By: Brandon Day
Popular music has had its time. Once, there were pop stars such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan that took the western world by storm. In 2010, commercialism has overtaken the radio waves. Now, there are definite formulas that are in play to make a song “hit worthy”. These days, pop stars are meant to create hit songs that will get overplayed on the radio and on other popular outlets. But why is this? How could popular music come from the creative works of the Beatles to that of Akon and Rihanna? Music has gone from the use of real instruments such as guitars, drums, and bass guitars to that of synths and auto-tuned vocals.
I believe that there are many different sides to music in this era. Spurred by new technology such as the internet, new artists are easier to discover now then ever before. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just look at pop music as compared to independent music.
Popular music is music that will appeal to the masses. This means that it takes relatively low risks musically, and has lyrics that will appeal to pop music’s listeners. The lyrics are generally written to be easily consumable and catchy. The point here is to have the song stuck in the consumer’s head. Most of the time, pop songs don’t have a strong message or political theme to them. This doesn’t mean that pop songs can’t be offensive though. I’ve found through personal experience that pop music can be extremely offensive. Sometimes this is the appeal. Also, there tends to be a lot of sexism in popular music (especially rap). Let’s take some popular rap songs for instance. “Baby Got Back,” by Sir Mix Alot is an extremely sexist song yet it had immense popularity. I’ve even heard this played at school events such as dances. With lyrics like “I see her dancin’, the hell with romancin’, she’s sweat, wet, got it going like a turbo jet,” you may not think that this would be commercially successful.
Popular music isn’t just rap music though. It comes in the form of pop singers and many other forms such as popular country music too. Let’s look at country music. In his decade it is oftentimes tied with conservatism, christianity and the redneck stereotype. If you look at the roots of country music, such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Leadbelly (who may actually be closer to blues), you can see that this isn’t what country music used to be. Country music started out as an outlet for the poor and downtrodden. They were tales of struggle and unity. They weren’t about tractors and big trucks. Let’s look at Woody Guthrie for instance. He was the artist who made the popular “This Land is Your Land” song. While this may seem to uphold the patriotic value that country music embodies today, Woody Guthrie was actually a member of the American Communist Party. He often spoked of unions and his guitar often had “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on it. In modern times this “extremism” and defiance of capitalistic values would have made him extremely unpopular.
The shining light here comes in the form of independent music. In “indie” music, as it is often referred to, the artists have more creative freedom to produce music that appeals to them and their demographic. With pop music, there is usually a lot of creative restriction to meet the demands of mass culture. I would argue that indie music is a form of “high culture”. That is, indie music has more artistic freedom, which allows for more quality music. It’s easier to hear roots music in the more traditional forms of indie music, such as rock, folk, country, and bluegrass. Sometimes, there are even direct throwbacks to more traditional sounds.
Indie artists don’t usually get radio play. They are small communities of local artists who tour to promote their music. This gets back to the roots of what music is. It was once an outlet to reach out to the community and get a message across (as is the case with the country/blues artists I previously mentioned.) And now, more then ever it is easy to listen to independent music. Most of the major music festivals around the United States feature mostly indie artists.
Popular music may have had it’s time, but as it became more about making hit songs and less about making art, the appeal was lost for some. Independent music may be the last frontier of “high culture” audio media.
Here is an example of “indie” country music:
Here is an example of “popular” country music:
#1 on the Billboard music charts (popular music):
Headliner at 2011 Coachella Music Festival (indie):