Has our general taste in music been consistent across time, or is there something more sinister behind our notoriously unchanging charts? Reverb Music investigates.
Every month there seems to be a new song that we all hate until we don’t. An ear worm, which at first might make us squirm, often eventually finds itself hidden in our sacred playlists since “At the end of the day, it’s still a banger though.” Most musicians seek to share their creations with as many people as possible, but how does music become popular in such a seemingly saturated market? When we open Pandora’s record box, how is hope found amongst all the jammed cassettes and failed demos? Most importantly however, why is it that whilst names and haircuts may change, the sounds of the charts and mainstream music can appear stagnant and as if we’ve heard it all before? Perhaps the music industry feeds itself by conditioning listeners’ musical preferences, maybe even before we’ve heard the songs themselves.
An artist or song can break into the mainstream literally overnight, but for most aspiring artists the hopeful routine of sending tracks to record labels and agents to be rejected is a much closer reality. Recently, 32 year old Kyla, the mother and ELS teacher who’s vocals were once remixed by UK Funky duo The Crazy Cousinz, suddenly found international fame when rapper Drake sampled their track ‘Do You Mind’ in his new single ‘Once Dance’ which can now be heard everywhere. Similarly, Justin Bieber managed to charm our airwaves once being discovered on YouTube, but although this has inspired thousands of musicians to persist in posting their covers of ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Fast Car’ each week, very few have the same luck. Without luck, there must be a way to determine access to the charts because if Silentó’s ‘Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)’ can make it, then surely you can too.
Crucially, the aforementioned song met success by imitating dance moves from other one-hit-wonders ‘Crank That (Soulja Boy)’ and ‘Stanky Legg’, suggesting that repetition (which aids recognition) plays an important role in songs reaching the mainstream. Additionally, fitting the ‘boy band’ formula is a mechanism for (brief) success since the template is replicable and with enough radio airtime and posters in children’s magazines, a new boy band could top the charts every Friday. Given that aesthetics and appearances are so vital to popularity in music, (especially as is seems more time is now spent scrolling through artists’ Instagram accounts rather than listening to their actual tracks), you probably won’t find fame without surgery/Photoshop sculpting you into the worn out moulds of popstars.
Social influence has one of the highest impacts on generating popularity in music. The Columbia University Music Lab found that if unknown songs were considered lower quality but were attached to high download rates, they would receive more downloads than higher quality songs with lower download rates1. The download rates in this experiment were false, but it clearly indicates that popularity (albeit invented) is a greater determining factor for chart success than how good the song is. It’s logical, since with such a vast volume of music available, it is easier to go with what others are downloading. But shouldn’t the charts reflect the best music rather than the most played? People tend to pick songs that are popular because listening to music is often a social experience. For example, hearing songs in clubs, shops, on the radio and discussing with friends all provide a shared involvement in music. Research suggests that repeated exposure is one of the most effective ways of getting the general public to like a song rather than writing one to suit their taste2. A study into the instrumentational complexity of music genres and why simplicity sells found through fMRI scans that emotional centres of the brain (including reward centres) were more active when participants heard songs they had heard before. Those areas were even more active than when hearing unfamiliar songs that better fit the participants’ music tastes. The more times a song is heard, the more positive associations a listener can make with the track. This suggests that repeated exposure can cause listeners to like a song even if it is lower quality and not of their usual preference. This musical ‘Stockholm syndrome’ is key for record companies to ensure that their invested tracks dominate charts despite listeners rejecting them at first.
It is unfair to say that all mainstream music is ‘bad’ just because it’s in popular charts, but through an analysis of the complexity of the instrumentation and musical components of many genres, the same study found that popular music has become simplified and more generic over time. Perhaps this simplicity renders songs more accessible to listeners, which thus creates more sales so tracks reach the charts. But by consistently producing music that is so formulaically simple, the standard of music most generally available diminishes which in turn results in listeners purchasing songs similar to their previous artless favourites to form persistently low quality mainstream charts. There seems to be a cyclical relationship between mainstream music’s impact on listeners and how music becomes mainstream.
Lyrical subject matter has hardly changed since the genesis of popular music and as new songs appear to be replicas of previous tracks, maybe there is a case to be made that we have always liked the same things and that’s why the sound of the charts seems unchanging. However, more convincing is the argument that those monopolising the music industry have conditioned listeners into believing that their music is superior through the repetition of songs, instrumentation and lyrical subject matter. Nevertheless, if you play a terrible song over and over again, people will work it out for themselves. Perhaps that’s why many chart tracks fail to stand the test of time.
Written by: James Wijesinghe