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Kids these days: is pop music losing its intelligence?

Illustration by Elizabeth Bridges

Engaging with music is a time-tested human tradition, that crosses all cultures and backgrounds. Thanks to the internet, we now have access to broader samples of musical genres, and it’s now easier than ever to listen to what you like. Yet there is still one genre of music that is ubiquitous in the disdain it inspires: pop music. While travelling in the car, bus, or taxi, you might have listened to the radio, and you may have said to yourself, “Is this what’s popular these days?” Or, perhaps, “This song is pure garbage!” You may have then plugged in the AUX cord or put on your headphones and listened to your own tunes. But not all is lost – there has been something of a resurgence in pop music in the last two years. Some pop songs are becoming more lyrically complex and thematically sophisticated, and most have been gaining traction on the charts. I think it’s worth taking a look at some of them, to see what works and what doesn’t.
It’s no secret that pop music can sometimes be pure garbage. In 2014, data blog SeatSmart conducted an analysis of lyrical intelligence, or the graded reading level of a song’s lyrics, over ten years of music. No musical genre or artist was safe: the study showed that lyrical intelligence in popular music has been on a downward trend since 2005. Artists like Maroon 5 and T-Pain scored particularly low on the scale, with lyrics rating lower than a second-grade reading level. Let’s look at a sample from T-Pain’s entry, the 6th lowest song on the list, Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’) from 2010:
I’mma buy you a drank
I’mma take you home with me
I got money in the bank
Shawty what you think ’bout that?
Find me in the grey Cadillac
We in the bed like ooh, ooh, ooh
We in the bed like ooh, ooh, ooh
It reads less like a song, and more like a message from a horny 40-something man on OkCupid desperate to impress a member of the desired sex. He’s just going to buy her a drink and take her home in his nice car to have casual, non-committed sexual intercourse, which according to Mr. Pain, will sound like “ooh, ooh, ooh” …? Not a lot of room for interpretation there.
But I think it’s important to make some distinctions. A “low” song does not necessarily equate to a bad song. Many songs that scored low on the SeatSmart list – Hey Ya by Outkast and Fergie’s Big Girls Don’t Cry just to name a couple – are songs that have some lyrical complexity to them. Hey Ya is about a relationship being dysfunctional, despite things looking fine on the surface. This superficiality is reflected in the upbeat mood of the track, and something the song actually acknowledges in the lyrics. Take the last part of the second verse:
… If what they say is “Nothing is forever”
Then what makes (then what makes)
Love the exception?
So why, oh why
Are we so in denial
When we know we’re not happy here?
(Y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance)
That last line is drowned out by the hook (the “hey ya” part) coming back in, and it marks a shift in tone for the rest of the song. Singer Andre 3000 goes into “denial” too, and famously tells us to let go of our emotions and “shake it like a Polaroid picture”. This entire song exemplifies the deeper lyrical complexity hidden within pop music that I think a few other popular songs share at the moment.
Mike Posner is no stranger to criticising popularity. His 2010 track Cooler Than Me was a massive hit, and describes a girl Posner was supposedly interested in and rejected by, who he describes as rich and stuck-up. According to him, she “needs everyone’s eyes just to feel seen” and acts like a wannabe celebrity. Since then, Posner has remained in the strange shadow of the formerly famous. He disappeared from radio while he fought the depression that came with his sudden notoriety. That’s where I Took a Pill in Ibiza comes in.
Ibiza was recorded in 2015 as an acoustic track, before it got picked up and remixed by Norwegian EDM duo SeeB a year later. It deals with Posner’s complicated feelings towards his own fame, and the new lifestyle that it brought him. The song is straight-forward and blunt in its message, describing the “rollercoaster” of his popularity that left him feeling “all alone”. In the third verse, which doesn’t feature in the remixed version, Posner warns his fans about his journey:
…I walked around downtown
I met some fans on Lafayette
They said tell us how to make it ‘cause we’re getting real impatient
So I looked ‘em in the eye and said
[Chorus] You don’t wanna be high like me…
The song has since charted on the Billboard Top 10, and Posner is aware of the irony: a song about the dangers of fame has made him famous once again, thanks to no particular effort on his part. But it is an important message, and one that is shared with another song that deals with the loneliness that comes with modern life.
UK duo Snakehips’ All My Friends is that song. It’s about the negative effects of the millennial party lifestyle: alcohol, drugs and incessant clubbing are turning people into “vultures” and “cannibals”. Singer Tinashe’s memorable chorus describes that maybe all-too-familiar feeling of being in a club you hate surrounded by people that couldn’t care less about your wellbeing while being wasted out of your mind. It’s a sad fact of modern society, but it’s not all a negative song. Chance the Rapper hopes, in his verse, that “the sand will leave a tan” and people will realise the dangerous results that this lifestyle can have.
The songs that we’ve looked at so far have explored lyrical complexity in their own right; they deal with complex themes and emotions while still being ‘trendy’ songs. But I think there is more complexity to be found by analysing some of these trends, as they are an important part of pop music. They are just as eclectic as society itself, and they have varied over time, but the dominant trend that has pervaded through popular music of the last year and a half can be traced back to Jamaican music and its many subgenres. After Bob Marley made reggae a worldwide phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s, musicians back in Jamaica began to turn to up-tempo sounds again. The release of B-side albums (that is, instrumental tracks of songs on the other side of the record) allowed Jamaican DJs to sing, and essentially rap, over these versions. This is the precursor to American hip-hop, but it also spawned another genre in Jamaica: dancehall. DJs were able to electronically distort these B-side tracks, or riddims, and perform over them.
No artist better represents this cultural phenomenon than Rihanna; particularly in the lead single from her latest album, Work. The lyrics incorporate aspects of Jamaican patois and Creole, in an obvious nod to her Caribbean heritage, and the song is one of the first dancehall songs to chart since Sean Paul’s Temperature in 2006. Lyrically, Rihanna sings about fragile relationships, and working hard no matter what’s happening in your life:
Work, work, work, work, work, work
He said me haffi (He said I have to)
Work, work, work, work, work, work
He see me do mi (He saw me do my)
Dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt
So me put in (So I put in)
Work, work, work, work, work, work
When you ah guh (When are you going to)
Learn, learn, learn, learn, learn, learn
Me nuh cyar if him (I don’t care if he’s)
Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurting
In a time where politics is dominated by movements like #BlackLivesMatter and tirades of racism and xenophobia, it’s refreshing to see Rihanna proudly showing her cultural roots in the pop music scene. You can’t help but imagine being on a tropical island when you listen to this track, and a verse featuring Drake only sweetens the deal. Similar to Hey Ya, the mood and beat mask a frustrated undertone that speaks to the reality of a difficult situation, and how people deal with those situations.
I’m all about giving credit where credit is due, and I feel like the songs I’ve mentioned deserve some credit in regards to what we refer to as “pop music”. We’re certainly getting more interesting songs in contemporary pop, both production-wise and lyrically, and we’re getting a broader range of experiences from the representation of different cultures and the sounds they produce. I like where today’s music is headed, and I’d like to see more of this complexity going forward. It’s opened my eyes to a range of genres I’ve never listened to before, or genres that I never thought I’d like until I heard what they had to offer, and that’s what I think music is about: a shared experience that anyone and everyone can enjoy.

Tags : CultureintelligenceMusicpop
Matthew Edwards

The author Matthew Edwards

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