Homogeneity in Pop Music? A Critique on Love Songs
During the counterculture era of the mid-1960s, musicians like the Beatles and Bob Dylan openly reflected in their lyric on diverse topics such as poverty, racism, war, and politics.
During the counterculture era of the mid-1960s, musicians like the Beatles and Bob Dylan openly reflected in their lyric on diverse topics such as poverty, racism, war, and politics. Nowadays, popular music seems to be mostly focused on love. Some see modern saturation of love songs as a homogenization of music, while others disagree and claim that this perception is a product of cognitive bias, suggesting that the past often appears sweeter in retrospect. Is modern pop's apparent lyrical homogeneity a product of our time or of our propensity for imagining the past too fondly? I think it's a bit of both.
The increase in corporatization of music might be to blame for the rise of seemingly homogenous lyrics. At the height of the counterculture movement, many record labels competed for the best talent and for chart space. Prominent labels included CBS, Warner Brothers, RCA Victor, Capitol-EMI, PolyGram, MCA, Motown, A&M, and more. By the 2000s, many of these labels disappeared or consolidated into three major corporate record labels: French-owned Universal Music Group, U.S.-owned Warner Music Group, and Japanese-owned Sony Music Entertainment. Now, labels no longer compete for the best talent with the same fervor as they did in the 60s. Instead, talented individuals often have to compete for coveted record deals, giving corporations enormous power and influence. Music has become globally commercialized, often marginalizing small, innovative genres that deviate from executives' preconceived ideas of what will sell or stream. A time-tested formula for good sales is a song about love. Love is universal. Love songs allow artists to express emotion without being alienating or unappealing to the average listener. Thus, aspiring artists may feel pressured to stick to this formula.
Cognitive bias plays another role in the way we perceive modern music as thematically homogenous. We tend to imagine the past as more thematically diverse in music because we focus on songs that are more historically relevant and impactful, but not necessarily representative of the whole music scene at the time. We remember the 60s for its counterculture-inspired songs, but on a larger scale, the era was not any less homogeneous: love songs were the most prevalent. For every "Revolution," I could name about half a million Beatles songs that were about love. Doo-wop also peaked in the 60s, and I can't name a single Doo-wop song that isn't about love. Chair of the Performing Arts Department Keith Roeckle gave insight on the popularity of love in music throughout history, focusing on opera. He mentioned that operas almost exclusively revolved around love (or revenge…that was probably because of love). Hindsight can cloud our ability to compare eras objectively, creating a common perception that modern music has become more homogenous.
Whether as a result of corporate control or public perception, love songs seem to dominate the modern music industry, making it seem homogenous. Yet in reality, there is, and has always been, a balance between popular themes such as love and thought-evoking themes like politics. Though operas were mainly themed around love, a few operas did incorporate other themes, just as some pop songs do today. Verdi produced many political operas that found great commercial success. He cloaked political narratives through different settings—about his opera Aida, Roeckle commented, "We all know it wasn't actually about Egypt." Similarly, though most pop songs address love, a few do get political, especially with the rise of rap. Much of rap is inherently political. As Trevor Noah says, who would want to listen to NWA's "No Opinion on the Police?" Through rap, artists like Meek Mill, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole are able to discuss politics openly in mainstream music.
Further deviations from a thematically homogenous music industry can be expected as technology steadily evolves. In an era of streaming and bedroom pop, the power of expression is returning to the artist. With high-speed internet and digital audio workstations on every laptop, Roeckle believes we're approaching more of a balance between corporations, artists, and consumers. Legal avenues of high quality streaming are readily available for the average listener, bringing profits to all. The independent artist can now record, mix, master, and distribute their music from their bedroom (hence the name bedroom pop). Technology has created more of a meritocracy that allows for more creative and lyrical freedom on the part of the artist. Increased corporatism from streaming services like Apple's iTunes may stymie some creativity, but technological advancement is a chance for musical artists to convey their own messages without being pressured to fit into a specific song-writing formula. As the music industry evolves, power seems to be returning to the artist, once again.