When we tune into the radio, it’s no surprise when Rihanna’s Bajan Creole, derived from her roots in Barbados, drawls “Work, work, work, work, work, he said me haffi work, work, work, work, work.” As we switch to the next station, on comes the product of lyrical genius: “My name is no, my sign is no, my number is no, you need to let it go, you need to let it go.” Gone are the days of songs with sophisticated lexicons, and complex instrumentals. In an age where our attention spans are far shorter, artists are clamouring to keep their new hits relevant through the use of catchy choruses.
How has popular culture become so mind-numbingly simple? The standard for lyrics is not very high for artists. A recent study by Andrew Powell-Morse shows that recent hits contain lyrics that can be easily understood by the average 3rd grader in America. Songs are stripped of their eloquence and follow a formulaic approach that appeals to the mass media: verse, progression, chorus, verse. By using the same four chords, it comes to no surprise when chart-topping hits share a homogenous sound. The decrease in pitch content means the number of melodies and chords have gone down, thus lacking diversity. Songs have also become more mechanical, as acoustic songs don’t usually appear in the charts. Since the introduction of heavy drums and synthesizers in the 80’s, music has become louder, with more defined beats and a stronger bass. Genres with more musical complexity, such as folk, alternative, and experimental music, doesn’t hold as much promise as their pop music counterparts.
Much like popular music, videos have evolved drastically in the last few decades. A lot has changed since the Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ aired as the first music video shown on MTV in 1981. Music videos are no longer products of genius, and do not require copious amounts of editing. One thing is for sure: sex sells. Take Rihanna’s “Work” for example; the music video follows Rihanna dancing in an explicitly dim room. The second half of the video focuses on Drake and Rihanna dancing together. Her song supposedly is meant to highlight the hardships of immigrant workers, and embrace her Caribbean heritage. David Bowie sings along the same thread as Rihanna in his 1983 music video, “Let’s Dance”, where an Aboriginal couple struggles with the omnipresent effects of Western imperialism in society. A chord is struck in the audience as the man hauls a miller machine down a busy Sydney road, and the woman scrubs the street. Bowie translates the message of his song without relying on the fancy gloss of sex and drugs. The paradox of our time is that we have the equipment to easily create genius, but not the drive. Therefore, artists end up in a cycle of using the same methods to appeal to audiences. Perhaps the easy, mass production of videos through YouTube has resulted in the cheapening and sexualization of videos. Has YouTube killed the MTV star?
Although the students in ISKL have only witnessed the twilight of the golden age of MTV, it is evident that music has changed drastically. Sharveen ‘16 adds, “It’s more about sex and drugs, and the songs don’t really tell a story. Everyone just cares about the tune or beat.” Will the music industry continue on this decline – where artists and producers rely on the crutch of provocation?