Has Pop Music Gotten Worse in the Last 50 Years?

The answer, undoubtedly, is yes.

I have had this argument with my boyfriend a few times, and he just can’t come to accept it. It’s not fair, he said, to compare the music industry as we know it today to the music of the past, because we see all the bad music around us today whereas bad music of past decades has faded out of history and we don’t even know about it today.

This is a good point. However, if you take a cross section of the most popular songs of each decade, you can see from the top five hits of each year how the trend is really going. Take this list for example. It begins in 1946. We have jazz standards, some silly pop songs. Then we move to The Beatles, who, let’s be honest, were some of the finest pop music of the century. In the 1970s we see the charts get peppered with frivolous dance and pop music (come on, can “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” really be compared to Nat King Cole or “Hey Jude”?)

It only gets worse from there. The number 1 song of 1982 is Olivia Newton John’s “Physical”. While I am not saying this isn’t a terribly catchy song, the overall quality or intelligence of the piece surely cannot be compared to the jazz standards or classic rock of previous decades.

Of course there are still some great songs on the list, but as the years progress, the ratio of really great songs (“Every Breath You Take”, “Billie Jean”) to rather stupid songs (“Walk Like an Egyptian”, “Flashdance… What A Feeling”) makes a clear shift towards the stupid side. By the 2000s, we seem to have descended into complete idiocy (“In Da Club”, “Since U Been Gone”, “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”).

To make myself clear again: I am not saying these songs have no merit at all. These are songs I myself have sung along with, danced to, or performed in a private concert to my adoring fans in the bathroom mirror with a paddle brush as a microphone. But when you compare the general level of artistry involved in making these songs with songs earlier on the list, we see a clear divide.

But how could music just get worse? What driving force would possibly be behind that? Well, I didn’t know it until this past week when I read it in my music history book.

Over 100 years ago, the only way to enjoy music outside of a concert was to purchase the sheet music for it and play it yourself. Obviously in this society, only people with musical training and thus refined musical taste would be seeking out music and giving their consumerism to the music industry. Thus, the industry demand for music was only for the type of music these people would like: “classical” music, musical theater/opera, etc.

Then, recording technologies were invented. It started as the wax cylinder, and evolved into the vinyl record. Here’s a neat fact, the early incarnations of a record were not very efficient and could only hold 3-4 minutes of music on each side. This is what dictated the length of songs and is why typical pop songs are about 3 minutes in length today. With each new advancement in recording technology, music became more and more easy to purchase, own, and enjoy. Most importantly, you didn’t have to be able to read music to access it anymore. As more people gained access to music, the demand for music changed because it wasn’t only the classically trained musicians listening to it anymore.

In the past 50 years, music technology has improved at an exponential rate. Since the vinyl record, we’ve had radio, 8 tracks, cassettes, CDs, mp3s, and finally, free and universal streaming services (YouTube, Pandora, Spotify). In 100 years the amount of effort it requires to listen to a piece of music has gone from studying for years to perfect an instrument in order to play the piece all the way down to simply typing in the name of a tune you want to hear. As non-musically educated people have saturated the market, so has the quality of the music gone down to meet their tastes.

Improved technology also means that it has become easier and easier to record music, and this fact has sped up the production of the “bad” music supply.

I am not saying there is no good music at all these days. I am a huge fan of Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers, Seven Lions, and the like. However, can you really compare Justin Bieber to The Beatles? Besides the hair cut, they really haven’t got a damn thing in common.

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148 thoughts on “Has Pop Music Gotten Worse in the Last 50 Years?

  1. I agree with you, it’s much easier for people to be a good artist because all they have to do is sing, or know how to work Garage Band. With youtube, american idol and countless other singing reality shows, being a msical pop artis is within any ones reach. But back then, you actually knew how to play an instrument and work at it every single day of your life. I like today’s music, even the pop stuff for the most part. But it’s nothing like it was, and before you know it, the music industry is going to be filled with autotune and american dol winners. As long as we have Aperfect Circle, Pearl Jam, etc I’ll survive. I’ll just turn the other crap off if I don’t like it.

  2. I completely agree with this. As I’ve listened to the radio over the last few years, I’ve turned to alternative genres just to find something different rather than what’s in the mainstream as I just find it uninspiring and boring.

  3. You make a good point, but one other angle (and I worked in the music business for most of the ’90s) is that the more music became an actual respected business the less it remained about talent. In short it became more about marketability. Just take note of how many “one hit wonders” you had back in the 1950s&60s vs the huge amount you have today. Very few artists, today, have “staying power,” and truth be told, very few record companies are looking to find them. They want the money today, bottom line. Technology has not only made this process easier, but it has made it easier to create, record, and market. It really doesn’t matter anymore how well structured a song is if it simply connects with it’s target audience. That connection will sell a lesser product all day long.

  4. ….As a musician who’s been at it since 1972 (playing,writing,recording,touring,teaching,ect.) I’d have to say it really depends on who you ask & why. Speaking for myself, looking back in history it certainly seems that music has declined and it started with Punk & Rap. As there was no qualifications at all to do those genders…that is : To know music theory…anything goes & when that happens it then is all about branding & marketing. Music was supposed to be the great communicator & unifier and it certainly had it’s time for that but then a cultural shift happend whereas knowing the trade (how music is actually made) was considered passe’ & the more you didn’t know the more you were “keeping it real”. This leads to anarchy & then after a time …no one knows what good music “is” anymore & the measure then becomes sales figures.
    I used to think that all the tech that has become affordable in recent years would’ve been a good thing (and it has to some extent when in competent hands) but it has for the most part, made for a flood of bad product. Playing is one thing – recording is another & producing is as important as anything. Now it’s all about how much money can be made, who is connected to those who can get you a gig an audience (media buzz ect) again….sales numbers. There is & always has been good stuff out there…but even with all the tools at the ready (Myspace,FaceBook,Twitter) you still have to look to find it. These are different times we live in to be sure & if the Beatles had come out today, they’d be considered just another band…Oh, they’d still get an audience eventually…..but it would take longer & they’d not be as large & as lasting as they were in their day.
    The last word is on the audience itself. It’s not as smart as it once was either (IMO). If it were, there wouldn’t be so much disposable pap in the domain because the people would demand better but since they don’t know what that “better” is they rely on mass media to make up their minds instead of their own ears.

  5. Hi Alana, your boyfriend is right from his perspective, but wrong from mine. (Finally an advantage to being old.) Yes the bad oldies have faded away but many have stood the test of time (I won’t name drop except to say, Beatles! Yeah, yeah, yeah). Every now and again an old song will make a comeback because it’s background music in a movie. Can you see that happening with contemporary stuff? Okay, when I say that I can’t hear the lyrics, my son explains that it’s the music that counts, but then why have the lyrics at all?

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  7. Ooh, contentious subject. As a huge fan of music I’m loath to subscribe to blanket statements that ‘pop has got worse’: to me that’s a lazy criticism at best. As a listener with very little by way of formal musical knowledge, it’s nonetheless very obvious that, for example, the levels of playing and composition on a record by Miles Davis or The Mars Volta far exceed those by, say The Sex Pistols or Nicki Minaj. It would be, however, facile to conclude that the former are objectively ‘better’ than the latter. For me the only worthwhile barometers of music’s worth are ‘has the artist expressed what they set out to express to their satisfaction’ and ‘are listeners moved by it’. I vehemntly disagree with Floyd Burney’s assertion that the advent of punk or rap signified any kind of decline; and I consider recent developments in musical technology – recording, production and distribution – to be a very good thing. Sure, one may have to wade thru exponentially more ‘crap’ to get to the good stuff; but on the flipside it’s possible to discover songs that in days gone by would never have been heard outside the artists’ bedsit or local clubs. I follow The Lefsetz Letter – http://lefsetz.com/wordpress/ – and find Bob Lefsetz’s commentary on the music biz intersting and incisive: I don’t accept everything that he says but I tend to concur with his running assertion that new paradigms in pop music – cheap home recording and internet-based distribution, direct selling, free access etc – are going to push up standards in the long term; even if that means that the megastars of yesteryear succumb to a plethora of niche artists selling, on average, far less ‘records’ (showing my age, there). As for which contemporary acts/songs will stand the test of time, well that’s really hard to predict. Brian Eno once said (and I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t locate the quote) that ‘much throwaway art has achieved a popular longevity whilst somewhat worthier, more sophisticated work has fallen by the wayside’, this from a man who is clearly equally at home working with stadium rock acts like Coldplay as he is creating experimental ambient music with the likes of Robert Fripp.

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  9. (I haven’t read any of the other comments; this is just applicable to the article itself.)
    I really enjoyed this article. However, I try to be more optimistic about music, and I think you could also look at the change in popular music as not necessarily the degredation of all music, but the degredation of the average music listener’s tastes. I mean, there’s still as much variety out there now as there was 50 years ago, and I would dare to venture as far as to say that stuff from people like Adele, Ed Sheeran, Mumford and Sons, etc. could easily rival things that the Beatles have written (or beat those things – I’d pick “Someone Like You” over “Yellow Submarine” any day for quality music). However, it’s the popular lists that have changed. Things don’t become popular until radio plays them or lots of people listen to them, so you could also reason that the tastes of today’s listeners that have gone south. That is more than likely affected by the accessibility of music, like you were talking about earlier.

    • That’s pretty much exactly what I meant to say, not necessarily that all good music is gone, but that there is definitely more shitty music than there used to be and it has taken over the top of the charts, hence “pop” (popular) music. Pop music has gotten worse because the bad stuff is pop! I might call Adele pop as well, but honestly singer-songwriters like the ones you listed are less pop and more in their own category entirely

  10. In the 60s, some groups, especially British ones, were as much influenced by music halls and Victoriana as anything else.It’s in Sergeant Pepper for instance (e.g. For The Benefit Of Mr Kite). Victoriana is in Brian Wilson’s Smile, The Small faces Ogdens Nut Gone Flake and surely a bit in Syd Barrett as well. This was not only nostalgia for a time before the 2 World Wars that would harm Britain’s economy and world standing but for a time when to do your job very well and to do hard ‘all day and all of the night’ was something to be entirely respected, regardless of income. And so some of these groups worked and sometimes got material rewards for doing so but they were never guaranteed. They were kids creating the new avante garde in music! That is seismic contribution which would have been incredibly scary if they hadn’t had such great group support and a generally supportive youth culture behind them that hadn’t splinted and fractured itself in where it chooses to place its attentions as it has done today. 1965-1969 was a superb time in music. After then it all went a bit less certain and some members of the public went unforgivably safe or cheap in their tastes. Pink Floyd were really great but hardly any random housewives choice. By the mid 80s in particular indie such as The Smiths and The Stone Roses started to do what had first been done 20 years before and this went, via the likes of REM and Britpop bands on until the late 90s. But it is clear that the means not only to have exceptional artistic talent in music but to have a broad enough canvas to be respected are now an exception rather than a rule. Which in the age of the internet is pretty damning. The kids are NOT alright these days.

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