Why Is Most Music So Bad Today?

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.” ~ Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the US Patent Office in 1899.

“Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food and tyrannize their teachers.” ~ Socrates

Why is popular music so bad today? I mean, I’m not that old, but jeez, the music of today, with only a few rare exceptions, kinda stinks. Some would say that when New Year’s Eve 1979 ended, we were ushered into an era of lame music that we still haven’t escaped from today.

I grew up in the 80’s and remember listening to the Beatles, John Lennon, Simon & Garfunkel, Roger Waters and Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, and David Bowie, to name a few, with my brothers or my dad. I remember seeing album covers strewn about my brother’s bedroom. Albums, not CD’s. (If you’re a really young reader, albums are like CD’s in that they’re flat and round, but black, and a lot bigger. The get scratched and don’t work just like CD’s though).

Some say that the 60’s were a turbulent time in the U.S. and the world and thus created a perfect environment and culture for innovative and creative music. But let’s face it. These days are pretty turbulent as well. So where’s the Crosby, Still, Nash and Young of today to sing about our involvement in Iraq? Or where is the Paul Simon of today to protest the government’s stance on stem cell research? All we’ve gotten recently is the new Paris Hilton CD. Paris Hilton? Isn’t she just famous for being famous? And her new CD actually got some good reviews.

Before anyone accuses me of painting a broad brush stroke condemning all music after the 70’s, let me say that in more recent times there has been a small amount of good stuff like Phish or Midnite, and even politically-minded music such as U2, but no where near the creative amount of earlier times.

I remember when the Dixi Chicks came out against President Bush and the Iraq war. While not a bad band, they’re hardly going to achieve iconic status. And they paid dearly at the hands of big business for their outspoken views. That’s a far cry from the politically-charged days of Woodstock where many artists were speaking out, and changing things.

If you think about it, there are only a select few artists or bands that can regularly sell out huge arenas today. These are the icons. And the vast majority of those artists are bands from before the 80’s! Between last summer and this summer, here are some of the really big concert ticket sellers: The Rolling Stones, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Eric Clapton and The Eagles.

I recently read an article that suggested that music and tour promoters, large venue owners and ticket companies are all worried about concert sales taking a plunge after the legendary artists stop touring. They realize it’s going to be hard to sell out big arenas after the dinosaurs become extinct. Who are the artists of today who will reach that status tomorrow?

In a recent interview with Joe Walsh on Sirius Radio Joe said there is not nearly as much improvisational rock anymore. And I agree. When asked what bands he thought were decent these days, he couldn’t think of any for a while, and then finally said he thought the Goo Goo Dolls were good. Hmmm.

Maybe I’m some kind of curmudgeon, but Top 40 today is just not as good as it used to be. Is Kevin Federline really talented? I just found out recently that his nickname is K-Fed. How about fed up? I think K-Fed, J-Lo, X-tina (Christina Aguilera, no joke) and A-Rod all need to get together ASAP and rethink their feeble nicknames, just an FYI.

Here are the top 5 songs right now in the Summer of 2006:

– Fergie – London Bridge
– Gnarls Barkley – Crazy
– Nelly Furtado Featuring Timbaland – Promiscuous
– The Pussycat Dolls Featuring Snoop Dogg – Buttons
– Panic! At The Disco – I Write Sins Not Tragedies

And here were the top 5 albums of 2005:

– Mariah Carey – The Emancipation of Mimi
– 50 Cent – The Massacre
– Kelly Clarkson – Breakaway
– Green Day – American Idiot
– The Black Eyed Peas – Monkey Business

Here are the top 5 albums of 1976:

– Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive
– Fleetwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac
– Wings – Wings At The Speed Of Sound
– Eagles – Eagles Greatest Hits 1971-1975
– Chicago – Chicago IX Greatest Hits

And here are the top 5 albums of 1966

– Original Soundtrack The Sound Of Music
– The Beatles – Revolver
– The Beatles – Rubber Soul
– The Rolling Stones – Aftermath
– The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Is it just me, or is there a glaring difference between the two 21st Century lists and the second two 20th Century lists? To be fair, I actually own Monkey Business and I like it. Also, Green Day is decent. Admittedly, Wings isn’t the best Paul McCartney music around, but it is Sir Paul after all, and Chicago and The Beach Boys are a little weak. But overall, the lists just don’t compare.

The music industry itself has changed so drastically that I think that is one of the main reasons there is such a chasm between today’s music and the creations of yesteryear. Like sports and medicine, music in another industry that has been a casualty of big business and American capitalism.

No longer does the actual music quality drive the industry. Instead, the people with the money and power at the record companies notice some bad music selling well to young people for example, and therefore decide that from then on they’re only going to find and promote that type of bad music since it made a few bucks. They’ve totally stopped listening to the music and instead only listen to the dollars.

No longer does the music they create determine the success of a band. Instead, entertainment conglomerates tell fans what to listen to, and that determines the success. They do this because they have such a strangle hold on the media. We only have the illusion of choice now. A vicious circle has begun where the whole industry is inexorably spinning down, unable to find purchase on the sides of some slimy corporate funnel, circling downward uncontrollably into the abyss of painfully bad music.

Some bands occasionally slip through the vortex relatively intact, sidestepping the almost institutionalized process of “making it” set in place by music executives. Phish is a great example of this. They became hugely successful in spite of the music industry. Because they were so good and so tenacious in touring and jamming, they attracted a large fan base. The sheer numbers of eventual fans Phish had gave them a power that most artists today can’t have. Most other artists have to do what the people with the purse strings tell them to do. And that often makes for bad music. Unfortunately, Phish isn’t even together any more. But they’re a rare exception in that they came after the 70’s and were highly creative and improvisational.

Another thing that contributes to the poor music of today is technology. These days, Hollywood actors who can’t sing can have singing careers. The engineers touch up their voices, and use every digital sound technique there is to make an average product sellable, just like the magazines airbrush the models and actresses, trimming years off to complete the illusion. There are many ways in which the music engineers can do this in the studio and even for artists on tour.

Ashlee Simpson is a good example of this. First, we saw her on Saturday Night Live getting caught lip-sinking. Then I heard a recent interview where Joe Walsh’s daughter, Lucy Walsh, admitted that as Ashlee’s keyboard player, she always doubled Ashlee’s voice while on tour.

I know that in any era there’s going to be silly music acts like Ashlee Simpson, Kevin Federline and Paris Hilton. I realize that during Bob Dylan’s time there were lots of feeble yet famous music artists then too. My complaint is that it seems like in any other era there was at least enough really fantastic and original music being created to balance things out.

Let’s go backwards. We’ve looked at the popular music of the 21st Century a little in the lists above and I don’t see any really original music in there at all. Some may argue that the grunge era of the 90’s produced some great and original music. I argue that almost all of that music was so heavily influenced by the rock of the 60’s and 70’s that it really wasn’t that original at all.

The music of the 80’s matched the hair and clothes of the time, lame. The synthesizer was new then, but the music was reasonably bad, and certainly not timeless. But then we come to the 70’s and 60’s. Those are the decades that last held any hope for people like me who long for fresh, original, creative and improvisational music.

In 1899 the Commissioner of the US Patent Office wrote “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Alright, maybe he was a little off. But in a way, everything that seems new is really just new combinations of existing things. Music is no different. I’m hoping that we return to the days when the combinations of beats, rhythms, harmonies and melodies become as creative as they were in the 60’s and 70’s.

But maybe things haven’t changed much since even Socrates’ times. He thought kids were tyrants, as if his generation was the last of a dying breed of angelic children. Maybe he just didn’t understand the kids of his era, and maybe I’m the same way.

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