Is Pop Music Getting Worse?

Sarfraz Manzoor fell in love with pop music thirty years ago. Now, the chart baffles him. What happened? 

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Looking from a window above, it’s like a story of love. This is a love story, of sorts; a tale that begins with adoration and ends in incomprehension. It begins at the start of 1983, only weeks after Britain’s fourth television channel was launched and only months before Margaret Thatcher was returned to Downing Street.

I was 12 years old, a shy skinny kid living in Luton and looking for someone or something to love. It was not going be football because the tribalism of the game frightened me. I wanted something to show me there was more to life. It arrived out of sight, through the air: pop music. It had been around my life before 1983, but that was the year when I first grasped it close to my heart.

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Pop music was the perfect vehicle for my obsession. It offered the opportunity of fanaticism without the danger of violence. We may have argued about Duran Duran over Wham! but it rarely came to blows – and it was a cheap date. There was no need to spend money my family did not have on BMX bikes or a Commodore 64.

And, crucially, for someone like me who had fairly strict parents who didn’t like me going out at night, it offered the chance to escape without needing to leave the house. I only needed a television for Top of the Pops and a radio to give me my other highlight of week: the Top 40 countdown on Sunday afternoons.

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I monitored the rise and fall of pop songs with the intensity I would later direct towards property websites. I would huddle in my bedroom, notebook at my side and a cheap blank cassette in the machine at the ready as Tommy Vance counted down the singles all the way to that all-important Number One. And back then what was Number One was all-important.

There were 17 Number One singles in 1983, plus Renée and Renato’s “Save Your Love”, which carried over from the previous year. These songs are more than songs – they are old friends who were there for me when I was a teenager and whom I have run into during nights out in my twenties and parties in my thirties and who were there for my fortieth birthday party.

Thirty years on from our first meeting, it felt right to have a reunion. If I had wanted to compile a mixtape of all the Number Ones, it would once have involved some deft work with a twin-track cassette machine. Now I simply have to create a Spotify playlist. Once I would have listened to music on a cassette or record player, now I listen to most of my music on my phone. I slipped on my headphones and transported myself back to 1983.

I am immediately plunged headfirst into a torrent of memories. I listen to “Billie Jean” and it reminds me of watching Michael Jackson at the Motown 25th Anniversary broadcast, single-gloved and glittery-socked. I remember trying to moonwalk, barefoot across the shaggy carpet of our Luton living room.

I listen to “Give It Up” and I am taken to a scene of me playing tennis against a wall as my older brother lies under the hood of his sunflower yellow Vauxhall Viva, its crappy radio squeaking out the song. My recollection of my childhood is bound up with the music that was around but what do the artists who recorded those songs remember about that time? For Harry Wayne “KC” Casey of the Sunshine Band, his memories of “Give It Up” are suffused with the loss of his father.

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“That song reached Number One in the same year my dad died,” he tells me, “so there I was having all that success but surrounded by so much sadness.”

Paul Young says he hit Number One with “Wherever I Lay My Hat” in the same week he moved out of Luton to his own flat in London. David Brett from The Flying Pickets was in East Dulwich hospital with his wife who was about to give birth to their baby daughter when the call came from his agent that “Only You” had got to Number One. Bonnie Tyler was at a hotel in Leeds doing promotion for her album when she learnt that “Total Eclipse of the Heart” had got to Number One. Before they were stars, they too were music fans and in the same way as their songs defined my childhood the pop stars I spoke to could recall the songs that had provided the soundtrack to their childhoods.

“I remember being 12 or 13 and listening to ‘Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’ by OC Smith,” Paul Young recalls. “It reminds me of holidays in Cornwall, driving in a big estate car, me and my brother sleeping in the back, we would get up early and my dad would put pillows on the back seat and we would lay on the back seat while we drove off on holiday.”

“I can remember being 13 and sitting by the window in the house I was brought up in,” Bonnie Tyler says, “and listening to Sandie Shaw’s ‘(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me’ – I can see it now.”

“There was a party in my neighbour’s home,” Casey says. “And ‘The Loco-Motion’ came on and suddenly we were all dancing.”

The memories are so vivid. But why do we remember the sound and feeling of being 12 with far greater clarity than the feeling of being 22 or 32? Why do I remember The Flying Pickets better than I recall EMF? Petr Janata is a cognitive neuroscientist who has studied the impact on the brain of listening to music from childhood.

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“Autobiographical memories from adolescence tend to be remembered better,” he tells me. “Memories from that period are over-represented – we refer to it as the ‘reminiscence bump’.”

The reason for our heightened recollection is that adolescence is such a turbulent time of great transition when we are pulling away from our parents and establishing our own personalities. Everything associated with that time – clothes, television and music – is likely to be more vivid than, say, our late twenties, by which time our personality has been set.

“Music engages all of our brain,” Janata adds. “We don’t just hear it but we also sing along to it and we dance to it – and all those things strengthen the memory of the music and help create our own mini movies of the past.”

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The music I loved when I was 12 was not outwardly rebellious – it wasn’t punk or even indie – but listening to pop music was still an act of defiance towards my parents. They were first generation Pakistani immigrants, so the only music they approved of was sung in Urdu. 

I would watch Top of the Pops with my father who would stare at the likes of Boy George on the television with an expression of bemused bewilderment, and that only made me love Culture Club more. Pop music is not intellectual – no intellectual would dare to rhyme “language” with “sandwich” as Men at Work did in “Down Under”, a UK Number One in 1983 – but while pop may be unsophisticated the ways and reasons why we listen to it are complex.

“The music we listen to corresponds to the life challenges we are undergoing,” explains Dr Jason Rentfrow, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge conducting research into the social psychology of music. “During adolescence, the common challenge is to develop a sense of identity and autonomy so children tend to listen to music that is rebellious – this is related to somehow developing a sense of independence towards their parents and authority.”

In other words, the reason music means so much to us when we are young is that it is one of the few means at our disposal for self-expression and to annoy the hell out of our parents.

I had assumed that listening again to the hits of 1983 would have felt like bumping into old friends whom one occasionally runs into at weddings and birthdays. The reality was that many of those songs are now staples of radio stations like Magic. So while they may be 30 years old, there can hardly be a day when “Billie Jean”, “True”, “Red Red Wine” and “Every Breath You Take” aren’t played on the radio. These songs are so much part of the culture that it’s a shock to be reminded there was a time before they existed – a time when “Billie Jean” was not in the world.

When I heard them the first time round as a 12-year-old, these songs trumpeted my youth; today, they tease me about my middle age. The songs may have remained the same but the world around them has changed. The vinyl single gave way to the download, Top of the Pops has been replaced by YouTube and the primacy of pop music as youth entertainment has been challenged with the emergence of video games and social networking. It is a different world.

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Catch up with the class of 1983 and it is a mixed picture. Michael Jackson is dead, Phil Collins has retired from music, while Billy Joel is only just out of hiatus. Rod Stewart became a crooner and The Flying Pickets’ original members now mostly work as actors (David Brett played Dedalus Diggle in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). Kajagoogoo, Spandau Ballet and The Police all split up then reunited. New Edition are back on the road and Harry Wayne Casey, Paul Young and Duran Duran are back in the studio this year. Bonnie Tyler has a new album out, off which a song was selected as the British entry in Eurovision 2013. UB40, perhaps fittingly, were declared bankrupt and, perhaps the most heartbreaking revelation – their lead singer Ali Campbell is now a judge on New Zealand’s Got Talent.

The two artists from 1983 who have most successfully remained creatively interesting are David Bowie – who this year released a surprise new album to universal acclaim after 10 years away – and Boy George, who has reinvented himself during the past few decades as a club DJ. George admitted there was a period when “Karma Chameleon” got on his nerves. “I was doing a tour with ABC and Human League and Belinda Carlisle,” he says. “I remember thinking everyone has that one song – ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’, ‘Temptation’, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ – and I had real issues with being defined by my past, but I don’t feel that anymore.”

George, who has a new album out, has previously re-recorded “Karma Chameleon”, just as Casey has re-recorded “Give It Up” and Bonnie Tyler has re-recorded “Total Eclipse of the Heart” to be included as an extra track for her new album. It’s hard to let go.

This was supposedly the golden age of pop, when pop stars weren’t embarrassed to do what pop stars are meant to do: have big hair, dabble in cross-dressing and ponce around on yachts with supermodels. Revisiting the hits of 1983, I’m reminded that for every Boy George there was that bald bloke out of The Flying Pickets and for every Michael Jackson there was Billy Joel.

The music I recall hating at the time – Kajagoogoo, for example – now seems adorably cheesy rather than simply terrible. Time may not always heal but it can flatter. I also found, on listening again to the songs which reached the top of the charts 30 years ago, that almost every one triggered memories of summer. “Karma Chameleon” makes me think of long summer days playing cricket during the school holidays. In fact, Culture Club were Number One for six weeks starting in September of that year, but in my recollection the song is a summer anthem.

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The reason for this, I learn, is that nostalgic thoughts can literally give us a warm glow. A recent study from researchers at Southampton University found that people felt physically warmer after listening to songs that evoked memories of childhood. In recent years, I have found myself returning more often to the music of my past. There was a time when I would have resisted admitting being an Eighties kid but these days I enjoy listening to the songs from my childhood.

“Music from our past elicits a feeling of nostalgia,” Petr Janata tells me. “And recent work suggests that engaging in nostalgia helps protect the person from existential challenges. So, if there are circumstances in your life that provoke these challenges then listening to music that will evoke nostalgia can help you cope: in other words it’s a comfort. If you are looking to listen to music that will help regulate our emotions then turning to the pop music of the past is likely to help with that more than unfamiliar pop from the present.”

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That makes sense. As we get older, our lives get progressively more complex, and compared to the prospect of manfully confronting big topics like marriage, parenthood and, ultimately, death, the prospect of listening once again to The Flying Pickets’ “Only You” is irresistible. The past feels comforting and the present increasingly feels foreign.

Has it really been 30 years?” Bonnie Tyler asks “I can’t believe it’s that long, it feels like 10 or maybe 15 years.”

“My God, the last 30 years have gone fast,” Paul Young says.

“The pop landscape [today] is unrecognisable to me,” Boy George says. When I ask him what was the last great pop song he could remember, he suggests “The Drugs Don’t Work”, which is 16 years old.

“There are some great recent pop songs,” Bonnie Tyler says. “Can I name any?” Pause. “Sorry, my mind has gone blank.”

She isn’t the only one. The truth is that I still love pop music – Robbie, Britney, Rihanna and the rest – but I do not search it out any more and the only way it reaches me is by accident. I still listen to new music but it is not pop, it is more likely to be rock, folk or country. I have absolutely no idea what is Number One in the pop charts right now and before I looked it up online I had not even heard of the biggest selling song from 2012 – Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”.

In the interests of research, I searched out that song and prepared to take a listen. I was fully expecting to be disappointed, to find it an alienating racket, but in fact I loved it. Not only was it a sublime piece of pop, it felt like a song I could fall in love with. So why had I not ever heard it before?

“The brain’s synapses are programmed to grow for a number of years, making new connections,” Dr Jeanette Bicknell writes in her 2009 book Why Music Moves Us. “After that time there is a shift towards pruning, to get rid of unneeded connections… trying to appreciate new music can be like contemplating a new friendship.”

And just as our strongest friendships tend to be those that have been tested by time, so it is with music. “As adults we just don’t have the time,” Dr Jason Rentfrow adds. “When we are young we have lots of time and music is a cheap way of expressing our identity but as we get older we have less time to explore new music and we have other ways to express our personality.”

And that’s the truth, isn’t it? When I was 12, pop music was my only means of having a voice. But as adults, we can express ourselves with the choice of who we marry, or whether we marry or not, and by whether we drive or cycle, what box set we watch and what we do for work. It is the easiest thing in the world to assume that the songs from the era when we were young were better than the music being released now. Just as it is also easy to suggest that because there is so much more music than there was, and so many other forms of entertainment and distraction available to young people, it has to follow that music means less to them.

“When I was young music was life or death,” Paul Young says. “I know what music meant to me then but I don’t think kids today draw from it or get the same solace from it like I did

“It’s all so contrived now,” Casey adds.

I don’t know if they are right or wrong. I suspect that the truth is that the music from our childhood is great because it is from our childhood, because listening to it then helped us become the adults we are today and listening to it today reminds us of when we were young.

In 1983, the best selling single was Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” and it sold around 1.4 million copies. Last year, the best selling single was “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye. How many copies did it sell? 1.4 million. So what has really changed in the past 30 years? Everything and nothing: only me and only you.
 

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