Can We All Stop Saying That Pop Music Reflects The Economy, Please?

mariasci | January 12, 2009 4:00 am

When times get tough, people’s taste in music supposedly changes. They want things that are “longer, slower, with more meaningful themes. They want simple music, like AC/DC. They want something loud and cathartic, like ’60s music. They don’t want fluff like boy bands, preferring “melancholy, introspective tunes.” We want to “wrap ourselves in the safety blanket of tradition” by listening to Michael Jackson. Artists suddenly start making great pop music. We reject the excesses of “flashy” artists like “David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Elton John, KISS, everybody in the ’80s, the Cash Money Millionaires, and so on.” Or, in the latest iteration of the theme, we want songs with a steady beat, like Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” Clearly the subject is evergreen for music scribes and critics. So why should we all agree to stop writing this story?

Well, if the above list of its many, many appearances doesn’t appeal to your spirit of originality, how about the fact that it’s wrong—or, at the very least, irrelevant? I suppose it’s hard to fault economists for doing this sort of study, since predicting the market remains the holy grail of the field (previous avenues, such as Jewish mysticism, having been exhausted), and according to the author of the Beyoncé theory, “the market becomes unstable only after the charts are full of steady tunes—almost as if certain hits can cause market shake-ups.” Odd, given this obvious correlation, that everyone took such a soak in the current downturn! You’d think they would have caught that.

The problem with this idea is that it seems to be promulgated by people who either don’t know very much about pop music or don’t have very much enthusiasm for it. On the one hand there are folks who want to align their particular distaste for certain pop acts with some sort of objective phenomenon, to prove that the general public’s affection for acts the author does not like is the result of inauthentic mental states, like the irrational exuberance of the tech bubble inculcating a love for the Backstreet Boys, or the hard times of an economic downturn forcing people to escapist fluff like Michael Jackson. This is transparently self-serving, and comes awful close to charging a kind of “false consciousness” on the part of anyone who isn’t the writer.

On the other hand, you have academics who have little knowledge of the workings of pop and musical taste, seeing it as just another variable they can easily measure. But if it was that easy to get a hit, all we’d need to do is crank out something slow with a steady beat that did not include David Bowie. People’s tastes don’t work that way. If Ann Coulter had recorded and released “Single Ladies,” it would not have been a hit. For better or worse, our affection for a pop song has to do with much more than just the pure musical qualities of the tune. We like something because of its hook, yes, but also because of the performer’s image and reputation, the way the song is marketed, and the cultural affinities the song signals to, among many other things. By measuring the qualities of the song only along one very narrow dimension, you miss a giant part of pop’s appeal—and you create an inability to explain exceptions to the rule.

But even beyond the questionable measures being used to describe pop songs are the questionable conclusions being drawn. Sure, “the correlation is pretty strong” between steady beat and a weak economy, as the Beyoncé author puts it. But, as the old saw goes, that’s not causation, and it’s really hard to find a reason why this would be true outside of the unsupported, personally biased theories outlined above. The quality of the beat helps to determine which single an individual is going to buy. But why would that person’s economic outlook have anything to do with whether she preferred one beat to another? I suspect (or I hope, anyway!) the assertion that Beyoncé caused the crash was the invention of the piece’s author, the otherwise reliable Sean Michaels, because that shit is crazy. We know why the market crashed, and it didn’t have a single thing to do with the mass public: it had to do with the major financial institutions and the federal government. That the public also happened to buy one of the catchiest singles in recent memory at the same time is the definition of a coincidence.

Arguing that pop music’s emotional tenor follows the contours of the GDP mistakes image for reality. Pop looks simple, sure. (It’s trying to appeal to teenagers, after all!) But anyone who’s studied it with any depth can tell you that what makes a particular song “work” is much more complex than just the beat or the melody, and that taste has much more to do with individual experience than with generalized economic perceptions. There are certainly relationships between chart success and external events, and the way that pop reflects our values as a society is fascinating, but to say that the massive system of musical production and consumption can be reduced to an echo of the stock market is painting with far too broad a brush. I understand why this sort of story is tempting, and I guess I understand why academics continue to do these studies, over and over again, since it’s one of the few ways they can get the popular press to pay attention to their work. But please, please, let’s stop pretending like it’s true.

Beyoncé’s new single spells economic doom [Guardian]