The World is Collapsing Around Our Ears: Some Thoughts of the Decline of Popular Music

by John Broening (September 2015)

Consider two songs, both of them titled “Just the Way You Are”: the first was released in 1977 and was one of the best-selling records of the following year; the second was released in 2010 and was one of the best-selling records of 2010 and 2011.

The first “Just the Way You Are” was written and recorded by Billy Joel. It is a well-crafted tune: jazzy suspended chords in the intro; a melody with a shapely arc, whose major/minor blend underlines the complex emotions in the lyric, with the climax of the tune coming on the highest note and coinciding with the frankest, most telling moment in the lyric; a sophisticated middle eight with two unexpected modulations in it. The song is characteristic of Billy Joel: his ballads are often written from the perspective of someone with superior maturity and judgment addressing – or lecturing – a woman who is less wise and self-aware than him. That arrogance is the fingerprint on many of Billy Joel’s love songs.

The second “Just the Way You Are” has five different writers and was recorded by one of them, Bruno Mars. The first thing we notice about it is that like many contemporary songs, it recycles the title of an existing tune. It has a sing-song-y verse, which instead of having an arc is just series of small melodic cells that are repeated without a sense of forward movement; the chorus is blandly diatonic and the harmony is crudely simple, lacking the kind of tension that makes for an interesting song; the lyrics are ragged and sloppy (perhaps in an effort to appear spontaneous and sincere) and barely keep to a regular meter; the emotion expressed is generic. In fact, the song, like many current hits, has been written by committee, and therefore has little individuality or sense of genre: with small adjustments it could be a country, rock, pop, or R&B hit.

The difference between the two “Just the Way You Are”s encapsulates what has happened to songwriting, and consequently to popular music, in the last 35 years.

The state of popular music today has much in common with the state of popular music in the early Fifties as well as the state of popular music before World War I.

Consider popular music before WWI: Appalling ‘coon songs’, parlor melodramas like A Bird in a Gilded Cage, stiff marches, novelty tunes like “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow”, immigrant dialect songs, sickly sweet love ballads like “I Love You Truly”, many of the above written in that most un-American of musical forms, the waltz.

The one redeeming note was ragtime, which inspired the first song considered part of the Great American Songbook, Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

As in the early Fifties and the pre-WWI era, we are now in a fallow period, a time of retrenchment and retreat. The recording industry has shrunk by 7 billion dollars since the 2000. As in the heyday of Mitch Miller, it is the producer, rather than the songwriter, who is paramount, and who puts his imprint on the song.

Nowadays, as they were in the fifties and before WWI, the novelty song and the dialect song are resurgent; nowadays they are combined with the Coon Song in the form of hip-hop. The original Coon Songs portrayed blacks as childlike, impulsive creatures who were oversexed, amused by trinkets and easily provoked to violence. So does hip-hop. The fact that it is now produced and owned mostly by African-Americans hardly matters. Hip-hop resembles novelty music in that its appeal is largely extra-musical: the rapper’s street cred, his hard-knock bona fides, are as important as the quality of his songs. And that street cred is often manufactured: what Paul Johnson has called “proletarianization,” the attempt of the middle-class to impersonate the class below them, functions in hip-hop as well, and gives the genre, outwardly committed to authenticity, the feel of street theater. As the distinguished jazz critic Stanley Crouch observed, in a furious essay written a few years ago:

Rap is finally being recognized as the minstrel update that it is. Threatening Sambo. Cursing Sambo. Whorish tramps who get cases of the wiggles any time money is mentioned. Its popularity among white suburban kids has nothing to do with “hip-hop culture”; it has to do with what I have called “audio safaris.” One can get to the urban jungle and be among the savages merely by going to Tower Records.

In the mid-sixties James Brown, the historical figure who has most influenced today’s music, decreed that every instrument should be a drum. And so it has come to pass. Most hip-hop songs are based on a single chord and have dispensed with harmony and melody in favor of sonic texture, which is a mixture of digital drums, live music and sampling, the use of a snippet of a previous song or songs which is repeated and often distorted in a highly rhythmic way. Of course this can be interesting: consider, for example, Busta Rhymes’ “Gimme Some More” with its barrage of sixteenth notes against a sample of Bernard Herrmann’s lush, eerie midtempo string theme from Psycho. But this had not been good for the traditional song.

Hip-hop has also affected the quality of musicianship in African-American music: between the mid-Fifties and the late Eighties, the majority of great R&B performers came out of gospel; Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, David Ruffin, Gladys Knight, Tina Turner and many others received their musical training in the black church.

The great flowering of Sixties and Seventies popular music, similar in some ways to the Great American Era of the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, would not have been possible without the strong musical foundation of gospel.

Gospel had many things in common with the Great American Songbook: it was piano-based – and gospel’s distinctive pianistic style would mark every popular pianist of the Sixties and Seventies, from Ray Charles to Billy Preston to Leon Russell to Stevie Wonder to Elton John to Billy Joel; it was founded on a strong and traditional pedagogy and its practitioners were musically literate; and it was based on an electrifying variation on 19th century European harmonic progressions. Gospel could even do what some thought impossible: it could make ¾ time swing.

Compared to a gospel–trained popular musician, the rapper often has no musical training at all, often just a sense of rhyme and rhythmic flow coupled with a talent for self-promotion. Usually the music is given musical coherence in the studio by a producer.

Broadway, the source of so much of the Great American Songbook, has not fared much better.  Marvin Hamlisch died in 2012, and Stephen Sondheim, the last Broadway composer with a direct link to the greats (he was a protégé of Oscar Hammerstein), is a genius, but he rarely writes songs that are detachable from their dramatic context. The traditional well-made Broadway show has all but disappeared, and has been replaced by the anthology show, like Mamma Mia or Jersey Boys, in which, instead of original tunes written by theater composers, has a book built around the greatest hits of an established pop artist. The standard lives on, barely, in the watery pastiches written for Disney movies that show up in the Best Song portion of the Oscars.

There are many causes for the sorry state of music today. Technology shapes popular music as it always has: file streaming and the Internet have devastated traditional sources of revenue, most of all for songwriters. In his wonderfully bad-tempered tour diary, Steely Dan songwriter Donald Fagen bitterly complains that music piracy and file streaming had reduced his songwriting royalties by 95 percent; music production software like Autotune, inexpensive and sophisticated electronic keyboards and drum machines have made it easier than ever to make an adequate musical sound and to disguise flaws in execution.

If would be hard not blame the poor quality of popular music on the consolidation of the business since the early Eighties; or to mention the prominence of the music video in fostering performers whose visual appeal is often more evident than their musical talent; it would be unfair not to mention the decline of music education in schools in a creating a less musically literate mass audience. (If you think I’m exaggerating this last point, listen next time you’re in a restaurant and a table nearby breaks into “Happy Birthday.”)

What is remarkable is that the thread of tradition in songwriting which persisted from the turn of the last century to end of the Seventies seems to have been snapped. This has not happened because today’s artists are unaware of the music of the past or even insufficiently respectful of it.

Take John Legend or Alicia Keys: each is a talented singer and pianist and each has paid extensive public homage to the great singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s. But their songwriting efforts are bland and barely distinguishable from their peers; their ballad–heavy catalogues lack that essential note of acidity – that dissonant chord, that sharp turn of phrase, that songwriters from Cole Porter to Henry Mancini to Bob Dylan to John Lennon have used to make their love songs stick in the memory.

This is the first era since before the rise of Scott Joplin when there is no presiding African-American genius in popular music. Around the turn of the last century there was Joplin. Then Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver; then Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington; Robert Johnson and Skip James; Mahalia Jackson; Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald; then Charlie Parker and Miles Davis; Monk, Mingus, and Coltrane; Chuck Berry and Ray Charles; Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin; James Brown; Jimi Hendrix; Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder; Michael Jackson, then finally Prince.

Today, with Prince retreated into eccentricity, Stevie Wonder as neutralized as any living monument can be, R. Kelly drowning in a cesspool of his own creation, and jazz long-dead, with its most famous name, Wynton Marsalis, more of a museum curator than a creator of new sounds, there is no one.

The greatness of American music has always about been about the greatness of American popular music and the vitality of American popular music has always been dependent upon the vitality of black music.

The paradox nowadays is that there is more black-derived popular music than ever before but less than ever of exceptional quality. What used to be called blue–eyed soul – R&B inflected music performed by white singers – was once a curiosity but is now the norm as performed by Kelly Clarkson or Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake or Adele. Blended with electronica, pop and hip–hop it has been become the style of the age and white pop music is now all but indistinguishable from black pop music

And white R&B singers not only sing the same as black R&B singers, they dress the same, have the same tattoos, even use the same gestures: the hand raised high to testify, the crotch grab, the rigid index finger drawn sharply across the body, the head aggressively swiveling on the neck.

This is a highly unusual state of affairs. Think for example, of the year 1977 and think of two popular bands, say, Parliament /Funkadelic, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. One a popular black band, another a popular white band: one a funk/group ensemble, the other a pseudo-classical progressive band. No crossover, right? Different audiences, different styles of dress, completely different music.

The default style of popular singing nowadays – heavily melismatic, overwrought, syncopated – is a debased version of soul singing. It is the style you find on X Factor and America’s Got Talent and on the recently cancelled American Idol, and has even seeped into Broadway and into country music.

As the popular music critic Greil Marcus has noted in a passage about Beyonce, melisma once used to approach authenticity, as it is employed nowadays is the singer’s voice looking at itself in the mirror. Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson and Mariah Carey don’t so much try to find the song’s emotional truth as to bash it into submission.

I would suggest that the poor quality of today’s R&B is to a degree a  function of the triumph of black culture in the culture at large. African American culture has always set itself up in opposition to mainstream white culture: turning a library-paste roux into the dark thickener that electrifies a gumbo, jump-starting a chaste quadrille into a cakewalk, transforming a four-square Presbyterian hymn into a swinging gospel number has been a matter of pride, of intuition and of psychic survival.

But when in the culture at large sports, music, speech, dress, manners and basic gestures and body language all derive their essence from an African–American model, and that essence is not always adopted in the spirit of appropriation or of the “safari” but with respect and even veneration—then the black impulse to create by opposing loses some of its urgency.

But there has been one singer and songwriter of recent times who fulfilled the promise of the popular song, who reached back into tradition and made it as contemporary as a tweet, who had Ronnie Spector’s beehive and the tats of the girl on the bar stool next to yours and a voice that blended Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday and just about every other great American blues-based singer.

Amy Winehouse, the English singer who died in 2011, had a knack for writing songs that recalled the great black music of the Sixties and Seventies. If that were all she had accomplished, she would have been no more than a gifted pasticheur like Lenny Kravitz. But Winehouse had a knack for fusing classic R&B with hip-hop beats and with lyrics that in their defiant swagger, far-fetched metaphors and up-to-the-minute subjects recalled rapper Chuck D.’s definition of hip-hop as “CNN for black people.”

(The idea that a white musician would act as a kind of keeper of the flame of black music might strike some as a form of cultural appropriation, but this has happened before, in the early 60’s with British musicians like Alexis Korner and John Mayall and Long John Baldry, who fashioned a kind of atelier for blues musicians like Eric Clapton and created the audience for the blues revival of the late Sixties. After all, it was in England rather than America that Jimi Hendrix, a blues musician with a psychedelic coating, received his recognition.)

“You say, what did you do with him today/And sniff me out like I was Tanqueray,” Winehouse sings in “You Know I’m No Good.” In “F-Me Pumps,” a lullaby–like melody set against a crunching hip-hop beat, she tells a familiar story, that of the party girl whose outrageous behavior brings her drama but no pleasure:

You can’t sit down right,
Cuz your jeans are too tight,
And you’re lucky it’s ladies night.

With your big empty purse,
Every week it gets worse,
At least your breasts cost more than hers.

In “Stronger than Me” a stripped-down reggae tune with a lush soul chorus, Winehouse launches into a familiar contemporary complaint of the woman whose boyfriend refuses to behave like a man:

Don’t you know you supposed to be the man,
Not pale in comparison to who you think I am,

You always wanna talk it through – I don’t care!
I always have to comfort you when I’m there
But that’s what I need you to do – stroke my hair!
‘Cause I’ve forgotten all of young love’s joy,
Feel like a lady, and you my lady boy.

Winehouse had a limited voice, but an enormous musical intelligence in exploiting her instrument to pinpoint shadings of emotional truth. But what singled her out as a genius was her ability to phrase like a jazz singer and her complete dedication to putting the song over. Her sordid life and sad end – like Billie Holiday’s might have been if she had had access to social media – shouldn’t obscure her gift. If her life was all excess and shapelessness, her art was full of restraint and discipline.




John Broening is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. His writing has appeared in GastronomicaDepartures, The Baltimore Sun, The City Paper, The Faster Times and The Outlet and his article on the Noble Swine Supper Club was featured in Best Food Writing 2012.

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