K-Pop, Despacito and the lack of originality in modern music

Let us begin with K-Pop. South Korean “popular” music, which is actually a unique hybrid of many genres like hip-hop, electronic dance, folk and others. It can be traced back to the ’90s. But it really blew up in the span of the past couple of years. There’s hardly anyone who doesn’t have an opinion on it. It’s a religion to some people and the manifestation of society’s failure to others.

Music is subjective, but there is objectivity in everything.

Some things do distinguish modern music from music of the past. Are those good or bad things?  One can simply say “K-pop is the worst kind of music” and many would agree, many wouldn’t. Opinions can be right or wrong, but how do the facts weigh in? How hypocritical is it to bash K-pop for being foreign, unintelligible and its overuse of suggestive dance moves, while listening to pop songs in Spanish? Let’s try to analyze music from a neutral perspective.

What makes a difference?

Probably K-Pop fans make more sense than the average listener. K-Pop has a certain exoticness and a distinct aesthetic. It is unique, it stands apart. Which is more than what can be said about the stuff the average listener listens to.

Chart-topping songs of today have many things in common. The most distinct of which is ironically, their commonality. The Spanish National Research Council conducted research on over 500,000 tracks from 1955-2015, running each song through a complex and meticulous set of algorithms. They tested three metrics, the harmonic complexity, timbral diversity and loudness (more on that later). The first two metrics in simple terms mean the richness, diversity and quality of sound in the music. The research states that diversity in the context of timbre and harmony peaked in the ’60s, and has been declining ever since.

Answer: The difference

In more relatable terms, listening to the radio, have you ever thought to yourself that every popular song sounds the same? Well, because they do. Let us compare pop songs from the past to modern pop. You had The Beach Boys and their album Pet Sounds. They used orchestra instruments, bicycle bells, flutes, coca cola cans, barking dogs and Hawaiian instruments in the composition for each song. For reference, listen to “Wouldn’t it be nice” or “Kokomo”.  Against that, you have any chart-topper today, where the music can be attributed to the use of a drum machine, a keyboard and mostly a computer.

To some that might sound like progress. To a critique, it sounds like musicians are becoming less explorative and creative. Try to find one billboard topping single that doesn’t use a variation of the vocal cue “Wa-oh, Wa-oh”, also called the millennial whoop. This is one of the cardinal reasons all songs sound the same nowadays. And it isn’t restricted to musical cues either. You might be shocked to know that the majority of chart-topping pop songs from the past 20 years has been written by just two people, songwriters Max Martin and Dr. Luke.

Consider the song “When the Levee Breaks”, Led Zeppelin’s rendition of it. The band used a former poorhouse in Hampshire, England called “Headley Grange” to record parts of the song, because one of the staircases had a certain acoustic reverb. Imagine going that far. Against musicians writing their own songs and finding the perfect way to record it, today you have factory manufactured tracks for a popular musician to add their nice voice to. Against the originality, creativity and dedication like that, you have the same tried and tested formulaic songs being repackaged and presented as this month’s hot stuff.

The case of Despacito

If you want to ask why, it’s because our brain likes familiar things. When you are thinking that you’ve heard this brand-new release before, your brain is recognizing the same pattern it saw in virtually every other pop song. While you feel like the song is “catchy”, the brain is convincing you the song is good because it is familiar. Thus, people listen to music of a language they don’t even understand, music that they’ve listened to so many times before, only because it is catchy, and unknowingly, the same. Like Despacito.

Are we to blame? Limited attention spans

All of that makes musicians sound like very opportunistic people. But do we share some responsibility? The human attention span has drastically decreased over the past decade, which has factored into our music choice. Almost nobody listens to music for the sake of listening or enjoying themselves anymore. They listen to music that’s easy, music you can play on your way to work.  Facilitated by thousands of tracks on demand, we tend to flick through songs if we don’t like how long it takes to set in. Not many would sit through an 8-minute track to appreciate the subtle nuances of something like the track “Roundabout”. Musicians and record companies have thus resorted to shorter and louder songs with punchy basslines to demand our attention, and keep it.

The advent of dubstep is an example. The most enticing part of the song, the Hook, is being used sooner and more frequently throughout a track.

Moreover, producers have tried to make their songs sound louder to grab your attention. Although the volume control is in the user’s hands, producers have used compression to make quieter parts of a track match the loud parts, making the overall song sound louder. What this does is inevitably decrease a song’s quality and variety of music. Therefore, you have similar sounding, unimaginative pop songs, sometimes about butts.

So, think again

Make of all this information what you will. You might call the phenomena progress, you might call it evil incarnate. Studies indicate that music today is less diverse and creative than that of the past. Uniqueness and imagination are rare traits in modern music. So, the next time you rag on someone for listening to K-Pop, just pay attention to what you happen to be listening to on the radio.

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