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Matthew Belinkie, Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather test their knowledge of pop music decade-by-decade, and ovethink what accounts for the gaps.
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- “Identifying Generational Gaps in Music” from The Pudding
- ’79–’83 from The Hood Internet
As someone who is on the cusp of Baby Boomers and Gen X, my musical heritage is a hodge podge of influences. My high school years were the days of corporate rock with punk and New Wave following me through college. If anything, I feel I’m most familiar with the Big 80s styles but since my first job was with older professionals our office radio was tuned to Classic Rock so I have huge mental database of the 60s and 70s as well.
However, the entire grunge era is lost to me. My son was born in 1990 and I tell people I spent that decade listening to Barney. Well, also The Elephant Show but that is a deeper cut. Since then the ascendancy of hip-hop over rock as the predominant musical genre of pop culture, my listening to new music is whatever gets played on Sirius XM Pulse of artists that show up on SNL or just breakout hits which make the ambient zeitgeist.
Now it can be argued that the whole point of pop music is to piss off your parents, so NOT having the oldz knowing the latest hits is part of the strategy. Likewise what was rebellious and earned “turn down that trash” shouts is now supermarket music.
As kids get older, their music can give one a pop culture renaissance. I only know of Skrillex because of the neighbors asking me to have my son not play his EDM with the bass all the way up after 10 pm. But now that I’m an empty nester, I’m back on my own.
Another good litmus test is to watch Grammies, the American Music Awards, and the MTV awards and just count the artists you’ve ever heard of. Each year, more and more of the performers just draw blank stares from me.
Finally, to be tautological, old music has been around longer. That means more people have been exposed to it. Also there is a huge filtering effect where only the big hits keep getting heard. A purview of the bottom half of the Top 40 from any given week in history is going to draw a lot of blank stares from anyone who wasn’t there at the time and would have heard this music in the wild.
There is a good podcast called Hit Parade which has over the years delved into how pop charts are made and how changes in the methodology has always disrupted the paradigm. For a long time a song had to have a 45 rpm single release which kept very popular album tracks like “Stairway to Heaven” off the charts.
Then the change to Soundscan point of sale tracking over record store surveys totally changed both the style and velocity of hits. For one thing, hip-hop and country had both been vastly under-reported.
Finally, the addition of streaming music and YouTube plays are what have made Psy and Lil Nas X such huge hitmakers.
Thanks for such a great episode which punched a bunch of buttons for me.
Speaking of Avril Lavigne, this McSweeney’s piece caught my attention this week.
From the 2000’s on we have Emo Alt Rock! I know from past podcasts that this is a genre you Ovethinkers appreciate. The Mountain Goats, Mumford and Sons, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, etc. My Pandemic Anthem of choice is Danny Schmidt’s Prayer for the Sane:
I have those bands on a playlist I call Mopey Banjos.
It’s fine line between mopey and self-pity. I admire people (and music) that mix sadness with hope and beauty.
I agree that this basically boils down to proximity to radios, but there’s also an aspect of the presence of friends (with fairly mainstream tastes) excited to share music. Most of my friends growing up were either “I found this obscure band/genre” proto-hipsters (I’m counting the metal-heads in that group in spirit) or mostly quiet about what they were listening to. So, since I didn’t generally listen to music on the radio (my parents were talk radio people), there’s a handful of songs that have been so thoroughly recycled that a person couldn’t be unaware of them, but the overwhelming majority of pop/rock/rap music falls into the “that sounds familiar” category.
I guess I was sort of a prototype for how modern kids absorb music, where if it didn’t somehow land squarely in front of me, I wasn’t going to discover it out in the world.
And since I turned out fine (twitch, twitch), I kind of wonder…is this maybe better? I mean, I think we can mostly agree that pre-Internet music popularity was basically a war of attrition, in that the single whose producers were able to spend the most resources getting in front of gatekeepers–whether that’s literal payola or just having a good relationship with DJs–has an overwhelmingly better chance of finding its audience and becoming a hit. Whereas today, something like “Old Town Road” doesn’t make an impact unless it finds a big enough audience for people to spread the word and question genre categories. Similarly, on the stage musical side, Hamilton is popular in a qualitatively different way than 1980s Andrew Lloyd Webber shows were “financially successful but nobody seems to like it” popular.
Born in ’85 and my experience is about the same as yours. There’s a modern irrelevance to the idea of a “top 40” hit that I think the podcast was strongly hinting at.
If FM radio were willing to play the Minecraft theme, for example, then we’d be getting a better idea of how people actually interact with real popular music.
Speaking of FM, as one of the shadowy turners of the (now digital) dial that Wrather was referencing, I will admit to there being some comfort in a totally sub-optimal solution that at least requires no labor or forethought. Besides, I respect the music that I actually like too much to relegate it to the white noise that happens between my house and the grocery store.
I don’t know if you specifically meant it that way, but it’s an interesting point that a lot of the most “popular music”–by metrics of recognizability and number of listens–isn’t what the music industry would necessarily recognize as music. The theme song of a popular sitcom in a given year has probably been listened to at least as much as the year’s popular album.
But yeah, there’s a lot lost in the shift to digital systems, in that it’s hard to get a curated “we’re just going to play interesting things as they come to us” source. The lack of a browse-able online store is similar. It probably saves some money, but we lose out on random discoveries.