Friday, November 4, 2016

Do Old People Hate New Music?

I must admit, I’d never heard the Chainsmokers’ number-one smash “Closer” until I’d been told that proved I was old. An Atlantic online article, quoting a Psychology Today blog, insisted that most people stop listening to new music around age 33, and cited “Closer,” currently in its eleventh week at number one, as proof. While the cool kids are swingin’ with this bouncy paean to romantic disappointment, fossilized fudds like me have never heard it.

Well, yeah, I hadn’t. But mainly because I don’t follow Top-40 pop. You could make the point that, nearly a decade past the age when the Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber claims our musical tastes fossilize, I’m no barometer of nouvelle quality. But I regularly listen to new music. At the same time the Chainsmokers monopolize the teen-pop charts, remarkably good recent releases by K.Flay, Phantogram, and Judah & the Lion currently languish unacknowledged on the “Alternative” charts.

Listen, I actually grew up in a musical milieu that disfavored the present. In my family, country music was still current—and this at a time when country radio would slip thirty-year-old songs into its rotating playlist. When I rebelled against my parents’ musical tastes at sixteen, I embraced “classic rock,” crunchy guitar-driven music that was popular before I was born. So I know a little something about fleeing the present in my musical tastes.

But I discovered indie and alternative rock at age 38, five years after my musical tastes were supposed to ossify. It was a nigh-religious revelation, that melodically ambitious, lyrically daring music wasn’t the sole domain of the past. Good musicians are making good, non-imitative music right now. I hadn’t believed such bold musical innovation possible. But here I was, for the first time in my life, listening to popular music being recorded in the present.

So that’s who you’re listening to when I say: the Chainsmokers’ “Closer” sucks. Taking Spencer Kornhaber’s dare, I listened to the song. And it’s every bit as bad as I would’ve imagined going in. Its lightly syncopated dance beat, backed with undistinguished tenor vocals that scarcely vary from a single pitch, struck me for their lack of ambition. Top-40 radio is always attracted to unthreatening, teen-friendly ratings grabbers. This boring pop oatmeal probably pulls numbers.

We could seriously question the value of number one status anyway. The chart success of Elvis or the Beatles misleads us into thinking that good songs produce meaningful airplay. But a brief survey of historic Billboard charts reveals that being the most-played, most-purchased, or most-downloaded song in America proves little. Ernie K-Doe, Paper Lace, and Milli Vanilli all have number one hits. Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Dylan do not. Popularity isn’t quality.

The Chainsmokers, unfortunately, prove that. At eleven weeks atop the Billboard charts, they’re now tied with Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” and All-4-One’s “I Swear,” two of the blandest, most undifferentiated songs of the 1990s. Charles Duhigg writes that, historically, bland songs that challenge listeners little generally do better in airplay. Songs pull numbers by sounding similar enough to prior hits that mass audiences, listening with half an ear while driving or studying, feel comfy.

Therefore, Spencer Kornhaber’s underlying thesis, that “Closer” embodies post-modernity’s pervasive ennui (or something), doesn’t survive market analytics. The mostly-young audience that listens to Top-40 radio, actively courted by programmers for their generous disposable income and few fixed expenses, doesn’t want music that embraces their social or spiritual needs. Their musical tastes don’t reflect some high-minded literary analysis or deep meaning addressing their economics. They want something they can curl up in and make a nest.

Citing Duhigg again, significant chart hits are often completely forgettable. Any re-listening of classic Casey Kasem will confirm this. Ambitious artists like Lorde or AWOLnation might occasionally cross over into mainstream success, possibly for their lyrical resonance. But mostly, Top-40 songs become hits because they’re danceable, comfortable, and familiar. “Closer” has a poppy, club-friendly texture so utterly ordinary that they could literally be anybody, singing about anything. That, not their “meaning,” is why they succeed.

And if their popularity rests with a particular age cohort, that reflects youths’ lack of experience. As they get older and develop more sophisticated tastes, they’ll forget the Chainsmokers, like my generation forgot All-4-One. Most chart hits through the Billboard Hot-100 era are entirely forgettable. “Classic” programmers sift the good tracks, which weren’t always hits upon first release. “Closer” will join “Boom Boom Pow” or “The Macarena” as songs everyone loved, until we forgot them.

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