January 1, 2015

The year in stale pop culture

We're all familiar with the endless sequels and reboots that Hollywood dollar-chasers keep pumping out, mainly because it sells really well with today's audiences, who are afraid of any brand they don't instantly recognize.

But let's not re-hash the topic of unoriginal material in movies. This earlier post already covered it quantitatively from the 1930s through the early 2010s. And let's not look into TV shows, because TV is boring, and because it's not very different from movies. Every hit show is part of an established franchise and/or in its 20th season.

What is the counterpart to sequels in pop music? You could argue it's a song by someone who's already had a hit before, but often those songs can sound quite different owing to changes in mindset. The Rolling Stones were still on the Billboard Year-End charts in the '80s (even if not at the top), but "Emotional Rescue" and "Waiting on a Friend" don't sound much like "Satisfaction" from over 15 years earlier.

Luckily there's an airtight way to look at the creeping staleness of pop music — look for an identical song that appears on the Year-End charts for multiple years. Being popular from one week to the next is one thing, but from one year to the next? Was nothing better released in the meantime?

You might think that these are just songs that were released late in the year, and carry over into the next. Well, that would happen for every pair of consecutive years, whereas this is a recent development. Often the song was released in the middle of the first year, not the very end. I've noticed some isolated examples of this trend from the Year-End charts of the mid-late '90s (none from the '80s of course), and then more and more during the 2000s.

Now it has gotten so bad that you don't have to have a very good memory to notice it, if you read through the charts of back-to-back years.

Out of the Hot 100 on the Year-End chart in 2014, 10 of them were on the chart for 2013 too. You heard it right: fully one-tenth of 2014's hit songs were the exact same warmed-over hits from the previous year.

Here is the list, with its spot on the 2013 chart, then its spot on the 2014 chart.

02 - 83 "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke
03 - 57 "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons
10 - 46 "Roar" by Katy Perry
15 - 20 "Royals" by Lorde
18 - 44 "Wrecking Ball" by Miley Cyrus
19 - 22 "Wake Me Up" by Avicii
62 - 23 "Demons" by Imagine Dragons
63 - 05 "Counting Stars" by OneRepublic
96 - 74 "Brave" by Sara Bareilles
97 - 19 "Let Her Go" by Passenger

Like I said, there's no real trend toward very-late releases showing up. Nearly half are ones that started big and have fallen, while nearly half are ones that began small and rose higher, with two of them staying more or less where they were. No trend toward rising or falling fame across years, then.

Stylistically it's mostly dance-pop and indie performers, not rap or R&B. Demographically it's by whites for whites, not black-for-black or black-for-white. My take is that the average white teenager is so bored or put off by literally almost everything, that when there's a halfway decent tune they'll keep playing it out one year after another. It's a desperate choice in a world where so much sucks. (Happy New Year.)

That could be at work as well in the movie and TV domains. Movies over the past 20 years really have been terrible, even if they were fresh and new. Audiences came to realize that Hollywood stopped being able to make satisfying original movies, so they cling to something that they know from past experience is at least not irritating or offensive, however bland the tentpole franchises may be.


  1. One of things that's rewarding about sifting through the more obscure corners of late 70's/80's pop culture is just how many good songs/Movies fell through the cracks because the level of competition was so stiff. Meanwhile, what little good stuff was made in the post 1992 era can easily be heard on a few compilations, some YouTube surfing, and by listening to a 90's station/playlist a few times.

    When I get the impulse to listen to some grunge/alternative hit that I remember from the mid 90's thru early 2000's I often end up thinking "that's it?" There's just no there there and the increasingly abrasive production techniques don't help either.

    Bizarre that the 90's were heralded as a new age of heart and soul after the shiny 80's but the passage of time has made it even more transparent that 90's/early 2000's culture is dull and lifeless with stuff being either too austere or too bombastic with the end result that you don't care which makes sense since the artists usually sounded disengaged and bored also. Considering that everyone turned into a dipshit around 1993 maybe it ain't surprising that people could delude themselves into revisionist history about how "cheesy" and "fake" the 80's were.

    Pop and "rock" (distorted guitar based music is basically dead with posery nu metal putting the last nails in the coffin) may have more superficial energy now than it did in the 90's/early 2000's but it still lacks the complexity, sincerity, and vitality that 80's music had in spades. And vocals (the most important part, really) these days are only marginally less comatose compared to the later 90's.

    On a more positive note box office is down big time this year; are people finally getting sick of over produced, dumb, and glum blockbusters? Hopefully we're getting nearer to the point at which we firmly break from the turgid post 1992 era.

    Might still be a while, though. I tend to think that 1968 was the 1st year to make a full break from the sterile mid century doldrums with a lot of baby steps before then; Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple were formed that year (with Judas Priest following in '69) and they quickly wrote and recorded the first classic set of metal songs. Songs like The Immigrant Song, Paranoid, and Highway Star had an evocative, ecstatic, powerful mood that mid century music was incapable of creating.

    What year will be the new 1968?

  2. Also with regard to the death of rock, it occurs to me that nowadays we're in a highly cynical, paranoid atmosphere that make it even tougher to start and sustain a band in addition to the current lack of creativity.

    Bands in the 50's,60's, 70's existed in a more selfless, modest time. By the 80's there was increased exploitation and me 1st ism in the music biz (everywhere else, too) but the climate was so outgoing that it wasn't that tough to put your ego and reservations aside in order to be in a band. Seems like people now are so selfish and aloof that they wouldn't be able to tolerate an all for one, one for all type of ethos that is need for a rock band to be sustained.

  3. My understanding is that the Billboard calculations changed to reflect consumer behavior over DJ choices, and singles lasting longer on the charts was the result.

    For tv there's substantial degree of overlap in this critics poll of the top shows overall and the top new shows. That's critics rather than audiences though. Mysteries of Laura and How to Get Away With Murder are new shows more popular with the masses than critics, but the most popular shows (Big Bang Theory, NCIS, Walking Dead) have been around for years.

  4. No, the Billboard charts just change to reflect how most listeners get their music. Sometimes it changes toward airplay, e.g. in the later '90s when a song could chart without having a commercial release (and therefore not much in sales). Sometimes it changes toward sales irrespective of airplay, e.g. in the 2000s when they counted paid digital downloads on iTunes etc.

    The growth of multi-year hits has been gradual since roughly the late '90s, not a sudden jump due to a change in chart methodology.

    You make it sound like "DJ choices" was sufficiently different from consumer behavior -- few would've bothered listening to the radio then.

    At any rate, remember the time frame is years. After a full year, both sales and airplay ought to have moved a hit song into the "done" category.

  5. I had been trying to remember where I had read that bit about Billboard changes. It was here.

  6. but didn't they change the way they measure hits?

  7. Great observation. Counting Stars was one of the songs that my ex and I used to play a lot way back in mid-2013. I just heard it a couple days ago on a TV promo and I'm like "what the hell?" The universe is not helping me move on here...


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