By Michael McGaffigan
“I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died”
Written in 1971, “American Pie” by Don McLean is an 8 ½ minute song inspired largely by the death of Buddy Holly. Holly was a rising star in the hey-day of 1950s rock-and-roll who died in an airplane accident in 1959. Known for hits such as “Everyday” and “Peggy Sue,” Holly was considered by many to be a musical enigma that was taken too soon. Although Holly was a star of yesteryear, and McLean’s “American Pie” is now over 40 years old, this writer seeks to reason that we may soon be singing another swan song for the music of this generation.
The following is a review on the mainstream music industry, and will explore three grading criteria: creativity, culture, and industry structure.
Creativity – Song writing process, structure, originality: C-
I recently had the opportunity to interview Professor Stanley Baran, founder of the Bryant University Communications Department, and author of the best-selling textbook Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture. In our interview, Professor Baran described the mainstream music of today as “vapid,” “unimaginative,” and “formula based.” I remember the look of disappointment in his eyes clear as day. Music is currently experiencing a drought of originality. Some tell-tale signs of a commercialized song? A 2-3 minute, ‘for-radio’ length (shorter songs = more time for radio ads!), predictable melodies, and of course, a catchy hook.
In addition, many of today’s mainstream artists do not write their own songs. Music producers such as Max Martin can be credited with this talent. Max Martin has produced and written songs for a significant number of today’s artists such as Usher, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Shakira, Selena Gomez, and G-Eazy, to name a few. In total, 58 of his written songs have made it to Billboard 100 – Top 10s (Trust). This does not even begin to consider the work and influence of larger production groups, or as Stanley referred to them, “music factories.”
Culture: Influence, renown, substance – F
A lesser-known fact about Stanley is that he teaches LCS-358, the Introduction to Studies in Jazz course here at Bryant University. Typically considered to be an old and stodgy genre of music, jazz has in fact played a major role in the development of music genres such as blues, rock, R&B, and rap. Jazz is a timeless genre of music which is known for its wide range of instruments, in-the-moment improvisation, highly intellectual song styles and messages, and the virtuoso-like skill-sets required of jazz musicians. While jazz is not only musically pleasing and challenging, it also has a rich history. Jazz served as the vehicle for American culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has roots in African and Latin culture, and has inspired world famous events such as the Newport Jazz Festival, which continues on to this day. When comparing jazz to today’s music, some questions lingered in my mind: In contrast to jazz, what kind of musical culture is currently being promoted by mainstream music? Will T-Pain and his auto-tuned voice be considered the songbird of our generation? Lastly, how can/will we justify endorsing the cultural implications of songs such as “Bad and Boujee” by Migos, to our grandchildren?
Industry Structure: Ethics, transparency, diversity – D+
When considering the countless number of musical genres and subgenres, one might expect there to be as diverse an industry structure in place to promote different types of artists. In reality, the music industry has become heavily concentrated. Today, three recording companies control 89% of the global recorded music market, with the market itself valued at over $15 billion (Baran). An art as powerful and influential as music has been commoditized thanks to penny-pinching, corporatist, business people. In addition, many of the contracts formed with artists are malicious, with artists such as the late Prince describing them akin to “slavery,” with artists often having a limited understanding of how record labels intend to use signed talents for profit, until it is too late (Kreps).
Conclusion: Overall Score – D
To readers who may consider this article to be the ramblings of an old-soul writer with an extremely cynical way of viewing today’s music, my response is this: it is no coincidence that Hollywood films prefer to include ‘old’ songs in their soundtracks as opposed to contemporary, mainstream music. It is no coincidence our elders are appalled by the music of today. I leave apprehensive readers with a challenge: listen to a modern pop song of your choosing. Note the song structure – has the music been digitally enhanced/created? What is the song’s message? Who are the writers of the track? On what music label does the artist belong? Lastly, if you listen closely, you should be able to hear the cha-ching of corporate music groups ringing their cash registers. Although music is a highly subjective art form with an infinite number of tastes and nuances, there is no denying the steady decline in quality which is currently taking place on radio airwaves today.