I am not a boomer. I will not argue that ‘modern music is all the same’, ‘it’s all just four chords’, or ‘lyrics are so crude and repetitive nowadays’, or other such common and oddly unevidenced cliches. After all, it may well be true that a lot of Coldplay songs have a very similar feels to them, but who can listen to the ‘Best of Fats Domino’ album and fail to notice at least three songs have literally the same instrumental. And while Pitbull rhyming Kodak with Kodak, or Doja Cat’s “bitch I’m a cow” aren’t going to win a Nobel Prize for literature anytime soon, equally the rock and roll group Lord Rockingham’s XI hardly did any better, with such lyrical genius as “fried onions” (being the only words in the entire song), or “there’s a moose loose about this hoos”. And don’t even get me started on I am the Walrus…
Essentially, as a man whose top artists last year were James Blunt and Ed Sheeran, I am not about to argue that modern music is bad- just that it is inherently worse than music from the past. Why? Essentially, because how we all perceive music often has little to do with the lyrics, the chords, the melody- basically anything to do with the musical content itself. Much of the time, it has to do with context, memories, and history. Music is strongly tied on a societal level to the time in which it came out, and on a personal level to individual memories.
The Beatles carry with them the excitement and freedom associated with the Swinging Sixties; Oasis and Blur evoke the coolness and optimism of the 90s. The Undertones conjure up the struggle of growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles; the synthesisers of Tears for Fears transport us to the neon and concrete of the 1980s. Music from the past is music with history, music that creates more than a desire to dance, it creates specific feelings of a particular moment in time, even if we weren’t necessarily alive at the time. They are time capsules to the emotions, thoughts and anxieties of their time. While I love ‘Shape of You’, it’s simply not long enough ago to have the same effect.
This is even more strong when we tie music to our personal memories. That is why TikToks of the top ten songs of ten years ago are so popular- a curiosity of which songs were around in 2013 is one factor, but more importantly is the reliving of 2013 through those songs. Pompeii by Bastille is a good song, but I wouldn’t actively listen to it very often. Yet when I hear it, I’m back in the garden as a ten year old playing football with my brother. I really hate Get Lucky, but for better or worse it is, for me, the song of staying on the beach in Cornwall long into the evening in the wonderful summer after I’d been discharged from hospital. I have no doubt songs now will eventually develop similar significances to us, and eventually Made You Look, or Flowers will always remind me of Hilary ‘23, but for now they’re just annoying and slightly overplayed songs.
Sure, maybe ten years down the line there’ll be screams on the cheese floor when As It Was comes on, or About Damn Time, but at the moment I doubt it would cause the same reaction as Mr Brightside, or whatever the actual name of Apple Bottom Jeans is. Those songs have had time to develop a context, a meaning beyond just the music, and that is why older music will always have an advantage over newer music.
Let’s put this way, if you were asked as an icebreaker what your favourite song was, how many people would honestly answer with a song within the last 2-3 years?
Music affects us all. The sheer diversity of our personal and unique encounters with it is far from being a drawback, but differences of opinion change into value judgements all too quickly. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘that’s not for me,’ or even ‘I just don’t get it,’ but to dismiss anything you don’t like offhand, or to make the absurd claim that ‘music is worse than it was in the past’ is to dismiss the hard work of artists, and possibly miss a broader ontological point.
One of the main criticisms levelled at more recent music is that of its unoriginality. The implication here is that the great composers were innovators, cranking out progress for the betterment of humanity. But it isn’t so clear cut, as I will try to explain without going into a pages-long digression on 18th century keyboard practice and compositional pedagogy.
Ever wondered why some think Classical music ‘all sounds the same?’ Music theory provides something of an answer. (I know, but bear with me here). Composing was (and is) a learned artform, and teachers would pass their practices onto their pupils. Over time, certain tried and tested melodic and harmonic patterns emerged, which have been labelled by theorists as ‘schemata.’ Pachelbel’s canon, that ubiquitous wedding song all string quartets are sick to death of playing, is actually a perfect example of the ‘Romanesca,’ a harmonic pattern between the bass and the melody that would guarantee composers harmonic and melodic surety.
Another parameter here is that of ‘topics,’ musical idioms that composers arguably still use to be evocative of a thing or place. It may be a hunt (horns in simple harmony with a bouncing rhythm), a march (a clear beat, simple harmony, and strident character), or a pastoral scene (folk-inspired drones and melodies), to name a few.
Of course, historical composers’ works are not devalued by this reliance – they wrote what they knew would work, and often what their employers wanted to hear. But this practice does cast a shadow over the whole ‘unoriginality’ claim.
Another idea that gets me is that modern music just isn’t as daring, artful, or meaningful as in years gone by. I couldn’t think of a better way forward than to choose some examples that disprove this, at least to me.
First, modern music is innovative. Sloppy Jane’s Madison (2021) is still etched into my brain – not only are the lyricism, vocals and narrative en pointe, the album has fun with sound itself. The whole thing was recorded at night in a cave system in West Virginia, creating a listening experience that was certainly unique to me when my sibling introduced me to it, and still has impact for me – there’s such a sense of space and vulnerability that adds to some already gut punching tracks.
Second, musicians are no less daring. Anna von Hausswolff is still fairly new to me, but Dead Magic (2018) is truly an exercise in pushing the envelope. Tracks flip from borderline goth to ethereal with a flitting ease; von Hausswolff’s Kate Bush-esque vocals lilt over a throbbing church organ – a choice of instrument so polarising that Catholic fundamentalists decry her music as Satanic and enforce boycotts of concerts.
I cannot do these albums and artists justice here, but my point is simply that music today can still be daring, unapologetic, and thus affecting.
One final thought. When you say, ‘music is worse than it was in the past,’ what do you mean? That the music being written is worse, or the music that is available is unappealing? I’ve given two examples that I feel disprove the former. With regard to the latter, is music today not an amalgamation of all that came before it? Not just in the sense of compositional practice but the fact that your favourite composers are still widely performed and recorded. If you want to stick to Beethoven, there’s a century’s worth of recordings for you.
In short, the world is big enough for all of us when it comes to music.