Opinions, Column

In Defense Of Bad Music And The Emotions It Evokes

The first time I heard Jason DeRulo’s “Wiggle,” I think I laughed out loud. It had not really taken off yet, and I figured that there was no way it could ever reach the top of the charts. I had the same reaction to Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” except without the laughing. Yet, they were the No. 7 and No. 1 songs of the summer, respectively. How did this happen?

To understand, we have to look first at the nature of music, especially pop. Originality and change are crucial. Between new songs that continue to push boundaries and stand out from hits of the past and samplings from older songs that highlight changes in Top-40, the pop genre consistently develops a new style with each generation. While one can only watch a movie or TV show so many times, songs have a much longer shelf life— it isn’t as necessary to write new ones, because we still like the old ones and can listen to them again and again. Music has to target the younger generations. The older ones don’t need to be bombarded with the newest sound every week—they’ve got their favorite songs, usually from a time when they were much younger and more impressionable. Often nostalgia can play a role as well.

Music, more so than television or cinema, is about unconscious emotion. While a majestic, tragic symphony has much musical merit and displays an incredible amount of genius and talent, the emotions it evokes in listeners can be remarkably similar to those of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.” What the music industry now focuses on is a range of emotions unexplored by the bubble-gum doo-wop ’50s and ’60s. Rather than make the business about the songs themselves, songwriters have instead recently focused on the singers and listeners, and not in a subtle way.
This is not to reiterate the overplayed complaint that music today is too simple, because it has been for the last 50 years. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “I Get Around” both cracked the top five in 1964, and they’re no more complex than, say, Jason DeRulo’s “Talk Dirty.” But Top-40 radio has gotten progressively sadder and more serious over the years, with songs getting slower and more than twice as many being written in minor keys instead of major keys. The result of this is a generation of songs designed to appeal to deeper emotions in the human psyche—compare John Legend’s “All of Me” to “The Locomotion.”

And no wonder. The way we listen to music has changed drastically. Rather than being blasted on a jukebox or on the radio as a group of teens sit around, music has adapted to the age of iPods and nightclubs. When we listen to music in the privacy of our own ear-buds or in the anonymity of a dark nightclub where sobriety is something of a rarity, these emotions that may not be acceptable at one’s job or with the family suddenly become the norm. It’s a release of emotional tension that allows people to express their most basic desires. We’re not thinking about the music anymore. We’re thinking about ourselves.

So, how did this movement produce “Fancy” and “Wiggle?” When put into terms of emotion, they appeal to feelings not expressed in everyday life. “Fancy” appeals directly to the ego as Iggy Azalea describes her glamorous life of power and importance—the song allows listeners to flaunt their own egos, temporarily brought to that state of mind by the music. “Wiggle” is simply an expression of outright sexual desire and pleasure with a hint of self-awareness of its own goofiness thrown in. Both emotions may bring a sense of shame in everyday life (one does not normally brag about dreaming of a life of material excess and lust), but when placed in a musical context, they become validated. The simpler, innocent emotions of decades past now seem silly and trivial, too unsophisticated for the young adult audience of today.

But, one might argue, this does not justify the lack of talent displayed in these songs. Between the low degree of difficulty in singing them and the use of Auto-Tune to improve the singer’s sound, recording a Top-40 hit does not require the amount of ability it has in the past. While the amount of musical talent may have fallen, however, it can be argued that the charisma and presence required to pull this off is a talent in its own (though this is not to say that today’s Top-40 artists are not musically talented—almost all are terrific singers). There are fewer bands than individual artists today because of this—the additional instrumental sounds can be produced in the studio, so all an artist needs is his or her own star power to become famous.

So, yes, today’s music is fairly bad. Virtually all of it consists of simple melodies over even simpler chord progressions, and it’s computerized enough that C-3PO could release a track and I probably wouldn’t notice a difference. But it’s justifiable, because music is no longer about, well, the music. It’s about emotion, and a song that fails to appeal to feelings that lie dormant in our everyday lives is a song that will not be successful. After all, Iggy Azalea and Jason DeRulo are millionaires. Whether you like their music or not, it’s popular for a good reason.

Featured Image by Matt Sayles / AP Photo

September 8, 2014