This item from the website Metro.co.uk caught my eye last week. The article’s headline read:
“Millennials Prefer Music from the “Golden Age” to the Pop of Today, Research Suggests.” 1
The article states:
“A study has found that golden oldies stick in millennials’ minds far more than the relatively bland, homogenous pop of today. A golden age of popular music lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s, academics claimed. Songs from this era proved to be much more memorable than tunes released in the 21st century.” 2
Could this possibly be true? I must say, I was skeptical. In my experience, if you line up 100 people of vastly different age groups, 99 out of 100 would say that the greatest music every produced was the music they listened to in high school and college. This only stands to reason. Your teens to 20’s are the first time that you make an emotional connection with someone who is not your parent. The milestones of your first crush, your first kiss, your first romantic steady date, are all indelibly interwoven with the music you were listening to at the time. The two, almost inevitably, go together.
So how did they arrive at this conclusion that the music of 30 -50 years ago was better?
The methodology of the research was as follows:
“Each [of 643] participant[s] was presented with short excerpts from a random selection of seven out of 152 songs and asked to say if they recognized them. The ‘recognition proportion’ for each song was then plotted as a function of the year when it was a hit.” 3
So, it turns out the headline was a tad misleading. The study determined only whether a song was memorable, not necessarily if it was preferred over another song.
However, the results were rather stunning:
“A steep drop-off in recognition was seen for hits produced between the years 2015 and 2000, and a more gradual decline for songs of the 1950s and 1940s. However, songs from the 1960s to 1990s generated a ‘stable plateau’ of music recognition.” 4
And here’s the real kicker:
“Unexpectedly a strong correlation was seen between the likelihood of recognizing a song and its play count on Spotify.” 5
So there is a direct corollary between a song’s “memorable” factor and how much it is being played currently.
So what’s at work here?
One theory could be that it is remembered because it was the music Millennials’ parents listened to. In my teenage years, that would have been the kiss of death. Though, over time, I have come to appreciate the Stan Getz’s 1960’s bossa nova recordings, I have no desire to revisit Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
My only portal to the current situation is through my sons, currently 21 and 19. They should be in their prime music consuming years, but they prefer the classics. One son has his Sirius XM channel set to the 80’s channel. The other surprised me by singing along to a song while we were in a pub in Dover, England. When I said I didn’t recognize the song, he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. It was Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” I have a lot of Queen in my music library, but “Don’t Stop Me Now” was not one of them. So wherever he heard it, he didn’t hear it because of me.
That same son got in my car one day and begged me to play “Roundabout” by Yes, a song that was released 26 years before he was born! Is there something to the “musical quality” argument after all?
This line of thinking does make me a little uneasy. It has all the hallmarks of a cranky old guy yelling “Get off my lawn. And turn that awful music off. It sucks.”
But my oldest son has company. He is the anchor of the sports talk show at a major Florida university. He and his fellow broadcasters came down to South Florida to cover a football game, and stayed at our apartment. They were universal in their dislike of the music that the student DJs played before the show, and thought that it hurt the potential audience for the show. All of it was modern stuff, being released today. So I asked them, “What should be played instead?”
They all had the same answer: “Classic Rock.” “If we could just get them to play Queen and Aerosmith.”
What can we say for sure? We know that songs are getting shorter, and the consensus is that streaming is to blame. 6
“6% percent of Hot 100 songs were 2 minutes 30 seconds or shorter in 2018, up from 1% in 2013… the easiest way to get more streams and rise up the charts, is to make each track shorter. Now, when a fan listens to a full album of 20 short songs instead of 12 longer ones, the total number of stream for each album played just jumped 66%.” 7
But “short” does not equal “bad.” A lot of classic Led Zeppelin songs were very short. “Good Times, Bad Times” is only 2:43. “Immigrant Song” is even shorter at 2:26.
Perhaps the real culprit is that technology has advanced to the point where creativity, and more importantly musicianship, is slowly being squeezed out of the equation. It’s a good news, bad news joke:
The good news is that with today’s technology, anyone can make a record.
The bad news is that anyone can make a record.
Let’s take a listen to what Steve Lukather has to say. He’s most famous as the lead guitarist for Toto. But he was for many years one of the top studio musicians in L.A. He estimates he has played on 5,000 recordings, that have 225 Grammy nominations with combined sales of around a half a billion copies. 8
The slinky guitar line in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”? That’s him.
The guitar solo on Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”? That’s him.
The crunchy power chords that open The Tubes “She’s a Beauty”? That’s him.
According to Mr. Lukather:
“The [famous studio team] Wrecking Crew guys would do a take on Friday and it would be on the radio on Monday. That was the record. People don’t have the chops, desire or money to do that anymore. You have a whole group of young musicians who can’t play a take from top to bottom. Technology is king now. The general rule is ‘Just…put Pro Tools on and fix it’. That is, instant gratification, with no studio chops required.” 9
“Everybody these days is so used to hearing records that are absolutely lined up timewise, auto-tuned and tweaked to death. They are beyond polished but the greatest music was never perfect.” 10
“With digital technology, there is nothing that can’t be recalled and fixed. Records are like plastic surgery nowadays, where everyone is cut to look and sound the same.” 11
“To me, that’s such a cold clinical way to make music. All of the craft and spontaneity has gone.” 12
Yes, a drum machine will give you perfect time. But will it groove?
Like Bernard Purdie on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.”
Like Jeff Porcaro on Toto’s “Rosanna.”
Like John Bonham on Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain.”
I remember watching a feature on Jay-Z creating his newest record. His “musical instrument”? A laptop computer.
To be fair, Queen’s practice of using massive amount of overdubs was hardly an organic process. But at the end of the day, they still had to sing it and play it correctly. Once you have removed the requirement of being able to sing in pitch, and play with feeling, with good time, is there any wonder why a song fails to inspire the emotions?
Because after all, music is about creating emotions within the listener.