Radio is no longer the booming voice that it once was, with streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music leaving it with a waning audience of middle-aged dads — mine included. However, every so often, I find myself being force fed radio pop in malls, restaurants, or in that one friend’s old car that doesn’t have AUX.
The prominent genre on radio has been, and will continue to be, pop — a music genre that is defined by its catchy melodies and simple lyrics. This is true even with the advent of streaming platforms, which afford intense accessibility to the music industry and have allowed for more diversity than ever before. So why does pop remain at the forefront of the music scene?
A rich man’s world
In Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin scrutinizes capitalism’s influence on the art world and argues that the reproduction of art for profit significantly diminishes its worth and authenticity.
“In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men,” Benjamin wrote, acknowledging that creating new art based off of old music is not new.
But if you have a background in music or if you are an avid listener of pop music, you’ll know that something feels a bit different this time around. Chord progressions within pop songs hardly vary, creating an oversaturation of songs that, in essence, sound almost identical. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes all you need is a cheesy pop song to brighten your day, but their mass production has changed the character of the music industry.
The sheer number of songs like this may, in part, be attributed to consumer culture. People are no longer satisfied by just listening to an artist’s music. They want to meet them, watch their interviews, wear their merch, and purchase candles with their faces on them. The availability of artist-affiliated products only bolsters the consumption that is a staple of pop music and contributes to its profitability.
As a result, the modern pop music industry creates a success binary. It implies that in order to become a star, you must be a ‘popstar.’ You must make music that is generic, designed for commercial success, and have a personality that is fit for a reality TV show. The binary limits not only the kind of music that is popularized, but it also limits artists who are thrusted into categories based on what has already been done. The pop music industry is, at its core, an industry that profits from the binary. The genre is popularized by its parallelism, and its success is dependent on its stagnancy.
Companies recognize the profitability of pop music, and therefore, promote it, creating an endless cycle that forces pop to the top and ensures that it stays there. If pop music were to evolve quickly, it would threaten the corporations that capitalize on this genre. This is why, when pop music does develop, it does so in a gradual manner, not incorporating different styles and compositions, but consuming them, ensuring that companies are able to keep up and maintain a tight grasp on their assets.
So where does that leave us?
Interestingly, there is also scientific reasoning behind pop music’s homogenization, aside from its profitability. Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna in Austria found that as the sales numbers of a genre increase, it becomes more formulaic in terms of instrumentation due to a tendency toward low variety and musicians with similar skills. “Only a small number of styles in popular music manage to sustain a high level of instrumentational complexity over an extended period of time,” the study added.
Essentially, the study postulates that the popularity of a music genre increases the genericity of songs within said genre. The popularization and mass production of pop music over the past 10–15 years reflects this trend.
Instead of providing artists who are creative, experimental, and generally different with a platform to create, the industry has succumbed to the comfort of similitude, resulting in songs that are reproduced versions of each other and artists who are valued based on their social presence, attractiveness, and net worth, as opposed to their genuine talent.
We often hear the term “fast fashion” in relation to cheap, mass-produced, low-quality clothing. The same is occurring within the music industry. We are moving into a world of “fast music.” There has been a consequential shift in the music market. Currently, music is adopting a profit-over-value stance, a stance that is standardizing the music scene and creating music that is just a consumer product, not artful expression. Music notes quickly morph into bank notes.
Our ability to mass produce music on a global scale leads to a loss of original thought, emotion and talent. But moreover, humanity’s passive intake of pop music and the consumer quota that it fulfills, only serves to justify the industry’s massive profits. The consistency of pop as a genre also affords incentive to those who intend on profiting from it, as its fixed nature almost guarantees its longevity — a perfect business model. After all, if something works, why change it?