Does Music Reflect Culture or Is It the Other Way Around?
by Alex Cosper 5/1/2016
Popular music is often treated like royalty, partly because only a small percentage of musicians make it past the industry gatekeepers and enjoy massive fame. These superstars appear to be very special just by making it to a big stage, regardless of what backdoor tricks got them there. There are various avenues for musical success, but talent isn't always the main factor, which creates a blurred understanding of what pop music is really about.
The fact that modern pop music is usually very expensive to record, with the bulk of the upfront money going to the producer, it's difficult to conclude that this costly art is some kind of reflection of the real world, just as $100 million films might dazzle audiences but that doesn't mean these films are a mirror of society, not that they need to be. Every art encompasses a certain amount of imagination and expression that doesn't already exist in the minds of fans.
From a lyrical perspective, if the top ten might be stacked with party themes it doesn't follow that all the public cares about is party music. Many times lyrics of the mega-corporate era are inconsequential except to showcase the singer's voice. In those cases, there's not much of an argument that the artist is giving the people exactly what they want. Fans might like the vocals and the image that goes along with it, but just because something shows up big on the charts doesn't mean at all that's a reflection of overall public taste.
Big selling albums, which have become scarce this decade, are no indication whatsoever of what the overall market demands. Keep in mind the music industry is catering to a shrinking market of buyers combined with an expanding internet world of freeloaders. On one hand, it's now possible for an album to be number one without the majority of the public ever hearing about it. On the other hand, an artist that doesn't sell much at all can still be heard by thousands of people around the world as part of a streaming library. Neither of these scenarios paint a true picture of overall market demand.
When pop music was at its height, which was the sixties through the eighties, there may have been a better case for music reflecting culture, especially in the sixties era of low budget recordings by articulate socially-conscious singer-songwriters. When lyrics are message-driven, songs can echo sentiments of the world. But when lyrics are not a factor due to vagueness or being drowned out in the mix, it all comes down to the music.
Even though most people don't know enough about music theory to have any idea what the unexplored possibilities of music can be, most people do know what kind of music makes them comfortable. Therefore, most music fans - especially those who aren't musicians - know what they like from the past, but that doesn't mean they know where music can go to be even more pleasing.
So the real story about the relationship between music and society has more to do with social conditioning than the public demanding how music should evolve. From the sixties through about the late nineties the music industry clearly played more of a leadership role, whereas in this century's corporate label mentality, a force-feeding of familiar music formulas is an obvious effort to keep sales flowing in a challenging market that just happens to be heavily affected by the uncertain economy.
Radio still plays what it thinks its audience wants based on research, but if labels aren't giving them new sounds and ideas, it's like walking into a restaurant that has never changed its narrow menu in 30 years. Some people will like it while others get tired of the same thing over and over. So if you forget about the more demanding crowd that wants more fresh innovation, then the audience that's left over that doesn't object to cookie cutter music, contributes to the survival of stale formulas that the majority of the public doesn't care about.
The fact that it takes a lot of repetitious spins for a song to become a radio hit, is a big clue what's really going on. People usually buy what they know and don't always instantly like every new record that the radio serves them. Sometimes it takes even the most diehard pop fans a few months of hearing the same song in heavy rotation before telling others they like the song. It usually takes radio or some type of music presentation to introduce new music to the public. It's not as if the majority of music buyers carefully consider every product on the market whether it's on the radio or not before deciding what they purchase.
For the critical thinker analyzing the music industry, you can still look at it both ways. People who try to keep up with hits represent a significant part of the market that keeps the music industry alive. These people are more followers than leaders, otherwise they'd speak up for more diversity. Meanwhile, the boycotters of pop music who don't like following like sheep can be thought of as leaders who find ways to discover new music on their own.
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