Monday, April 16, 2007

So Yesterday

Fellow blogger/AV club member Donna gives some useful information about something I've wondered about: can we really predict what determines a hit song or movie? I'm not exactly sure what makes a movie a hit, but I do have ideas about hit songs. The smoother on the ears, the better. Where you go from there is anyone's guess.

If anything, Top 40 pop hits sound smooth. There's no dissonance to be found; it's just polished, shiny sounds. Makes sense, right? Well, for me, I still like plenty of pop hits from the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, and part of the Nineties. But there seemed to be a major drop-off in the late Nineties. Ever since then, it's been difficult to find anything pleasing to my ears that constitutes pop music.

Why the late Nineties? I'll give you two great reasons why: Matchbox Twenty and Britney Spears. From the rock angle, Matchbox Twenty made faceless rock even more faceless with their bland chord changes and uptempo beats. From the pop angle, Britney Spears's music was faux-sexy singing with pop-friendly breaks and beats. What made them so appealing for a large audience? Their feels.

The feels found in these songs are very basic: uptempo, but not too fast or too slow. The choruses get stuck in your head whether you like them or not. They have that kind of effect. But I wonder: did pop music become more annoying or did my overall taste in music just change to a point of no return in the late Nineties?

I remember seeing the videos for Smash Mouth's "Walking On the Sun," Sugar Ray's "Fly," and Matchbox Twenty's "Push" for the first time on 120 Minutes. I didn't like any of these songs and I was befuddled when they went into heavy, regular rotation the following week. Forget the fantastic tracks by Suede, 60ft. Dolls or Orbit also featured on 120 Minutes, the ones that got the most play were the ones I couldn't stand. As far as I remember, my taste in music didn't drastically change around then and it hasn't really changed since. So it's been a rule of thumb that whatever I strongly dislike will probably become a hit. There are definitely exceptions, but the point stands.

For me, the over-calculated sounds of pop music in the last ten years make me wonder: Does putting any soul or grit into your singing voice disqualify you from having a hit record? Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman" wouldn't fit in this formula. Nor would Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together." The less human-sounding, the better, right? Not to me.

I remember hearing Hilary Duff's "So Yesterday" at a movie theater only a few days after I saw an ad for the song in a radio trade magazine. The quote used in the ad came from a programmer stating the song had a "perfect" sound for a lot of people. Hearing the song, I put the "perfect" sound together: mid-tempo, repetitive verse, and a bright chorus. Was this sound perfect for me? Absolutely not. (And this is coming from a lifelong Journey fan.)

There is obviously a loose formula that have made people like Linda Perry, Max Martin, and the Matrix millionaires. While some nuggets have come out of these modern hit factories ("Since U Been Gone" and "Beautiful"), these are no means like the hit factories of yesteryear. They aren't even on par with the timeless hits from Motown or the Brill Building. You don't need computers to tell you that. But the way so many pop hits sound like computer programs these days, wouldn't it make sense that a computer program determine their market potential?


steve said...

Don't forget Tim Armstrong.

Jimmy said...

Thank you for the comment about "Since U Been Gone". I have taken much grief over liking this song!

If it had been put out by anyone other than an ex-American Idol contestant, it would be hailed as a modern-day powerpop classic.