Playing It Safe: Why Did Music Stop Being Honest & Fearless?
For some years now, I have felt a growing dissatisfaction with the songs that dominate radio stations and the artists that take up most entertainment news stories. This must make me sound like an out-of-touch old grouch who just doesn’t get kids these days, but I’m only in my mid-20s. I love music, and yet lately I find myself disappointed by its lack of diversity and resonance.
This spring, as Garbage was getting ready to release their sixth studio album, Strange Little Birds, the band’s frontwoman Shirley Manson spoke to EW. The whole interview was insightful, but her responses to some questions in particular caught my attention. She spoke about how safe music has become, the fact that pop music is dominated by a handful of songwriters, and the misfortune of alternative voices no longer being appreciated in the numbers they once were:
Did the dark sound of this album inspire you lyrically, or did your subject matter push the music in that direction?
I think it’s latter. More than anything, we are a band that finds solace in darkness. We always have. When you peer into the dark corners, lift up the carpets and explore the shadows—that’s when we feel less anxious, because we know what we’re dealing with. We look the monster in the eye and finally know what the game is. And that’s how we’ve always felt.
We keep turning on the radio, and all we hear are these very generic, homogenized songs that are sung by very young artists who are not involved in the songwriting and not offering up their experiences. They’re like mini-robots, and they’re performing and entertaining us, but they aren’t invested in the music they’re selling. Meanwhile, all the songs we’re hearing on the radio are written by the same people. It feels like a monopoly to me, where you have songs that could be sung by a variety of different artists and we wouldn’t know the difference. Everything is interchangeable.
All it seems to be about is entertainment and getting the most hits on social media and getting the most popular song on radio—which, let’s face it, to be the most popular, you have to be playing it the most safe. You have to appeal to the masses. You’re editing yourself. I just feel we got to that point where we just want to be our own messy, flawed, f—ked-up selves, for better or for worse. Our truth is better than our pristine, shiny edited version of ourselves.
How do you deal with your frustrations with the music industry? Your band puts out music on its own record label—is it just a matter of leading by example?
You do have to be true to yourself. You have to make the music that feels vital to you, and that’s all you can really do. You can’t stop masses of people from wanting to just forget about reality and go and bang their bodies against one another in a club. And why would you want to? I don’t want to stop people from enjoying pop music. I love pop music. Some of the most exciting production right now is coming out that world. Beyoncé made a phenomenal record, talking about some really important things. To me, that’s thrilling.
I’m not hating pop music by any stretch of the imagination at all. I think it’s vital. I would just like to see a variety of different perspectives in our culture instead of just one way of looking at things. That’s the only way that culture moves forward in any real, healthy way.
Is the popular music that loops on radios too safe? Is pop too edited, consistent, and appealing? Where are the other voices in music – the ones that are perhaps more honest, raw, and unexpected?
Overwhelmingly Consistent, Safe Pop Music
Shirley Manson is certainly right about one thing. Most pop music these days is written by just a handful of songwriters. If you pay attention to who wrote all those hits by Katy Perry and Rihanna, you may have noticed some names that keep popping up. Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Ester Dean, Pharrell Williams, Sia Furler, Bonnie McKee, Justin Tranter – all of these hitmakers and more are the ones who write most of today’s most popular singles. They have their formulas that work, and the hits are shopped around to the most popular singers.
So many of today’s most popular hits were essentially manufactured to please the masses. The songs are meant to be feel-good, easy, and catchy. They’re simple and repetitive, and usually focus on cheery themes like love and partying. They’re the kinds of songs that you only have to hear one or two times to learn the lyrics, the kinds of songs that are easy to enjoy and stick in your head. Anyone could identify with or sing them.
And to Shirley’s other point, there’s nothing wrong with feel-good pop music. I myself love carefree pop. But that’s just one side of me. There’s also another side that craves music that’s a little darker, rawer, and more surprising.
The problem with pop music and its overwhelming prevalence is that it’s too consistent and too safe. Songs we’ve never heard before sound too familiar. It feels like pop music isn’t presenting enough new ideas or sounds. While there are plenty of amazing artists and writers pushing boundaries and moving production into exciting new territory, the majority of what gets the most radio spins doesn’t spark much innovation. Pop is a great genre and should represent more diverse sounds and artists.
But where are the alternative voices? Where are the other styles of music for those who don’t want a carefree escape? There’s a larger community out there that craves fearless music, and it needs to have a prominent place where more people can discover it. It needs to be accessible for those that don’t know how to find it, or didn’t know they wanted to find it.
We want more pop music that’s unexpected and tackles tougher subjects. We want bolder rock music that’s surprising and pushes boundaries. And these alternative voices shouldn’t just lurk on the sidelines, hidden deep within the depths of Spotify or SoundCloud. They deserve a space on the radio. Tough subjects and depth haven’t had made it to the mainstream in years, but it’s time they did once more.
Back in the 1990s, one of the rawest genres of all – grunge – was the king of radio. Grunge was the ultimate anti-pop and it became something people overwhelmingly identified with. The songs described sensitive topics like depression, addiction, death, aimlessness, and frustration. Punk and alt-rock were known for songs about politics, corruption, and world issues. There are plenty of thought-provoking, valuable themes that have had a place in mainstream music.
For the last decade or so, music has consciously been safer, especially on radio. But this universally appealing music is starting to become too monotonous and easy.
Common knowledge says that everything is cyclical. In music, Guy Zapolean presented the theory that pop music goes through three phases. As John Seabrook explained in The Song Machine, in the middle is “pure pop,” which is the “natural sweet spot” that “draws the largest number of listeners.” This gives way to the bland and boring “doldrums” of pop, before switching to the “extremes.” The extremes may be alternative rock or hip-hop, and they restore excitement and attract younger listeners while repelling older listeners. After that we reset to “pure pop” once more.
By this example, it seems we’ve gone into the “doldrums” part of the music cycle. Singles and album tracks just aren’t quite as fearless or fun as they should be. It’s only a matter of time before the exciting “extremes” phase comes back, and I’m admittedly impatient for that glorious day to arrive.
Mainstream music may be dull and uninspiring now – for the most part, at least – but we can be confident that it won’t be that way much longer. Invigorating music that pushes boundaries and speaks for the imperfect masses is just around the corner. We need those voices to have a place, and soon enough I think we’ll once again be in the midst of something memorable.
The pendulum is about to swing into some new territory, and it will be exciting to hear what’s next.
One thought on “Playing It Safe: Why Did Music Stop Being Honest & Fearless?”
Great article. I agree that I hate playing it safe and repeats. Repeats and playing it safe is way overrated. I miss variety like rock music and Avril Lavigne. If radio should play a big number of mainstream music songs like rock music songs and Garbage songs, then variety is appropriate. We should all blame labels for using copy and paste repeats like celebrities (like Britney Spears) and ruining the music business. I want my evolve back.