January 26, 2015

Bratty toddler anthem tops the adult contemporary charts, signaling generational change

If any of the places that you frequent plays an adult contemporary radio station over the PA, you are still hearing that annoying Taylor Swift song "Shake It Off," currently #1 on the AC charts. Like an earlier AC #1, "Roar" by Katy Perry, it's basically an anthem for bratty Millennials who don't want to ever change themselves in the slightest to fit in better with their social environment -- to have to adapt.

Anyone who doesn't like you 100% the way you are, and tries to re-shape you so that your behavior will be more pleasing to others, is just a hater. Glib dismissal is the Millennials' ideal response to haters, so that they never take any criticism to heart, however small and however accurate. No adaptation, no growth. Perpetual toddlers.

Childish emoting can also be heard in the AC #1's "Roar," "Stay with Me," "Home," etc etc etc.

When did the adult charts become so kiddie?

Going back 10 years, most of the year saw two songs at #1. "Breakaway" by Kelly Clarkson and "Lonely No More" by Rob Thomas are nothing to write home about musically, although in tone they're merely adolescent or young-adult rather than twee or bratty.

Another 10 years back, and the songs are adult for the most part, again whether you dig the music or not (probably not). "Take a Bow" by Madonna assumes an audience familiar with the give-and-take in adult relationships, beyond bratty tantrums or adolescent infatuation. "Kiss from a Rose" by Seal is a little more adolescent, based on the theme of love as a drug. "I'll Be There for You" by the Rembrandts is more young-adult than fully mature. It assumes a social network, but the challenges that the speaker faces are just bad days, nothing really deep.

Then we arrive safely back in good ol' 1985, where none of adult contemporary #1's sound kiddie or even adolescent. "Careless Whisper," "Smooth Operator," "Everytime You Go Away," and "Saving All My Love for You" all come from a mature stage of social development, with all its trials and complications. Even the upbeat dance hits are made for grown-ups -- "Rhythm of the Night" and "Axel F". There's also the soft rock ballad "Inspiration" by Chicago, which however super-cheesey and grating it is, nevertheless is made by and for adults.

What does this change reveal about generational differences? The target audience for adult contemporary is 25 to 44 years old.

So it was the Boomers and late Silents who drove the success of truly adult hits on the chart back in the '80s. The late Boomers and early X-ers, as suggested by their AC tastes in '95, were mostly OK with growing up, though still preferring periodic indulgence in the adolescent or young-adult mindset. Early X-er preferences show up again in the 2005 hits, although the introduction of late X-ers into the target audience has made the hits more adolescent in focus. By 2015, bringing Millennials into the core audience has made them downright infantile.

The main factor here seems to be the level of cocooning or connection that the generations enjoyed while growing up. Social connection causes personal change, in a pro-social direction, i.e. growth or maturity. Folks who grew up entirely within the outgoing / rising-crime period of roughly 1960 to 1990 are the most comfortable with adult life. That would be the late Boomers and the earliest X-ers.

Once the cocooning climate began to set in circa 1990, growth after that point would not be as strong as if it had taken place during the '60s, '70s, or '80s. Someone born around 1970 would have the tail end of their formative years stunted by cocooning, but the end result was not too severe -- it was only the tail end of the developmental window, and the degree of cocooning wasn't so high at the very beginning of the shift.

The generation born around 1980 would be affected more during their young-adult years than adolescence. These people seem more inclined toward a teenage mindset. By the time you get to those born around 1990, they only grew up during the cocooning / helicopter parenting period, and have hardly matured at all, not even to the adolescent stage of wanting social connections, being willing to engage in the give-and-take, and honing their people-reading abilities. Again, you can hardly expect a different outcome from people who were socially deprived for their entire formative years.

You can go further back and see the cheesier, schmaltzier AC hits of the '60s, when they were catering to the Silent Gen, who like the Millennials grew up socially cut-off during the previous peak of "smothering mothers" and Dr. Spock-inspired shielding from threats to the ego. Competitiveness was at a minimum back then, though, so their kiddie sounding AC hits were not bratty, but twee and saccharine. Case in point: the mawkish "Can't Help Falling in Love with You" by Elvis way back in '62, which sounded much more emotionally adjusted and pulled-together when covered by UB40 in '93.


  1. I'm surprised you miss the obvious the confounding factor - record companies - they are the gatekeepers of mainstream music. They are the ones who make this shit and market it heavily. I don't know anyone who actually likes the shit they play on the radio...so who is buying all this? And were it not for the record companies foisting it on everyone would anyone buy this shit?

  2. "I don't know anyone who actually likes the shit they play on the radio...so who is buying all this?"

    "I can't believe Nixon won. I don't know anyone who voted for him."

    Audiences drive the success of pop music. Blame the listeners. Record companies are always trying to force their product on audiences. That doesn't explain why their product that sells well has changed from mature to kiddie in less than a generation.

  3. The 70s were great for adult contemporary and can be summed up in one man: Al Green.

    Serendipity, one song that I can't get enough of lately is 1985 Tears for Fear's "Head Over Heels", which has been a favorite for years. Much of the attraction to the song is the phenomenal personality of Roland Orzabal (but the same could be said of many songs, I guess); Orzabal is my all-time favorite artist/entertainer/celebrity.
    Not sure if it's considered adult...

  4. Here's another reality check: where do we see evidence of pent-up demand for mature culture?

    Certainly not at the movies, where R-rated movies are hardly made anymore, let alone achieve box office success. Now half or more of the top movies are adaptations of kiddie franchises like Transformers, Harry Potter, Kung Fu Panda (I can't even type those words without shaking my head), and the like.

    That's a better way to think of the current climate: where *do* we see mainstream, not niche, demand for adult culture?

    1. We just rewatched the Alien movies over a period of a week plus and they perfectly captured the progression from a mature R to the adolescent-in-a-kid's-body R. I can't stand most R movies anymore for this reason.

      BTW, thanks for the Tears for Fears thoughts. I was 11, I think when "Sowing the Seeds" came out and Orzabal caught my attention in a huge way. Can't say I really like the song or ever really did, but interesting that when I got older, their prime stuff would just really grab... They endure with everyone.

  5. Yeah, that whole album rules, Songs from the Big Chair. All sounds adult to me, "adult" in the 25-35 age range. It's that stage where the novelty and shock of young adulthood has worn off, where you aren't yet firmly established in your job, family, or community roles, but are working to lay that foundation.

    Every stage of adulthood has its own confusions and struggles to cope with, and new ways of lending a hand to others and asking for their help as well. It's not as though once you're no longer an adolescent, you're a fully formed adult for the rest of your life.

    Tears for Fears are great at capturing that essence -- just when you thought you had it made, no more high school drama or parental supervision, there are all sorts of new relationships, roles, and responsibilities to take on. And wanting to take them on, to find your way through, rather than throw your hands up and go, "Screw this, I thought I just had to make it out of high school."

    They're also a refreshing antidote to the cultural conservative tendency toward autistic extremes, where rejecting kiddie music must lead toward the geriatric. Just because you're an adult doesn't mean you're supposed to not make waves, not confront anyone when they're offending, and not get angry (although trying to keep it under control).

    "Shout" is one of those songs that a tone-deaf teenager could easily twist into a "Fuck you, society" anthem. If you didn't understand the words, and could only feel the music, you would pick up the forceful and aggressive tone. If you understood a little of the lyrics, you'd pick up the confrontation and accusatory tone.

    But the full lyrics are not about "Stay out of my room, Mom! You just don't understand me!" It's directed broadly at society, although in more of a prophetic tone -- as in John the Baptist or Jesus (not so much Old Testament style, which would include a warning of God leveling our group for losing our way).

    OK, it's just a pop song, not a supernatural vision, but you know what I mean. It's secular prophecy, denouncing the corrupted state that the world is falling into, while still feeling empathy for people and wanting them to help turn things around, collectively. The anger is only there to wake people up and motivate them to change things, a la the "mad as hell" diatribe from Network.

  6. Actually, "Shout" does have that one verse about "they" giving you life, and in return you gave them hell, I hope we live to tell the tale. That is about not honoring thy mother and thy father, or perhaps about not honoring God, it's left open. And that will lead to a crisis that you'll be lucky to make it out of alive.

    So there is some Old Testament style prophesying going on too.

    The music video strikes a prophetic note as well:


    1. Awesome video, thanks for the excuse to watch it again. Curt really does look like Elvis face-wise, doesn't he? Completely different personality, the sensitive guy.
      Roland, Roland, Roland... They don't make him like them anymore and even for back then... Video doesn't capture his sex appeal, because the song doesn't lend itself to those feelings, but the passion and being so alive...
      "Head Over Heels": what was with funny or goofy British 80s videos? Anyway, had I been the librarian Roland was singing to with passion and shyness, I would not have been responsible for my actions ;)

  7. Sorry, I'm hijacking the thread!

  8. We'd all rather talk about TFF than Taylor Swift.

  9. True, but we'd rather look at Taylor. Sorry, someone had to say it. Elemental is also a really good album beginning to end.

  10. That's interesting. I wonder if there is a biological basis for different groups stopping at different stages of development. I remember that the HBD crowd divided body types into "infantile", "juvenile", "virile"(young adult), and "mature".

    I suppose that different cultures also produce people who prefer one stage of maturation over another. We know that farming culture, for instance, makes people more childlike. As you've pointed out, transhumant pastoralists seem to be the most mature; maybe nomadic pastoralists get stuck more as young adults, since they are more promiscuous and aggressive.

    Its also interesting the way you've matched up the generations to different stages of development. Your categorizations make sense. For iSaved by the Bell", where the characters come across more like Junior High kids.nstance, look at "

  11. "Saved by the Bell", being more popular with late Xers, has characters who are more like 13-15 year olds. whereas something like Boy
    Meets World - where the characters are more like 10-year olds - is more popular with Millenials.

  12. Tears F.F. basically are one of the groups who've been somewhat forgotten, being too young to have made in impact in the 70's (which would've endeared them to early to mid Boomers thereby making them annoying Boomer nostalgia fodder (let's re-release Songs From the BicgChair 29 times to exploit gullible Boomers who still have too much money and too little sense).

    At the same time late Boomers/X-er's haven't made them VH1 snark fodder since their music is so thoughtful and earnest (without being dull or sappy) and they didn't have a bold image.

    One of the things that's annoying and unfair about 80's retrospectives is that there's too much focus on the wild and wacky image instead of the actual art. That selective approach often ends up overlooking the more modest, unpretentious artists who had some popularity and impact back then, like Tears FF.

  13. FWG,
    No joke: the librarian in the "Head Over Heels" video looks like Taylor Swift ;)
    I know what you're thinking about Roland... And I don't care what anyone thinks, Roland in his prime was the sexiest man ever IMHO. Ignore the goofy hair. His words and how he expresses himself to the librarian about wanting to get to know her is so, so, mmmmm....


  14. In terms of the attitude of a song like "Shout", it seems like the 80's/very early 90's were the peak of socially conscious themes that were mature and sensitive rather than preachy, clumsy, or too cluelessly PC.

    That makes sense given that most of the popular artists of the 80's had been born from the mid 50's thru mid 60's. So these artists had spent their entire childhood (or at least the majority of childhood), adolescence, and young adulthood in that 1960-1990 sweet spot Agnostic mentioned.

    Nowadays we have to deal with utterly dreadful stuff made by young "artists" who've had the misfortune of growing up mostly (or entirely) in a period that is both anti-social and high inequality. At least Silents didn't face a society giving the stamp of approval to divorce on demand, abortion on demand, rampant promiscuity, the glorification of selfish greed and narcissism at the expense of everyone else etc.

    BTW, the grey, dreary quality of the music of 1993-circa 2008 can in my opinion be traced at least partially to the fact that mid-late X-er's were (are?) so down on everything (themselves most of all) that they were too embarrassed to make much of an effort into performing.

    The few X-er's who did want to be stars were often obnoxious douchebags (not just say, Marylin Manson or Jonathan Davis but also I hate to say it, Kurt Cobain). Those guys often did a terrible job of representing their generation ("Dude, just shut up nobody's cares about your issues."). Fred Durst too, good lord did the 90's suck big time. We sure got spoiled in the 80's, didn't we?

    Thus the early and now permenant belief that X-er's were preachy and ugly slackers. Um, no, most X-er's just aren't interested in being in the spotlight which is why X-er celebrities of the late 80's and beyond aren't as representative of their generation as Boomer or Millennial celebs.

    Now that Millennials are dominating the pop culture landscape we've come to find out that they (unlike X-er's) are much more willing to brashly thrust their generations attitude in everyone's face.

  15. Bumbling American1/27/15, 8:51 AM

    Every time I hear a woman singer on the radio these days she sounds like she's singing to the bomb at the end of "Beneath the Planet of the Apes"

  16. A pop music post! One that attracts the highest number of drunk comments!

  17. Paul Young's Everytime You Go Away was quite a teenybopper song back then. If it's mature by today's standards, then that really says a lot about today's music! I wonder what they would say about Foreigner's I Want to Know What Love Is.

  18. "One that attracts the highest number of drunk comments!"

    These songs ain't gonna over-analyze themselves...

    "she sounds like she's singing to the bomb at the end of "Beneath the Planet of the Apes""

    Right, a generation for whom peer pressure feels like nuclear Armageddon.

  19. Otto Hasslein1/27/15, 1:54 PM

    Every time I hear a woman singer on the radio these days she sounds like she's singing to the bomb at the end of "Beneath the Planet of the Apes"

    Awesome line.

  20. Strange that music by Taylor Swift and a Swedish hit factory would end up being considered part of an adult chart. I always thought she'd be for tweens only.

    agnostic Audiences drive the success of pop music. Blame the listeners. Record companies are always trying to force their product on audiences. That doesn't explain why their product that sells well has changed from mature to kiddie in less than a generation.

    I don't know how much young people really go to music to hear a message that they can relate to the problems in their lives, or to seek guidance or advice, or some feeling of empathy. I don't feel like I know many people who use music that way, even when they face those problems and touch on those feelings. Growing up, I didn't really get the sense that many others really regarded musicians as these artists or prophets or whatever so much as just performers who didn't really have anything credible to say. Maybe a few metal fans and hip hop fans that way, but those were mostly dumb guys, I don't think anyone else really expected guidance or insight from lyrics. So songwriters are not really successful compared with people who don't really speak the language (Swedish hit factories) and churn out simple escapist emotive lyrics.

    Emotionally, I'd think that authors and poets would occupy that slot as well (probably better? in a more complete way, that's not liable to being used as a quick fix). But I don't know that people read particularly much these days, so I don't think there's any substitution effect there.

    Perhaps it is that because people are either very internal or very open ("oversharing") about their problems. Rather than communicative, but at that level where they're not seeking to overwhelm others and they're looking for guidance while maintaining independence.

  21. Dunno how this fits with into the larger sociological framework but I've come to dread the sight of a fat late-thirties white woman waddling toward the jukebox. This is guaranteed to interrupt the excellent flow of rock music (classic rock, GNR/80s, grunge) that is the norm at my craft beer pub, with nine minutes of nigger noise.

  22. Agnostic's posts about the transition from Gen X to Millenials dominating the entertainment industry (as its consumers AND producers) really got me thinking about how all my favorite artists are from Gen X. My friends and I have relied upon “best of the year” lists to avoid tweeny-pop, emo garbage and mindless EDM noise, but there's been a noticeable drop off in the quantity of quality music as aging Gen Xer's depart their productive years of creative peaks.

    From Metacritic’s top 10 critically acclaimed albums of 2014 list (http://www.metacritic.com/feature/best-albums-of-2014):

    1. D’Angelo (b. 1974)
    2. St. Vincent (b. 1982)
    3. Run the Jewels (both b. 1975)
    4. Swans (mostly Boomers)
    5. Pallbearer (photos look like b. 1980s)
    6. Flying Lotus (b. 1983)
    7. Rosanne Cash (b. 1955)
    8. even flaming faggot Perfume Genius is surprisingly Gen-X (b. 1981)
    9. Sharon Van Etten (b. 1981)
    10. Aphex Twin (b. 1971)

    Making good music has very much become the domain of old people! Even the producers for tolerable Millenial pop acts like Ariana Grande (Max Martin b. 1971) or Miguel are Gen X. This will only get worse as cocooning continues and they retire.

    Fortunately, this gives me time to discover the seemingly bottomless music trove my late Boomer parents got to enjoy (Springsteen, Billy Joel, Prince, New Wave). This blog has been a great resource in that regard, thank you to all of you who post!

  23. I don't know if I'd call any of that good, admittedly without having heard it. Just be cautious about using critics' list, especially if they're reviewing full albums rather than singles (today is a singles industry, not an album industry like in the '70s and '80s). Professional pop music critics are probably the most worthless. They continue to over-hype performers decades past their use-by date.

    Just seeing Aphex Twin on that list... maybe he's making the 10th best thing out there, over 20 years after breaking into the industry. But probably not.

    It's just that the critics came of age when ambient techno music was surging in popularity, and they're overly eager to praise whatever new efforts their old favorites put out.

    PJ Harvey was on the Metacritic list for the early 2000s somewhere -- same thing.

    Rolling Stone writers continuing to praise the Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones, and Hendrix as the peak rock experience, rather than shifting rock into first gear -- same thing.

    They won't know what the good stuff is at the moment because they're too invested in journalism as hagiography. I hate new artists, too, but I at least keep my ears open and give them an honest hearing. They just all suck, and don't pass.

    But there are those occasional blips, like the mid-2000s when there was a revival of new wave and post-punk styles. Franz Ferdinand's first album did the new wave-y / disco-punk thing the best. At least that one showed up on Metacritic's top 30 of 2004, but not near the top 10 like it should have been.

    I more or less stopped caring about new music around 1995-'96, so that was a solid decade of having given up hope. Then there it was -- I thought Franz Ferdinand, the Raveonettes, the Killers, etc., were just older bands that I hadn't heard yet. But nope, it was new, and likable.

    It didn't last long, though, and here we are another nearly 10 years into awful pop music, while still keeping my ears open in fairness. I thought that song "Treasure" by Bruno Mars was awesome, aside from the "girl you so fine" beta lyrics. Sounds like it could have been on the soundtrack to Last Days of Disco.

  24. INXS - Don't Change

  25. Of new and newish artists, Muse and and Father John Misty stand out for me. The former is good arena rock in style, with intriguing political lyrics. The latter is more the coachella/ indy scene. Very good voice and music on the Fear Fun album.

  26. "A pop music post! One that attracts the highest number of drunk comments!"

    I just shared this post and thread with my husband, rereading the comments... Oh my word, I'm the drunk! No!!! Lol!!!! I swear I was not under the influence of alcohol or any illicit substances ;)

  27. I've seen the video for "Shake it off." Taylor Swift shows a sense of humor about her limitations. She admits that she can't do everything.

  28. Post Alot at Isteve2/1/15, 6:47 PM

    I can't believe you spoke of "upbeat dance hits" of 1985 without mentioning not only the top dance track of that year but possibly the greatest of all time - "Into the Groove."
    Relatedly, people give me funny looks when I say that the funniest movie scene ever is the one over which that song plays, the "Danceteria" scene in Desperately Seeking Susan. Priceless. In case you're wondering, yes, I wish I could have gone down on Rosanna Arquette.


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