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STEVEN ROBINSON: The State Of Pop Music Today

Sounding Off
Published July 1996

SOS reader, songwriter and freelance producer Steven Robinson has some strong opinions on the state of pop music today. In this month's stream of invective, he gets some of it off his chest...

Somebody has to write an epitaph to the semi‑art form pop music — which, in my opinion, died sometime in the mid‑'70s — somebody with the conviction to speak out against the complacent music business. The industry has descended into a barren, moronic inferno, sterile as an operating theatre and largely devoid of real talent. Much of the blame for this lies with UK record companies, who have been trying to outdo Josef Goebbels by brainwashing the public into believing that what they are given is what they actually want. I see companies cynically manipulating sales figures and applying every known trick to bulldoze the public into buying what I consider to be a fake product rather than the genuine article. Indeed, over the past 20 years or so, we've been fed such a monstrous amount of garbage — passed off as music, but unworthy of the title — that a whole generation has grown up believing that what they hear is the best there is. This view may upset the cloth‑eared, pseudo‑experts working for the record companies — but the truth hurts.

If pop music is losing out to computer games and other distractions, as we are told, the record companies only have themselves to blame — they don't seem to give a damn about the music, only short‑term profit. How else do you explain the phenomenal success of re‑releases and cover versions of classic pop songs such as 'Unchained Melody' — reported to be the biggest‑selling single of the decade? The original versions of all these classics were created using relatively primitive gear, and would sound good played on just an acoustic guitar, whereas the gradually worsening trash of the past two decades has the benefit of improved recording technology and the 1001 sounds that synthesis and sampling have to offer. But it's still trash!

Anyone dismissing current 'politically correct' musical fashions tends to be castigated, or at best, labelled old‑fashioned. Yet I am neither old nor old‑fashioned, nor am I opposed to any new style of good music. But the secret of a good song is, as ever, a memorable melody capable of evoking emotion, supported by an accomplished performance. Such qualities engender longevity. Who will be playing the majority of today's pop music in two years' time, let alone 10? What today's hopelessly untalented songwriters fail to realise — along with their equally tone‑deaf hype champions in the record companies — is that you can't just string together an almost random sequence of notes and call it a melody. Nor can you add moronic lyrics and call the result a song. That's why flashy, irrelevant videos featuring half‑naked, nubile dancers are used to camouflage banal songs. Composing music which is meaningful to the human brain takes real talent and feeling, all of which is sadly lacking from the typical Top Of The Pops music scene.

The overriding fixation on the 'bottom line' — making money — is evident in the ruthless exploitation of TV personalities. The sniggering record companies treat the public like fools, and seem prepared to sign up any soap opera star, footballer, model, boxer or even Donald Duck if they think they can sell records. It's a sad fact that you can find better singers in many Karaoke bars, or even on the streets, than on TOTP. In fact, the musical content of an act is now a relatively unimportant part of its market potential, judging by a recent TV interview with a bunch of schoolgirl Take That fans. When discussing the merits of the band, there was much mention of nice smiles, attractive band members and nice bums, but precious little about the music. This shameless pandering to the lowest common denominator has resulted in the virtual disappearance of good songwriters and musicians.

Of course, computers haven't helped — they now seem to be the masters, not the slaves, churning out variations on three or four repetitive motifs which have already been done to death by the likes of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure and so on. Where are the UK's equivalents of Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton or even Michael Jackson? Now we have Sam Fox, direct from page three, Kim Wilde, and the award‑winning (yes, really!), Jason Donovan — heaven help us! Even the old‑school performers like Bowie and Elton John did their best stuff long ago, but the fact that they are still major names is a sad indictment of their would‑be replacements, who've failed to deliver. Even the Brit awards have lost all credibility after a series of increasingly absurd nominations, and the tuneless meanderings of over‑hyped 'darlings' such as Pulp, Blur, Oasis and Supergrass do little to inspire confidence. The late John Lennon would surely turn in his grave to hear Oasis described as the new Beatles; whoever coined that one could surely use some psychiatric help.

Unless the record companies can climb out of this mess of their own making, they should call it a day — they have no more idea of who to sign than a donkey has of how to play chess. No wonder the UK is no longer a driving force in world pop music. It must be demoralising for real performers and songwriters to realise that unless they jump the queue by first joining the cast of Eastenders and Neighbours, they just won't get a break. If, as all the evidence suggests, the record companies only want to make money, why don't they move into manufacturing toilet rolls? There'll always be a call for them, and they're just as disposable as the music currently on offer!