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Popular Music’s Slow Dive to Irrelevance: A Reflection on “Why?”

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Turn on the radio: Listen close and you might hear the death-rattle of popular music in the form of auto-tuned melisma comprising your top forty… but more than likely you’re actually listening to music composed several decades ago. Indeed, classic rock and other throw-back stations dominate the dial. Top selling concerts also feature bands that “retired” before millennials were even born.

The highest grossing concerts of 2016 includes: Barry Manilow, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, and Madonna.  The only musicians to crack the top ten which are vaguely contemporary are Beyoncé and Coldplay.

And there’s good reason – contemporary hits just don’t have the same mojo as music from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. The death knell may have sounded with Kurt Cobain’s chords in the early 1990s.  There was nowhere left to go but down.




Granted, writers have been claiming the end is nigh for pop music for a long time, and yet it lingers. Another caveat – there is still great music being composed today. (I encourage you to read that sentence again before you start citing examples of contemporary music that somehow manages to still be good.)  And there was certainly more than enough bad music in the 70s – it wasn’t all Led Zep and Bob Marley (lest we forget the Bay City Rollers and Debbie Boone).

But an undeniable fact remains, popular music has been on the downward spiral for some time now. The question isn’t whether it’s circling the drain, but why it is. There are a multitude of reasons; let’s look at just a few:




A primary reason may simply be we have begun to run out of unique melodies. There are only a finite number of chords progressions and even smaller set of ones which sound pleasing to the ear. George Martin once said that, not only must the melody be pleasing, but it also must have an element of surprise – an unexpected uniqueness.

A great video which highlights this redundancy we are running into is Axis of Awesome’s “4 Chord Song”. The same basic chords are used over and over again in popular music – we’ve heard them a million times; perhaps, the well was not as deep as we thought, and it’s currently running dry.


As further proof, just think of the explosion of creativity that occurred once the pop and rock formats had taken root: psychedelic music, prog rock, heavy metal, singer-songwriter, soul, punk,… all came out of the ether and landed on vinyl within just a relatively short time frame. Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, James Taylor, The Temptations, The Supremes, Black Sabbath, Frank Zappa, David Bowie…. all around the same time. And now take a look around at the pop music landscape… is even remotely comparable?




An additional factor may be the format. We have reduced the art form to just downloadable, streamable 0’s and 1s. Where once there was a tangible object to keep and collect – now we have essentially nothing but a button on a screen. Clearly this isn’t the root cause for popular music’s downfall, but the transition from glorious vinyl to a format that is less tangible than air surely has had a negative impact. Records have made a modest comeback, but it’s still nowhere approaching the primarily medium for music.




The “industrialization” of music is perhaps the most cited reason for music’s path to failure. Once record companies merged, and were subsequently acquired by other companies who, again merged, we ended up with a rather woeful selection of music cproviders. The same phenomenon can be seen in Hollywood; the loss of the smaller production companies in favor of ka-trillion dollar studios has led to a similar lack of originality, lack of creativity, and just plain lack of everything except budget. So, let’s assume an artist is actually talented and comes equipped with some original content; the “record company” behemoths will never allow anything risky, anything slightly out of the mainstream, to see the light of day. Indeed, so many of the musicians we love from yesteryear would have never been given a chance today.

And last but not least, we probably should place some of the blame on the audience – the consumer. Would today’s youth even have a taste for something like Jethro Tull, The Mothers of Invention, King Crimson, or James Taylor?

Before I really start to sound like a grumpy old man, I’ll stop stop here and let you mull that one over.

  • Well, my 19-year-old son listens to ’80s rock mostly. Some ’70s too.

  • Fred Johansen

    The author needs to learn to distinguish between the popular and the good. Just because something is popular it is not necessarily good. There is a lot of good music being made today it is just not popular.

    • Yeoman Lowbrow

      Maybe I just wasn’t clear – read the paragraph under the Angus Young picture. You pretty much summed up my point: there’s still good music, it’s just not popular. Why? That’s the question I’m addressing. I’d be interested to hear your reasons.

      • Mark Armacost

        It’s all about the money. Pearl Jam actually retreated from the spotlight after Versus and a lot of other true artists took the cue. That and the collapse of MTV and the profit motive of the record industry led them to just play bands that sounded like Pearl Jam instead for 10 years. Now the good music is all signed to smaller labels, loves its niches, and ultimately either fades away or cashes out. Popularity is almost something to be shunned. Who wants to be mainstream? That, and your final point–the average consumer isn’t going to spend a lot of time searching out the good stuff. The only ones shoving it in peoples’ faces are those with a financial reason.

  • Bat42

    A huge chunk of the blame goes to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Prior to the act, there were limits on who could own radio stations and how many in a given market. After the act, Clear Channel (now called iHeartRadio), gobbled up stations through out the country. To keep costs down, playlists were homogenized. Because radio had become boring, people looked for entertainment elsewhere.

  • Veronica

    there was a time when the artist had to prove record after record for the audience that he was worth to be bought. I remember that every new work was always expected to be better than the previous one (every Michael Jackson new hit was always expected to be a blast, and no one would accept anything simply not superior than his last work). The artists always sought to improve themselves otherwise the audience would turn its back and listen to something better. Every gold, platinum disc, which meant the audience’s response to their art, was a very treasured trophy. Today the audience is not demanding. Maybe the industrialization atrophied the audience’s ability to decide what is good because it simply swallows what the industry decides that must be swallowed, pre-digested cheap stuff. I always wonder if people ‘are aware’ that they like what they are listening to or they ‘think’ they like it but just don’t know/tried other things yet…

  • Nissl

    We’ve been able to basically make any sound we want for a couple of decades now. There’s no more instrumental innovation – electric guitar, synthesizer, etc. – driving new waves of sound. On top of that, many of the old political and cultural functions of music in the days of 3 broadcast TV stations were usurped by an expanded TV lineup (I’d argue The Simpsons was more impactful than Nirvana in the 90s) and now the internet. By comparison, music is just too slow and simple to respond to current events effectively. Artists have experimented with rapid response tracks but the quality simply isn’t high enough and everyone ignores them.

    As a result I can’t help but feel the best and brightest largely aren’t going into music anymore – they’re in movies where the money is, or working in tech (even though that boom may be starting to fade a bit imo), or doing new media experiments. The juice always follows the stars, ultimately. On top of that while streaming services may be a boon to hardcore fans who can try everything to find stuff they like, they also overwhelm the user. Most hardcore music fans don’t have time to listen to a new album more than once or twice before moving on to the next week’s releases. Thus word of mouth is less reliable than ever, and even if there were a great breakthrough it would struggle to gain traction.

    I’m afraid the future of music looks like – for example – painting. Who was the last high impact, mainstream painter? Maybe Warhol, 4+ decades ago? These days in music you have a few Kinkades pumping out vapid, easily digestible work for the kids and people who don’t care about music and a bunch of intellectuals producing art that theoretically is advancing the conversation in a handful of small, insider scenes that nobody else cares about.

    • Mark Armacost

      The country in general has lost its appreciation for the arts, but that does not mean there are not great artists. The humanities are not taught as much or with the same reverence they once were (nothing is really, other than profit motive). And when they are taught, it’s less about critical appreciation of great work and what makes a great work and is more about the political ramifications and motivations of an artwork, which is not what art should ultimately be about in my opinion. Or, even more pathetically, it’s just about drilling a few names into kids’ heads to make them culturally literate. Nevertheless, there is great art being made. It may be harder to find than it once was, and the media will never recognize it, but it still exists (Kristine Moran is an amazing painter). The desire to create and be original does not go away easily. The problem is just that we don’t produce the same kind of originals in the same numbers as we used to because we don’t encourage people to paint, nor do we give them the time once they turn 24.

  • njguy54

    Today’s technology ought to be leading to an explosion in creativity. Anyone with a computer and a bit of skill has the ability to create professional grade music, as well as videos and writing (plus new media like podcasts). Of course this leads to loads of dreck, but thanks to iTunes and self publishing services, the cream should be rising to the top. Perhaps we’re merely in a transition period, just waiting for a whole new crop of geniuses to be noticed. And to be fair, there is good stuff being produced now; it’s the marketing mechanism of old that’s broken down. The world may never see another Beatles or Michael Jackson simply because the music market isn’t a monolith. Folks may have to work a little harder to find new art forms that are good.

    • Mark Armacost

      I totally agree. It’s the marketing machine that’s broken. This isn’t the first time there’s been a big downturn in great artists. Remember the late 90s when it was all Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock? Then came The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and a lot of others. The last year hasn’t been great, but I’m not panicking yet. You just can’t trust the Grammys to lead you in the right direction.

  • Mark Armacost

    It’s true that many forms of pop music are running their course and the formulas are wearing thin. Love, desire, and transcendence (IMO the sources of inspiration of the best music and poetry) are not in the air in an age that is at once abhorrently PC on the one hand and vulgar and cruel on the other. It is almost impossible to be beautiful in our time. It takes a certain spirit to create the great music of the last 50 years. That spirit has flown the coop. And the days of guys making multiple great albums are also long gone. The life of the artist (Bowie would be the most shining example) is an anachronism. People go along with the artistic life routine until they can cash out. American society has exhausted itself and needs time to rediscover the national spirit and the natural conditions that allow great music (and art in general) to flourish in the way we think the 60s-90s flourished.

    However, there is still tons and tons of great music being made; it’s just hard to locate. Art Angels by Grimes is incredible, Hip hop is still chock full of great artists. Ambient music is an undiscovered world of incredible originality (check out Phainomenon by Manual, or Loscil, or Marconi Union). Radiohead still makes great albums. Algiers, Animal Collective, Diiv, and Sky Ferreira are all incredible, and those are just 4 people I can think of off the top of my head. Country music is making a comeback (Sturgill Simpson and Karl Blau). Some of this music isn’t catchy like the Beatles and the Stones, but that’s a high bar, and our age is one of dissonance anyway. It’s hard to recapture the conditions that made those groups so powerful and so tight, but future generations will say something similar of Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar.

    One of the questions I have is What happened to all the white guys? White men (with some very notable exceptions like Hendrix and all the precursory bluesmen) made rock music great for the whole period you’re talking about–garage bands, the British invasion, Led Zep, punk, new wave, grunge. Rock music, the music that is in the worst shape right now, was a predominantly white male form of music. White guys are out of ideas. I think a lot of us feel insecure, a lot of us are overworked, and many others have been waylaid by Fox News into paranoia and insanity, which doesn’t work well for anyone who’s not a French poet. The young white guys I know just care about money and computers. Culture to them is not a word that has much meaning, which is sad. But so be it. If you’re out of ideas, are depressed, and only care about information architecture and your 401k, you’re probably not going to make much great music anyway. The ladies have enough cool ideas to go around, and as long as they speak from the heart and don’t go all Lena Dunham on me, I’m cool with that.