This post originally ran 28 September 2011, and is in the top 20 of all posts. If I ever do it again, there is much I’d expand on. The basic idea is sound. What has become of popular music isn’t.
In 1946, Perry Como sang:
Alone from night to night you’ll find me,
Too weak to break the chains that bind me,
I need no shackles to remind me,
I’m just a prisoner of love!
The lyricism barely extends past that found on a greeting card, but at least the words are intelligible, standard English, and are coupled with music that mates naturally. The song contains 166 words, with a two-quatrain refrain that is sung twice. Overall, 43% of the words in the song are unique.
By 2010, the top song of the year was Tik Tok, sang by somebody called Kesha (who, your author has learned, occasionally replaces the “s” in her name with a dollar sign; in the video of the song linked, the young lady wakes up in the bathtub from the prior evening’s debauchery: how proud her parents must be):
I’m talking about errybody getting crunk, crunk
Boys trying to touch my junk, junk
Gonna smack him if he getting too drunk, drunk
Now, now we goin’ ’til they kick us out, out
Or the police shut us down, down
Police shut us down, down
Po-po shut us down
The English has been replaced by transient slang, the lyricism now trivial. But Kesha does manage to slip in an allusion to female genitalia, a feat which Como never attained. The major refrain repeats six times; a minor one, twice. There are three times as many words in Tik Tok (510) than in Como’s hit, but because of the multiple repetitions, only 28% of them are unique.
In 1948, the top tune was Francis Craig & Kermit Goell’s Near You. This was a standard big band composition: the majority of the tune is instrumental, the vocalist there only to provide contrast. Craig’s playing was sappy but light. As often happened with these standards, the song was taken by others and later turned into something better. Because of the brevity of the vocals, 73% of the lyrics were unique.
In contrast, the 2009 top hit, Boom Boom Pow by the Black Eyed Peas was unsalvageable, because there is no tune to improve. The song consists in a male vocalist repeatedly intoning “Boom boom boom” and “Shi**in’ on yall you with the (Boom boom)” over an even more repetitive beat created on some sort of machine which, all evidence indicates, was broken. A generously counted 23% of the words are unique.
If a pop song had only one word which was repeated multiple times, where it was used like a blunt instrument, over its three-minute lifetime, the chance that that song is bad would be high. Imagine a monotonic single-word chant. The example works with phrases, too. Repeat, for example, “I wanna hold your hand” for two solid minutes, as the Beatles did in 1964, and you’ll have the idea.
Limited vocabulary does not guarantee awfulness: if words aren’t used as a words, but as a means for the vocalist to turn her voice into a raw instrument, then the song can be good or at least passable, as this counter example demonstrates.
A song with lyrics that are not repetitive is more likely to be good, or at least interesting. It increases the chance of a clear story, or message, the possibility of a beginning, middle, and end. Not that pop music, being popular, will ever be accused of sublimity. Strike that: never was accused of sublimity. Nowadays, we are told we are surrounded by genius. When critics are presented with less, they find more to praise.
Of course, one could sing the dictionary for three minutes, a trick which maximizes unique words, but whose results will be atrocious.
The picture demonstrates clearly that the lyrics in the top pop songs of the year are being more repetitive through time. On average. In the sense just given, this means pop music is growing worse.
Of the three songs with the lowest proportion of unique words, two are by the Beatles. 1964’s I Want Hold Your Hand (21%), and 1968’s Hey Jude (18%), which featured the lyric “na na na, na na na” sang 40 times. Simple to digest, no? The other worst offender was a song called Too Close by Next in 1998 (18%), which featured the subtle refrain:
Baby when we’re grinding
I get so excited
Ooh, how I like it
I try but I can’t fight it
Oh, you’re dancing real clos
Cuz it’s real, real slow
You’re making it hard for me
There are gaps in the picture. All are instrumentals. The first is 1948: Twelfth Street Rag1 by Pee Wee Hunt. The last time was 1962: the extraordinary melancholy Stranger on the Shore by Acker Bilk, a favorite of the late and lamented Danny Stiles. Tunes like this one, are a nearly forgotten memory.
There hasn’t been an instrumental topping the charts in nearly 50 years. And there are other indications that people are growing less tolerant of music. The tunes in the 1940s and 1950s had a higher proportion of music to words. But by the 2000s, even considering the slight average increase in song time, lyrics—if they can be so generously called that—are crammed into songs. Just look at the rapid increase in the number of words per hit song.
Pause to consider this picture. Word count is soaring, but word uniqueness is dropping. We are rapidly approaching the monotonic chant mentioned above. Take this example from 2008, Low by Flo Rida. Featuring, lest we forget, T-Pain. The refrain comprises nearly the entire song—though Flo does slip in the words “pornography” and “Glock”, and we are informed the object of desire has a “Tattoo above her crack”:
Apple Bottom Jeans (Jeans)
Boots with the fur (With the fur)
The whole club lookin at her
She hit the floor (She hit the floor)
Next thing you know
Shawty got low low low low low low low low
No statistics are needed to demonstrate the increase in crudity, decrease in intelligibility, and the now near lack of musicality, the complete lack of beauty. Prisoner Of Love wasn’t art, but it tried to be. Beauty, or anything resembling it, is now ruthlessly expunged. The only emotions celebrated are raw, brustish, animal-like. Lyrics used to tell stories, or express desire, but not just for the sake of it. Reasons for the desire were required.
The most rebelliousness song before rock and roll struck was in 1951, where in the top hit of the year Nat King Cole could lament that “They try to tell us we’re too young.” By 2004, Usher (featuring Lil Jon & Ludacris) could announce in that year’s top song, “These women al on the prowl, if you hold the head steady I’m a milk the cow.”
The word “love” used to make regular appearances in popular tunes. It’s there in Low, but to express the idea, “I love women exposed.” It also found it’s way into 2003’s biggest hit In Da Club by 50 Cent, who warbled, “I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love.” He also used the vulgar word for the same act. The Beatles’s first hit song was more repetitive, but it at least expressed a sweet sentiment.
Another element lacking in modern efforts is complexity, which is the converse of repetitiveness. Consider the top tune of 1954, Kitty Kallen singing Little Things Mean A Lot. It’s not Verdi, but a whole suite of different instruments, moods, harmonies, decibel levels can be heard.
Then try to listen to 2002’s top offering How You Remind Me by Nickleback, far from the worst of the lot. There’s hardly any difference in tone from start to finish, the sounds are muddled, the voice filtered. It is mushy and limited. It is a much simpler song. And still to come were Boom Boom Pow and Tik Tok.
People now like their music to do away with all necessity of thought or contemplation. If a guiding, demanding beat isn’t there to lead them obediently through a tune, they don’t like it. Compare the original version of the (not top hit) Nat King Cole’s rendition of Lush Life with this highly praised “re-mix.” In comes repetition, out goes subtlety. The song has been turned into pablum. The depth of Billy Strayhorn is too much for the modern mind.
What’s to come? If the trends we’ve noted continue, we can look forward to an increase in crudity, lyrics with blatant narcissism, a further weakening of the demand that a song contain music, a return to neolithic simplicity. The top song by 2020 will be titled, Sex, a work with a damning, unchanging beat, with lyric comprised of the lone word “Sex,” repeated until the matter inside the listener’s skull has been nicely puréed.
1Only the Lord knows how the person who posted this song to Youtube matched that graphic.
Your authors’ number two son compiled the songs and lyrics.