top of page

Yesterday's bubblegum, today's chewing tobacco

Pop music then and now (Part 1)

Aaron S. Bayley

Tonight you're mine completely

You give your love so sweetly

Tonight the light of love is in your eyes

But will you love me tomorrow?

-"Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" by The Shirelles, 1960

I'll be lounging on my couch just chilling in my Snuggie

Click to MTV so they can teach me how to dougie

'Cause in  my castle I'm the freaking man

-"The Lazy Song" by Bruno Mars, 2011

Complaining about how bad contemporary music is compared to the music you grew up listening to is a rite of passage for people in their 30s or older. This is usually followed by wondering whether this is a symptom of aging, or if the music of the day really is that bad. I know a good pop song when I hear it: Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time"—good song; Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass"—good song; Outkast's "Hey Ya!"—great song. When I was younger, my family would eat dinner while listening to the radio. In the mid-1980s, we'd listen to CFTR or 1050 CHUM, and they'd play stuff that my sister and I liked: Madonna, The Police, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Van Halen. There were a lot of good pop songs back then, and my parents liked many of them, too. In the late '80s 1050 CHUM dropped its top 40 format in favour of oldies; stuff like The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Temptations. My parents used to say that this music—their music—was going to make a comeback and one day I would be listening to it. I don't know about the comeback, but I was already listening to it, although I pretended not to like it. Good pop music transcends eras and genres.

Then why does it seem that the majority of today's pop songs suck? If we go back in a time machine to the years between 1959 and 1963, we'll find girl bands like The Shirelles, The Chantels, The Chiffons, The Ronettes, and The Supremes. We'll find boy bands like The Temptations and The Four Tops. And we'll find solo artists like Little Peggy March, Lesley Gore, Little Richard, Del Shannon, and Elvis Presley. And this is all before the British invasion and the arrival of the Beatles and Stones. Sure, pop music was a new phenomenon in postwar America, and the innocent themes of the music coming out at that time was tailor-made for teenagers (the term "teenager," was a new social construct invented around this time). It was a golden age of pop music that will never be repeated. Still, songs like "My Boyfriend's Back," "Leader of the Pack," "Runaway," "Bernadette," "One Fine Day," "My Girl," and "Don't Be Cruel" were more than just good—they were great. This bubblegum pop music was a perfect sonic companion for the eye-candy aesthetics of those old Wurlitzer jukeboxes, with their visible record-changing mechanism and orange and green bubble tubes. Many of these artists—black and white—had songwriters, but they also had beautiful voices and outstanding backing bands that played real instruments. Whether it was coming out of Motown, The Bronx, or Philadelphia, pop music in the late 50s and early 60s set the bar for generations to come. 

One of the reasons that 21st century pop music isn't up to par is that there is a focus on the artist's image rather than on the quality of the song. Fifty years ago, before full-length albums were the norm, artists went into the studio and recorded singles, and they had to be good if they had any chance of making the airwaves. When people heard the latest Beach Boys single they would run out to pick up the 45-inch record, which usually had a B-side which was not as good as the hit on side A. Whether the lyrics of the songs were silly or meaningful, the melodies and hooks were usually solid. Sure, most households had TVs back then, but the songs drove the artist. Today, there are so many more mediums from which people can obtain music: Internet streaming services like Spotify, CD, radio, TV, YouTube. Thus artists are photographed and airbrushed to death; they are a brand with their own signature style. In addition, the visual component of music often overpowers the listener's experience. If you go to a concert by Lady Gaga, Rihanna, or Britney Spears, you are bombarded with lights, colours, sound, and video screens; it doesn't really matter if the songs are good, because the artist's image and the theatrical aspect of the show—essentially a 90-minute music video—is what sells the artist. Because of mass media has been democratized, anyone can score a hit single: just look at Rebecca Black. 

Another reason today's pop music isn't as good is related to the first point: lazy artists and songwriters. When you are pretty much assured a spot on Billboard's Top 40 you don't have to put forth the effort. Compare the two song lyrics at the top of this article. The Shirelles' verse is sweet yet simple; it is sung with longing and a sense of urgency. The Bruno Mars lyric is vapid and disposable. He shows us he is proficient in the act of product-placement by name-dropping Snuggie and MTV, though he proves less astute at being aware of the current lingo, as no one says "freaking" anymore. It's no wonder Mars' song is called "The Lazy Song." Another horrible song by Mars is his cliché-ridden "Grenade," the chorus of which uses an A-F-C-G chord progression. This chord progression, which is normally used to evoke strong emotions, is so overused that it has lost all its power, but Mars is oblivious to this as he sings about catching a grenade for his amour. Bruno Mars may be calculating in his songwriting, but just because you are trying to make a buck doesn't mean you can't be creative. Though Mars is actually a talented musician and performer, his lyrics are lacklustre, yet he is a top-selling pop artist.

Next, let's look at Avril Lavigne. Her song "Wish You Were Here" is in no danger of being confused with Pink Floyd's version with lyrics like: "Damn, damn, damn, what I'd do to have you here, here, here." Even Lady Gaga, who is no doubt talented and can usually be relied upon to craft decent pop songs, is not immune to mediocrity with tracks like "Born This Way" and "Edge of Glory." But perhaps Katy Perry takes the cake when it comes to badly written pop songs. If you'll remember, Katy's first noticeable contribution to pop music was her 2008 single "I Kissed A Girl," which relied on shock value and not much else. Her 2010 hit "California Gurls" was considered the "song of the summer" that year, regardless of the fact that it wasn't catchy and its video was just an excuse for Perry to lay sprawled naked on cotton candy clouds, parade around in Daisy Dukes, and squirt whipped cream from candy-striped containers held to her breasts. To add insult to injury, the song features this abominable Snoop Dogg gem: "Wild, wild west coast/these are the girls I love the most." 

This is not to suggest that good pop music is an anachronism. When Destiny's Child was together they rivalled the girl bands of the '60s. And Beyonce and Rihanna have dozens of good pop songs between them. But it seems that these days artists are too concerned with outdoing each other in the sensationalism department that they have totally forsaken quality. Of course, it doesn't help that the more ridiculous a song is the more popular it becomes, which is the reason that so many pop and hip-hop artists write songs catered to 10-year-olds. Outkast's "Hey Ya!" may be the last great pop song, and it's no coincidence that that song and its video is modelled on the sound and aesthetic of the early '60s. 

There is so much media vying for teenagers' attention that it seems the only way to get noticed is to create ridiculous, over-the-top music. The problem is that it's usually done in poor taste. Pop music was never meant to be taken seriously, but that doesn't mean it was never important—or good. Just listen to "Sugar, Sugar," written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim for The Archies, and hear for yourself.


bottom of page