Music Isn’t Getting Worse

…you’re just looking in the wrong places


R&B singer Frank Ocean performs at Lollapalooza in 2012.

Graham Kanwit, Website Editor

It’s a narrative older than time–or, at least, it’s been around for a while. The idea that the quality of music has declined has become a trope, not only of earlier generations but also self-doubting Gen. Z naysayers.

This narrative has some weight, at least in the realm of pop music. According to a study of a million songs conducted by Scientific Report, the variation of tone quality and pitch in mainstream pop has compressed since 1955. Additionally, music has gotten louder: according to the same study, mainstream music gets louder by one decibel every 10 years. 

So maybe pop music has gotten less harmonically unique. Maybe songs have gotten louder to grab the attention of exceedingly bored consumers.

But there are several problems with the study. First, it is heavily skewed towards modern music, surveying 177,808 songs from 2005-2009 compared to 2,650 from 1955-1959. Perhaps there is more to criticize in the realm of modern music simply due to the sheer amount of content available.

I submit that it’s easy to remember the amazing musical acts of the 20th century. It’s easy to reminisce about the Beatles, Queen and the Rolling Stones. Nobody remembers “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees.

Over Christmas break, my grandfather smugly asked me which songs from the 2000s and 2010s would be remembered in 20 years. Notwithstanding the fact that we have no idea what the cultural landscape of 2040 will be like, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Gen. Z-er or Millennial who can’t come up with something: likely suspects include any Beyonce song, Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Frank Ocean’s “Chanel.” But play any of these songs for a skeptical grandparent and you’re likely to be met with indifference at best.

A large issue with connecting our music to older generations arises from the prevalence of hip-hop. Rap is now the largest genre in music, and the most prominent indicator of general trends in the industry.

But many people don’t even think of rap as music. Critics point to rap’s lack of melody–despite the fact that hip-hop songs often sample classic records–as evidence of the genre not being “real music.” Nobody has ever accused 1990s alternative band Cake of not being music, despite the fact that the lead singer has never actually sung. Nobody has ever accused an instrumental loop of not being music, but add spoken word and all of a sudden, a song is instantly excluded from any reputable discussion of the musical arts.

Rap is music. There is poetry to be found in rap: stories of overcoming immense struggle and gaining mobility in life. Rap is derived from centuries of oral tradition and spoken word; hip-hop was influenced by the disco and dance beats of the 1970s and 1980s; of course the genre is music.

Yet somehow this isn’t enough. It’s not even enough that Kendrick Lamar, the greatest rapper of this generation, won a Pulitzer for his latest album, or that his lyrics are archived at Harvard. Lamar has been criticized for only being popular because he has told the “story of African-Americans,” whatever that means. But Lamar’s work simply reveals moments and impressions of his life that illuminate the struggles of those whom he grew up with. It’s a story of the African-American experience, but one that is extremely musical and eloquently told. Give rap a little more credit.

Assuming music is actually less compositionally unique, it’s hard to argue that mainstream music has weakened lyrically. Maybe the “loudness war” of increasing music’s volume is less a product of diminishing creativity than a result of the Earbud Era; I don’t know about you, but I get annoyed when a song suddenly changes volume and either destroys my earbuds or becomes impossible to hear. The fact that music’s volume has been equalized has made it significantly easier for people to consume music.

Maybe the sound of pop music has changed because the music industry has changed. Record companies antagonize their artists, force them to conform to certain standards and strip them of their individuality. Maybe that’s the explanation for the millions of three-minute earworms with two verses, a hook and a bridge that sound exactly the same. 

One solution is to take the Frank Ocean route and become an independent artist. On his own, he has flourished, releasing music on his own time and telling the stories he truly wants people to hear. Ocean is a rare example in modern music of an artist who is able to stretch his creative limits without a record label breathing down his neck.

While mainstream music may be less sonically diverse, it is impossible to make the argument that music as a whole has become less creative. In the spectrum that is mainstream music, our grandparents may only be able to see Lil Pump and Ski Mask the Slump God. But there are Rihannas mixed in there too, and in twenty years, we’ll all be able to see them a lot more clearly.