IS MUSIC REALLY THAT SIMPLE?

New York Times music critic Jon Pareles published a very interesting editorial this weekend on the state of music. Futurehit.DNA readers will, of course, already be familiar with many of the conclusions that he’s reaching. The article acknowledges the reasons behind today’s pop formulas: too much information, too little time, and short attention spans. At the same time, it seems to be dismissive of these results. In minimizing and ignoring many impactful pop artists of the year, Pareles oversimplifies the state of pop music and theorizes in the very style he criticizes.

With a title of “Keep It Simple”, Pareles suggests that today’s songs are TOO simple. This is odd considering that, as he acknowledges, pop at its core is supposed to be simple, and certain simple songs (he cites “Wild Thing” and “Hey Ya!”) transcend. To make the argument, he ignored many huge hits. For every “Dynamite” in the top selling songs of the year, there’s a “Breakeven”. For every “Baby, baby, baby” chorus, there’s a “Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars?” 2010 will be looked at as a golden age of pop because songs started playing well into listening habits, and they also offered varied complexity.

An interesting conclusion he makes, however, is that the same techniques that one would expect in pop are also occurring in indie rock. I certainly anticipated this trend, but hadn’t been able to quantify this. Mostly because there’s no real accurate “chart” for most successful indie rock, just critics lists. But if Pareles is going to call Katy Perry and Black Eyed Peas to task for underperforming, I’d have to do the same for The Arcade Fire. I can appreciate their anti-commercial musicality, lack of short intros and tight endings. But I can also successfully argue that they had less impact on society in 2010 than the “simple” Taio Cruz. Google trending shows that, aside from the brief moment of the Arcade Fire’s album release/webcast and the release of their innovative video on the Chrome browser, more people were interested in Taio Cruz throughout 2010. Also worth noting, the indie band needed the stunts in order to succeed more than the consistent audience of Taio Cruz. At the end of the year, while Arcade Fire sold more albums, it has not gone Gold. The 7 million singles Taio sold easily gave him more gross sales for the year. Might they have had more sales and impact with a Futurehit structure? Will the Grammy nomination change things? Does it matter?

And why shouldn’t a band, indie or not, want to recognize methods of commercial success to get more notice? Without the commercial stepping stone of “Creep”, Radiohead’s OK Computer might not have been as visible. With no barriers to entry, all these bands need directness to grab a listener’s ears. Needing seven seconds to attract attention holds true no matter what the genre. It’s not a crime for artists to have a desire to be recognized in their lifetime.

What I think Pareles is hearing is not simplicity but rather the importance of repetition. This is not new to music of any genre, but it is more important now due to attention spans and accessibility of music. There’s a whole chapter on it in Futurehit.DNA. While some repetitious songs are very simple (I can’t argue Justin Bieber’s “Baby”), many of the big ones do not offer tales of clubs and debauchery and are arguably just great songs. When Hayley Williams repeats the phrase “wish right now” three times at the end of the chorus of “Airplanes”, she’s expressing the longing of that moment perfectly that singing it once wouldn’t deliver.

My full review of 2010 will be out in a few days, but I found the most successful artists of the year based on sales (alphabetically) are Justin Bieber, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. Pareles fails to even mention three of these five artists. One could easily argue that none of these artists offer the same sound. One could also argue that even while their songwriting integrates many Futurehit techniques, they are nowhere near as simple as the New York Times suggests. Looking at the overwhelming success of these top acts alone refutes the argument that simplicity is the only thing selling. What I am pleased about is seeing both the New York Times and indie bands recognizing the theories I began compiling five years ago showing that the time for Futurehit.DNA is now.

Also, in case anyone cares, there is no momentum in the “chillwave” genre.

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