Is Modern Music Out of Original Ideas?
“Songwriting is a bitch. And then it has puppies.”
Starting with a provocation: Today’s music is not as good as yesterday’s music.
By yesterday’s music, I mean the previous century — as in up through the end of 1999.
Since I must draw a line somewhere, that’s as apropos as it gets. Besides, that’s an easy date to remember since it falls at the end of one millennium and the beginning of another. New musical boundaries begin every 1,000 years. So, anything created before Dec. 31, 1999 = good music. Anything created after Jan. 1, 2000 = bad music (with apologies to Amy Winehouse, but was identified with a “retro” sound reminiscent of girl groups of the 1960s).
The fundamental question here isn’t about which era created the best music. Rather, let’s hear the reasons why they don’t make music like they used to — more precisely. why they don’t write, play, sing, create, craft, produce, release, and perform songs as good as before — “they” referring to a generic amalgamation of artists and the music of their time.
Let me pound this point into promulgation: There will never be another Sinatra, another Elvis, or another Beatles. It won’t happen. The reason why we won’t see another universally-known trendsetter and icon is simple. Today’s pop music no longer sounds rebellious. In fact, it’s mainstream, even when rappers use “fuck” as often as the middle C on the piano. All the barriers have been shattered, all the restrictions have been lifted, all the restraints on creativity and expression have disappeared, and that was done long ago. Sounds. Styles. Hair. Clothes (or no clothes). Messages. Lyrics, Instruments. Tracks played forwards or backward or cross looped. Nothing shocks us anymore. Anyone in their basement with a computer program can write and post a new song nowadays. We’re all karaoke singers now. Originality is scarce.
“It’s totally subconscious, unconscious or whatever. The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot switch it off. You hear this piece of conversation from across the room, “I just can’t stand you anymore” … That’s a song. It just flows in. And also the other thing about being a songwriter, when you realize you are one, is that to provide ammo, you start to become an observer, you start to distance yourself. You’re constantly on the alert. That faculty gets trained in you over the years, observing people, how they react to one another. Which, in a way, makes you weirdly distant. You shouldn’t really be doing it. It’s a little of Peeping Tom to be a songwriter. You start looking round, and everything’s a subject for a song.”
— Keith Richards
So, why do so few new songs today sound fresh and original?
Matt Lessinger, the special events handicapper and pop music aficionado best-known as the resident Grammys betting expert discussed this point with me on a recent podcast about modern music. Lessinger claimed that it’s become far more difficult to create songs that sound fresh and original for a simple reason — virtually every sound, lyric, and theme has been covered already. It’s not so easy to create new stuff. And since there’s a very real threat of repetition — even accidental — when that happens, lawsuits get filed when sounds and lyrics seem too similar. Yet similarities are inevitable.
For instance, take the color yellow. It’s been done already, and then some. Here’s just a partial list of more than 100 songs written about yellow: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Mellow Yellow. Yellow Submarine. Yellow, the song by Coldplay. There’s even a Frank Zappa song titled “Don’t Eat Yellow Snow.” Yeah, yellow has pretty much been covered. Multiply yellow as song theme by every other conceivable subject, and that’s where we’re at now.
“After writing a song, there’s first a feeling of elation followed by the sinking feeling that it will never happen again, and you go back to thinking that you can’t do it. It creates an ongoing feeling of inadequacy.”
The tools of musicianship have never been more accessible to more people than now. And, more people are exposed to all styles of music in more free societies around the world than ever before in history. Hence, both the quantity and quality of new music should be increasing and improving. In short, there should be a natural “inflation” of creative new music.
But there isn’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Like a mine out of coal or a well pumped dry. The deeper one drills, the harder it gets.
I’m convinced that the most compelling excuse for the evaporation of originality is Lessinger’s assertion. Conclusion: There are only so many notes on the scale and possible combinations. There are only so many words and emotions that can be expressed through music. And most of it’s already been done before.
“The secret of a great melody is a secret.”
— Dave Brubeck