Is Pop Music Ripe for a Revolution?

Is Pop Music Ripe for a Revolution?

The charts seem trapped in an endless cycle of synthesized pop, sex-selling lyrics and nostalgic melodies, with only the occasional glimmer of genuine artistry shining through. There’s no denying the top 40 songs are expertly crafted – structured to perfection, melodically sublime, and produced with all the meticulous skill of a master sculptor.

But therein lies the problem – it’s all just a little too perfect, too formulaic, too repetitive. The omnipresent pastiche of pop emanating from the radio waves is more manufactured product than inspired art. It’s been optimized and streamlined, with all the rough edges sanded off, until what’s left is sleek, shiny, and utterly soulless.

This conveyor belt of generic pop is a reflection of the current political and economic landscape. The music industry, much like society at large, is controlled by a small elite class who have little incentive to deviate from the status quo that’s been so lucrative for them. They’ve figured out the recipe for cranking out radio hits, and they’re sticking to it with dogged persistence, leaving little room for true innovation to bubble up from the underground.

But have we reached a tipping point? Surely there’s a limit to how much further this plastic pop can be stretched before it snaps. Chart-topping music seems to have stagnated, stuck in a holding pattern of mediocrity, with nowhere to go but down. It’s tempting for alternative music fans to think their time has finally come, that the charts are overdue for a sea change where their beloved indie bands will rise up and overthrow the pop hegemony. After all, it seems to happen like clockwork every couple decades – punk in the 70s, grunge in the 90s. By that schedule, we’re about due for another musical insurrection.

However, the realities of today’s music industry make the chances of an organic alternative scene clawing its way into the mainstream seem rather bleak. In the murky depths of the Internet, there are undoubtedly brilliant and groundbreaking artists toiling away in obscurity. But the big labels and corporate suits who control the industry are more risk-averse than ever. They have to answer to the almighty bottom line, which means playing it safe and sticking to the tried-and-true formulas that have been printing money for them.

Anything that deviates too far from the algorithm of catchy hooks, thumping bass, and vapid lyrics about partying all night is seen as a dangerous gamble not worth taking. The name of the game is short-term profits, not cultivating long-term artistic movements. Flavor-of-the-month artists are chewed up and spit out, their songs wrung dry of every last cent through a blitz of remixes, licensing deals and commercial tie-ins, before the whole machine moves on to the next revenue stream.

This environment is antithetical to the flourishing of the kind of organic, grassroots scene that could mount a credible challenge to the pop establishment. Because at the end of the day, it’s the major labels and corporate money-men who effectively control the charts, not the masses. The Billboard Hot 100 is less a democratic representation of popular tastes and more of a crass consumerist construction.

The songs that top the charts are the ones that have had the full weight of the industry’s marketing muscle behind them. Listeners’ choices are inevitably shaped by what they’re exposed to, so ubiquity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The more a song is performed on award shows, movie soundtracks, and sporting events, the more it is streamed and downloaded, until it seems to take on a sense of consensus popularity, even if much of that is artificially manufactured. Payola may be officially illegal, but there are plenty of legitimate ways to buy market share through sheer promotional saturation.

There are some indications that guitar-based bands are starting to gain traction again, with acts like Blossoms, Circa Waves and Sundara Karma winning decent radio play and respectable sales. Blossoms even managed to hit #1 on the album charts, perhaps hinting at an underlying appetite for something besides the pop monoculture.

However, a closer listen reveals that a lot these bands seem to be tempering their sound to have more of a radio-friendly pop sheen. The distorted power chords and angsty vocals of 90s alternative have been replaced by jangly guitars and “whoa-oh-oh” singalong choruses. It’s less a true rebellion against pop than an incorporation of pop sensibilities into a guitar-based format. Under the thin veneer of “rock”, the core is still the same catchy melodies and inoffensive lyrics.

For the charts to experience a real seismic shift, it would take an injection of music that 1) that has something authentic and meaningful to say 2) is radically different from a sonic and stylistic standpoint and 3) arises from a grassroots swell of popular support, not a boardroom.

A movement like the 70s punk explosion, fueled by youthful angst and populist politics, filtered through loud and abrasive sonics completely opposed to the pop pablum of the day. Or like the alternative scene of the 90s, where alienation, self-reflection and a rejection of 80s excess found its perfect expression in the distorted, defiant strains of grunge.

To be fair, even prior “alternative” breakthroughs weren’t entirely organic. The music industry has always had a knack for co-opting and commodifying subversive subcultures. Punk went from a niche concerns to a global sensation with suspiciously convenient speed.

Grunge was shilled on primetime MTV before its thrift store flannel had a chance to get funky. But at least there was an initial spark of grassroots fervor before the corporate cash-in. In the current climate, it’s hard to imagine even that tenuous connection to the undergroundtaking root in any meaningful way.

As much as some may yearn for a musical insurrection, the cold reality is that guitar bands gaining some traction is about the best we can hope for in terms of “diversity” in the pop realm. The odds of a more significant disruption are slim. The entrenched power structure of the music industry has too tight a stranglehold, and they have too much invested in maintaining the lucrative status quo. The barriers to entry for anything weird, subversive, or authentic have gotten too high.

So as I suffer through another repetitive chorus of the latest cookie-cutter pop confection, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we’re likely stuck in this stagnant cycle for the foreseeable future. Like a fast-food chain, record execs have figured out the precise combination of salt, sugar and fat to keep the masses craving more of the same. But much like a greasy hamburger, the instant gratification quickly fades, leaving behind a sludgy feeling of guilt and bloat.

Pop music has painted itself into a corner, achieving a level of over-processed plasticity that seems impossible to top, but also impossible to evolve out of in any meaningful way. We may be able to eke out some watered-down facsimile of “rock” here and there, but a total changing of the guard feels like a na•ve fantasy.

The pop machine grinds on, and all we can do is let it numb us into a junk food coma, or seek our thrills elsewhere in the uncharted edges of the musical universe. I know what I’ll be doing. Wake me up when the rebellion starts.