Hello. My name is Alan and I’m a music snob. It’s been about 15 years since my last unwarranted, obnoxious, snarky comment about someone else’s musical taste.
But I’m here to ask you for some help. I’m afraid that I’m reverting to my old ways.
To confess: I used to be terribly intolerant when it came to music. When I look back on things, I feel shame at my wanton ignorance. “AC/DC isn’t worth the time because the drums are boring!” I’d cry as my friends fired up Back in Black in the car. “Jim Morrison isn’t a poet. He’s a poseur!” I’d shout. “The only good Supertramp album is Crime of the Century. The rest are rubbish.” And don’t get me started on disco.
I went on like this for years, alienating friends and strangers alike. The situation only got worse when I landed at CFNY-FM (now 102.1 the Edge) in Toronto, one of the biggest alternative rock stations on the planet. Being snobbish about music was not only tolerated but encouraged. In fact, it might as well have been in the job description. The staff somehow believed that we listened smarter, our music was of higher quality, and the alt-rock lifestyle was superior to all others.
We were the underdogs, the outliers, the weirdos. Not only were we proud of this self-proclaimed status, but we also revelled in it. I bought in completely. To outsiders, we all must have been insufferable.
But then, an unexpected moment of clarity.
As I was about to board a flight to some vacation destination in June 1999, I hastily grabbed the latest issue of Mojo, the excellent British music magazine, from an airport newsstand. I hadn’t noticed that the cover story was on ABBA.
Yuck. As a dyed-in-the-wool alt-rocker, ABBA was part of the enemy: campy, disposable, mainstream pop. Pure dreck (although secretly I did like the song SOS but never told anybody.)
When I eventually ran out of reading material on the trip, I reluctantly started on the ABBA story. It was … fascinating. The story opened my eyes to how music other than my own could be treated with respect and scholarly attention.
A few years later, I was hit upside the head again. Scanning through stations in the car, the radio stopped on an oldies station playing You’re the One That I Want, the execrable single from the Grease soundtrack featuring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta. I’d always hated that song since it was played on AM radio ad nauseam in the late 1970s. For some reason, though, I began to listen carefully. I was stunned by the singers’ performances: the breathing, the phrasing, the expressiveness, the vocal control — all without technological intervention. Travolta and ONJ were really good.
I started questioning my snobriety even more. The harder I tried to deny my narrowmindedness, the more I realized that I’d been shutting myself off from a massive amount of great and worthy music. I had also been dismissing brilliant talents.
The rest of my reformation took a while — another five years or so — before I truly embraced this new mindset. My music consumption doubled then trebled then exploded exponentially with richness. Not only was there plenty of new material to explore but I needed to listen to older music that I’d previously dismissed.
Respect all music; listen to what you like. There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure; if you like it, be honest about it. And be receptive to learning about any and all new sounds. Why cut yourself off from a potentially joyous musical experience? I felt free, empowered, fulfilled.
Lately, though, I’ve been plagued with the nagging feeling that not all is well. As much as I try to get into a lot of today’s music, it’s been hard. Pointless, even.
I know, I know. I sound like an old man who shouts at clouds and demands the kids get off his lawn. I’m trying to remember the words of music writer Simon Reynolds: “Every generation has a biological right to believe that the music of its youth is the greatest music of all time.” And I realize that new music has always been driven by the energies, wishes, demands, fears, and desires of the young.
Still, with my life experience, my intellectual curiosity, and practiced tolerance, I should be able to adapt, right?
This has occupied my thinking for quite some time now. What is it about today’s music that I find it so hard to like? I made a list.
1. Much of is too perfect. Digital recording techniques make certain that song tempos are so even that they put cesium clocks to shame. The technique of ensuring hyper-accurate pacing is called “quantizing.” Songs don’t speed up or slow down. There’s no rushing or dragging. The computer evens out all imperfections. That’s not human. Recordings like The Clash’s Brand New Cadillac, which speeds up and gathers energy as it goes, are not just not tolerated.
2. Auto-Tune. No one is ever slightly flat or slightly sharp anymore. Every note sung is perfectly in tune. That’s not how humans really sound.
3. The loss of distinctive voices. In the old days, people flocked to singers with distinctive voices (Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Joe Strummer, etc.) Today, there’s far too much emphasis on great voices instead of distinctive and expressive ones.
4. A desire to be famous has replaced virtuosity or even competency. Why spend years learning how to play an instrument when you can just skip to being famous? This is the mindset created by shows like The Voice, American Idol, and their ilk. Yes, contestants have may have great voices, but they’re singing other people’s songs. They’re hardly paying their dues and honing their skills in the way previous generations have, slugging it out in the clubs and touring in a van. Instead, people are vying for fame by posting 30-second TikTok clips.
5. Compression. Since the late 90s, there’s been a race to make music sound louder. The easiest way to do that is to apply a lot of dynamic compression to the recording, which makes the quiet parts almost as loud as the loud bits. The result is a blare that causes listener fatigue. When these songs are converted to MP3s or streams, the effect is intensified. It’s why I have trouble listening to anything the Red Hot Chili Peppers have released since 1999.
6. Formula. Contemporary music has always been formulaic, but today they’re constructed with a mathematical precision that would make Einstein’s head hurt. Short intros. No more than X seconds until the chorus. The bridge can only be X bars long, and so on. Swedish superproducer Max Martin, who has written material for everyone from Britney Spears to Coldplay, perfected the approach and is now copied by people throughout the industry. No wonder so much of today’s music sounds the same.
7. Streaming. This is warping the very nature of music composition. Because no one is paid unless the song runs for 30 seconds, all possible efforts are made to keep people away from the skip button for at least 31 seconds. This has served to accelerate the adoption of Max Martin-style formulae. (I spoke about this at length in a TEDx talk called “Streaming is Killing Music.”)
8. Disappearing albums. Speaking of streaming, it’s killing the concept of the album, which has been the currency of the recorded music industry since the middle 60s. Now the name of the game is to get one song on an influential playlist.
9. The loss of talent development. Record labels aren’t investing long-term in talent anymore. It used to be that an act had two, three, or even four albums to mature and develop. Now you’ve got two singles max. If you don’t have a hit then, you’re dropped. And even artists who do have a hit single, it seems that fewer and fewer of them can follow up that success. As soon as you have a stiff, you’re gone.
10. Rock bands are MIA. And finally, where have all the rock bands gone?
I’m finding myself drifting back to music that’s 20, 30, 40, even 50 years old in search of something with genuine humanity. Meanwhile, I’m getting more and more dismissive of and impatient with contemporary tunes. I’m backsliding towards music snobbery.
Please don’t judge. I realize I need help.
Coming up next time: An explanation of why I’m just going to have to learn to deal with how contemporary music has evolved.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.