competing for attention and attention spans are shrinking by the minute.
As you progress from the 70s to the 2000s, you’ll notice the ‘hooks’ of the song keep moving closer to the intro.
Why? People want their kicks fast or they’ll bounce to the next flashy thing in sight.
In what is a double-edged sword, the artist and the audience both are victims of dwindling patience and information overload. Pop artists need songs to kick into final gear in a hurry. This means there is no time for a long-drawn intro like Stairway to Heaven.
No interesting intros, no gradual build-up. RIP Bass solos!
The problem is that it is becoming a cycle, akin to a snake eating its own tail. At one point, we’ll burn out with impatience. Sooner or later, someone will have to reverse the trend. All good art needs time to develop, as do artists.
5. Generic Lyrics and Vocal Lines to Trigger Emotions
Music is an art, but the music industry is a business, and Pop music is the hen that lays the golden egg, every day.
Toeing the line of what market research states, artists and produces woo younger audiences – the ones that are most likely to spend money on music and concerts.
Among that age group, the biggest draw is songs about love, break-ups, and other done-to-death maudlin nitty-gritty of relationships.
That isn’t the problem when done tastefully. However, the hit factory’s assembly line needs to churn out songs fast.
This inevitably leads to music with substandard lyrics with nothing substantial to say. After all, how can artists be passionate about things when they have little to no time to experience them? The missing passion is evident in the music that overcompensates from the shallow words.
But it works. Clearly, it works. They manage to create just enough emotion for fans to croon a song for a few weeks until they are ready for the next generic statements.
In every art, imperfections are seen as “marginal human error” that gives every piece of art its human character. Similarly, subtle vocal imperfections lend personality to the vocal line of a song. The advent of autotune has changed that.
AutoTune isn’t inherently a monster. It’s actually quite useful as a creative tool when utilized for the appropriate purposes. However, various artists have made it their weapon of choice.
It has reached a point where dozens of vocal artists have that metallic-meets-robotic texture, making it impossible to tell one from another.
There are still a few artists who use it as intended, but the issue lies with those who exploit Autotune to make repetitive, unimaginative, and generic sounding vocal lines. If that weren’t enough, vocal correction tools like Melodyne also make songs ‘pitch perfect’.
The music production industry has “vocal tuning specialists” who only work on re-engineering and altering tracks to perfect. Not only does this remove any rawness to the music, but it also reinforces the idea that vocalists don’t need ear training and the requisite skill to sing flawlessly.
Auto-tune wasn’t meant to be a crutch, but many pop musicians insist on limping.
7. Bad Melodies
Most of the time, plagiarism flies under the radar, but every once in a while, the bad creative karma leads to an apology and fines. Plagiarism, however, isn’t the only issue. The problem lies in the predominance of “familiarity”.
In 2018, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams paid a fat $5 million to Marvin Gaye’s estate when a court ruled that their song “Blurred Lines” had copied Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”. This is just one of the many examples of how modern pop attempts to recycle melodies.
Various big pop hits have terrible melodies. In many cases, it feels like the composer took another hit song, changed the key, swapped out a chord, and voila! The courts are flooded with legal battles of copyright. Hopefully, in due time, they will figure out that new music isn’t a rehashed version of an old song.
8. It Blocks More Creative Music From Getting on the Airways
Good music should be something that inspires. Yet, in the realm of pop music, ‘good music’ is often viewed as anything that sells.
Music industry stalwarts aren’t willing to invest in anything risk-averse.
This makes it so that all pop artists shed their unique persona or character and align themselves with “what works”. They chase sounds that are electronically crafted, working only with a handful of highly coveted producers who know how to make music for mass audiences.
At the end of the day, commercial success is the biggest factor, not creativity. This means many deserving artists have you tread the indie route as there isn’t any demand for their creative potential and heartfelt music. There are many who find unconventional ways to achieve their dreams, but this is by no means an easy road to success.
9. The Music is Overproduced
When the pitch is perfect, the beat is always right on time, the guitars are perfectly intonated, the effects are spot on, the room reverb is manipulated to a T, and that it’s just phase one.
Today, a massive effort is spent on tweaking each layer of recorded, sampled, and programmed music.
Those multi-layered vocals with unreal reverb and loop phrases can create some amazing textures. The build-ups, the effects, and various other tricks that studio plugins offer are nearly impossible to recreate in a live scenario.
Drum machines, synths, textures, and digital plugins are undoubtedly a step forward for music production.
On the other hand, the obsession with perfection is an unhealthy trend that has dehumanized music. It has robbed it of the raw edges that made it unique.
Worse yet, how is an artist supposed to recreate this “perfection” in a live concert? Ahh, lip-sync.
10. The Music Gets Incredibly Overplayed
If a narrow sound palette, a compromised aesthetic, and generic structure weren’t bad enough, once a hit takes off, it is everywhere.
From restaurants to radio stations, from Spotify to clubs, you hear the same “seasonal” hit hog all the airtime before an inevitable fade into oblivion.
Yet, there is no respite. Their exit after fifteen minutes of fame just means you need to gear up for another one. Listening to the same plugins, producer techniques, drops, build-ups, and chord progressions brings in certain fatigue. This overexposure can even make a reasonably good pop song infuriating to listen to.
11. No Instruments Played
Instruments played by real-life musicians are becoming less and less frequent.
Another reason why pop music isn’t appreciated as much is that the use of instruments keeps falling and falling throughout the years.
As you may have noticed, with recent pop hits on the charts, that everything is electronic and almost none of the instruments are played by real-life musicians. This is another thing that bugs the general audience that appreciates man-made music that comes from the heart.
When you have something in front of you, a product that comes directly from a computer, it doesn’t seem that magical or interesting.
This has become a trend throughout the years and I think that it won’t stop in the years to come. Where people are just taking matters into their own hands and producing everything themselves, which is fine, but it takes away that twinkle that’s supposed to be in the song, that “man-made” aspect that gives us all the feeling that something is genuine.
So, why does modern pop music suck?
Corporate music labels exert heavy influence on the music, and will mostly only fund artists that will fit their ‘tried and tested’ approach to pop music. They want to make the most amount of money with the least amount of risk.
Pop song structures and melodies are often created using the same formula (e.g. Max Martin’s ‘melodic math’ formula). Spotify and other streaming platforms have greatly reduced the attention spans of listeners and the production of pop music is adapting to this. It’s a vicious circle.
The visual appeal of the artist is often more important commercially than the actual music. This is why older and more experienced musicians tend to have little chance of ‘making it’ in the industry. Music is being ‘dehumanized’ through numerous music production techniques.
Of course, we can’t bash the entire genre of pop music. However, it all too often bears too far away from music as a creative endeavor, in favor of heavy commercial interests.
Great and accurate article.
You could also mention that playing an instrument and doing it well is also very uncommon in today’s commercial music world unlike past generations where from time to time, we would also enjoyed really skilled musicians/vocalists working in popular music like Brian May, Freddie Mercury, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Lukather, Rick Wakeman, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Perry, John Mayer, Pat Monahan and anyone on a Steely Dan record. It’s no wonder we don’t have guitar solos on the radio.
Thanks David – very good point! I’ve added it to the article.
I agree with the article wholeheartedly. I suspect many know that this fact but say that it is good because they want to be seen as “with it” or “in with the scene”.