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Pop music: What went wrong?

19 May 2024 6 minute read
Working image for Now 3,456,000

Stephen Price

For those of a certain age, the knowledge that the latest Now That’s What I Call Music CD is at an eye-watering number 117 is a sobering thought.

As an elder Millennial, I remember buying my first Now CD (Now 39. Ahem) from the music aisle of Woolworths, Abergavenny.

As my music tastes developed, and with online shopping still in its early stages, my more obscure purchases were ordered-in at the now-closed ‘Abergavenny Music’ – famed locally for being able to get hold of any CD in the world. Those were the days!

I say developed, but like most people, I ditched any idea of musical hierarchy early on – never letting go of the need for a joyous upbeat number despite an obsession with Tori Amos and a few of her peers in my teens.

No longer do most of us stick to one musical camp – and the same person at a Massive Attack concert can feel as at home in a Kylie one. An Arcade Fire CD can happily sit next to one by Lady Gaga.

Or for the more digitally minded among us, a playlist can swoop from Depeche Mode to Britney via Adwaith. If it moves you and fits the moment, it’s quite rightly in.

“Back in my day…”

One thing with reaching a certain age, however, is the usual looking down on the music of the current generation.

“Ah, it’s not like the good old days!” It’s a cliche – our parents said it to us, and their parents said it before them, but this time I really do think things are different.

From an objective innovation and diversity angle, or a subjective listenable one, the vast majority of the music forming the soundtrack to our ages seemed to progress towards the 2000s before, somehow, getting a little lost, and a little ‘meh’.

There’s undoubtedly some superb stuff out there still being made, but it just isn’t reaching us unless we look for it.

Looking back at Now 39 (or an image of it online as the real thing got charity-shopped long ago), many of the songs are still played today, the artists still celebrated today.

All Saints, The Spice Girls, Catatonia, Radiohead, Lighthouse Family, The Verve, Pulp, Boyzone, Goldie.. The list goes on.

All so varied – from pop to dance, hip hop to art-pop, and yet all pretty much listenable today and, indeed, played today – with artists that reflect the various communities and countries of the UK and Ireland.

Admittedly, some of it is pure cheese, but that was the beauty of a Now CD and radio stations back then – things varied and aimed to suit everyone and all ages.

The Corrs one minute, Celine Dion the next. Innovative wordless dance music or unashamedly Celtic or country leaning bands – it all somehow just worked.

A quick glance at Now 117, however, and things today are so much cooler. So much slicker. And so much same-ier.

Whereas, in the past, a few American artists made an appearance – Janet Jackson and the Backstreet Boys in the case of Now 39, today’s compilation, reflective of today’s soundwaves, is a very American affair.

The names that I do recognise range from Nicki Minaj to Miley Cyrus, P!nk to the Jonas Brothers and Teddy Swims.

There are a few UK and worldwide acts such as Dua Lipa, Kylie and the Pet Shop Boys, but I doubt we’ll be hearing most of the featured songs replayed in a few years’ time.

Much like streaming itself, it’s junk food, made for the background scroll – the polar opposite of an album that needed decoding, repeat playing and sleeve-reading until it finally *clicked* and revealed the treasures inside.

Oldies unite

Hot off the press, this week it was announced that former BBC stars are leading the charge against the public broadcaster at a rival network which has gained a larger audience than Radio 1 following another surge in listeners.

Greatest Hits Radio saw its average weekly audience soar to 7.69 million in the first three months of 2024 – a leap of 50 per cent from its 5.12 million listeners a year earlier.

This was enough to outrank BBC Radio 1 for the first time, which had 7.31 million listeners across the same three-month period, according to data published by the research body Rajar.

And why are they doing it? Because quite simply people have had enough of the vapid rubbish that they are being force fed nowadays.

A BBC iPlayer programme featuring vintage Scottish pop, from Texas to Travis, The Bluebells and so many more was a riotous watch recently.

Bygone eras with musicians that simply wouldn’t make it on to TV or radio now owing to their performance styles, the genre of music they play, their looks, their talent and actual musicianship – something that’s bizarrely become unimportant when it comes to making music nowadays.

Everything felt timeless, unpolished and joyous.

The answer?

Musical knowledge starts at a young age.

If our schools aren’t teaching the very basics of music (no it’s not to impress a job interviewer with a rendition of Three Blind Mice, it’s about sowing seeds) from all eras and not just the present then we are doing children and young people a disservice.

And if our radios and TVs are only playing the latest rot from the likes of Drake and Doja Prat, then we will reap what we sow when it comes to the next generation of even worse, even less wholesome audio displeasure.

The answer shouldn’t be burying our heads in the sand and replaying old hits, but in championing new home-grown, varied music of every genre once again and aiming a little higher. And we need to call out most of the output from today for what it is: talentless shite.

We still talk of Cool Cymru regularly, awaiting its second coming – but how will that happen on a wider collective level if our music isn’t being played anywhere? If only American empty paint-by-numbers-music is seen as aspirational?

Although most people stream their music and forgo the act of shared radio listening nowadays, the taste-making still happens at the top.

Sort it out, radio stations of Wales and the wider UK. The future of the airwaves, and Now 578,643 is in your hands.

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26 days ago

Old person yells at cloud vibes.

25 days ago
Reply to  CommonSense

Very much so, and I say this as someone who’s a similar age as the author.

There’s no such thing as “bad” music, if you don’t enjoy it then you don’t enjoy it, it’s as simple as that.

“I used to be with ‘it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’ anymore and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary. It’ll happen to you!”

26 days ago

I’m surprised that the Now Thats what I call music’ compilation are still around since most people buy music online rather than purchase CDs.
Pop culture in the 2020s seems to be a rehash of 80s synthpop and 90s rave, in other words the pop industry has ran out of ideas.

26 days ago

Pop music was once all about youth and rebellion, what happened?

21 days ago
Reply to  Glen

they grew up

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