April 26, 2021

Radio's dead: contempo stations stop playing current music (signs of a Dark Age)

Continuing the series on the new cultural Dark Age that has begun setting in, let's look at pop music.

No, we will not be subjectively evaluating today's music and contrasting it to some Golden Age or another from the past.

Rather, the signs of this Dark Age are objective -- if you were to listen to the radio, you'd have little awareness that pop music has existed in the 2020s.

The source here is the "contemporary hit" format -- the stations that are supposed to play the hot new stuff that everyone's buzzing about, not retro, and not from just one genre. These are the stations that you're supposed to complain about for "only playing new stuff" and not appreciating anything good from the past, just one damned pop hit after the next in an endless flux of fashion.

After not listening to my local contempo hit station for a few months, I wondered what they were up to -- what new songs are all the rage 3 months since I last checked in? There's always the algorithms from the big online platforms to suggest new things, but I'm talking about what's actually catching on, growing, and lasting.

Shockingly, there were hardly any new songs at all. I double-checked their "recently played" list on their website, and it has been like that for days. It's not like I happened to check during a "blast from the past" hour. Saturday night played a few more new songs, but not much. Overall, they're simply not playing new music.

What are they playing instead? Mainly music from the 2010s, across a variety of genres, and emphasizing the late part rather than the early part of the decade. But you're still more likely to hear early 2010s music than 2020s music on the contempo hit station.

Especially when you count by distinct songs, rather than total airtime -- they might play one of Ariana Grande's hits from this year or the last, five times throughout the day. But they'll play five different songs from the early 2010s over the same period. Only a tiny handful of new songs are making it into rotation.

Even worse, hit songs that they were playing last year have disappeared from their playlists. "I Love Me" by Demi Lovato, "Midnight Sky" by Miley Cyrus, "Break My Heart" by Dua Lipa, "Willow" by Taylor Swift, "Monsters" by All Time Low, and dozens of others by mega-stars, have vanished from the airwaves. (And no new acts are taking their place!)

So it's not like the station is unaware of new hit music from the current decade -- they played a fair amount of it last year. Rather, they are deliberately erasing the signature that "the 2020s were here" in the guestbook of the pop cultural record.

I noticed a somewhat similar pattern early last year, where they seemed wary to play new songs from the new decade, and were still relying heavily on 2019 and even '18. However, they did not stretch farther back than those couple years, certainly not back into 2010. Eventually they did play new songs, so perhaps they were just hesitant at first.

But this year, they are not doing that reluctant-at-first bit. They're just not playing new stuff -- and crucially, hardly anything from the last year either.

If it were a matter of relative years -- "current" vs. "last" year -- then their reluctance in 2021 would mean most of their playlist would be from 2020, with only a handful of older years thrown in for variety. But there's not even much from 2020 still being played, including the hits that dominated that own station's airwaves and the charts for all of last year.

Instead, it is a matter of absolute years -- "2020 and 2021" vs. "2019 and before". They were hesitant to play 2020s music last year, and they're even more hesitant to play 2020s music this year. (Maybe 5 songs from each year of the 2020s, played over and over again.)

All of the 2010s music in their rotation is not "last year's music" -- it's from 2 years ago at least, up through 11 years ago. They've decided that it's not worth investing in the current decade -- and presumably any future decades -- to promote its songs, so might as well just play stuff from the last decade.

This is the first time in American culture when material from only a few years earlier has become "retro," as the current material is either not being made, or being distributed, or being demanded by audiences. Imagine in 1981 there being a '70s station, or in 2011 there being a 2000s station.

Not only has this never happened before -- a time period becoming a reified "remember when?" age only a few years after concluding -- but today, this is the newest music available. It would be bad enough if there were a dedicated 2010s decade station in 2021, but far more dire if that were the most recent music being played. And yet here we are.

Contrary to the "singularity" view of these developments, we are not in a climate where new stuff is being created, distributed, and consumed one day -- and then treated as retro and due for a revival the next. There is no "instantaneous nostalgia" or whatever.

Rather, this is a process of exhaustion and breakdown. Creators may not be able to collaborate well enough to make new hit songs. Distributors may not want to promote anything new because they don't trust the creators to give them songs that will sell like hotcakes, or don't trust audiences to gobble them up. And audiences may not trust the creators or the distributors to give them what they're hankering for.

Whatever the variety of forces involved, it all smacks of an unraveling of cooperation, collaboration, trust, and collective investment in a total musical culture. There's not going to be another phenomenon in music, no more scenes, and no more sub-cultures (a topic covered here recently).

At some level, the American people -- or better yet, people living in America -- no longer feel like being bound together by a common culture that is distinctly theirs, and that is so captivating it's eagerly adopted all over the world.

We're at the stage of imperial decline where it's not only the political and economic domains showing signs of exhaustion, but now the culture-makers too can squeeze no more blood from their stone.

And for the same reasons -- plummeting levels of "asabiya," or the potential for a group to pursue concerted collective action, out of a sense that the in-group is special and destined for greatness. When that fades away, it not only means the end of far-flung territories staying integrated into the empire, it means the end of the larger-than-life culture that the empire produced.

Roman culture ended during the Crisis of the Third Century, and American culture has ended in the wake of the catastrophe year of 2020.

14 comments:

  1. Does this apply just to America or the entire West (Europe, Anglosphere, etc.)? Seems like other Euro and Anglo countries are affected too.

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  2. This is surely influenced, at least in part, by Trump. Most of the traditional entertainment gurus were fanatically anti-Trump in a way which goes beyond reasoned critique. Yet it was obvious that this hostility by them was sowing a division between themselves and likely audiences. That creates an incentive for anyone playing music or whatever today to simply avoid the last 6 years. If someone is playing the Beatles then you can't deduce anything about whether they are pro- or anti-Trump. Best to keep it that way.

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  3. With music, streaming (like a lot of other things) has really killed music the same way it's contributed to the death subcultures. It's a kind of weird paradoxical thing I think where streaming has fragmented culture -- be it music or television or whatever -- yet at the same time it's made for a push to make everything as generic as possible for mass appeal.

    Social media plays a part in that too I feel. The current style of hip-hop pretty much seems to gain popularity via TikTok memes but memes are shortlived and so too are these songs with the artists not even leaving a lasting impression. Fifteen minutes of fame has effectively been replaced by fifteen seconds.

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  4. Most of what they're playing is from the Trump era (2017-'20), and more so if you put 2016 in there as a year dominated by TDS. It's not a retreat to pre-Trump times.

    If anything, it's a retreat to pre-Biden times. Before the stolen election was finalized in late January.

    Thus, not to do with Biden himself, but the climate of anarchy, unpredictability, and anxiety that has come from seeing a blatantly stolen election (and those in the GA senate races) go through more or less unchallenged. No one is in charge, it's every man for himself, sheer will to power. Not a very comforting climate to be living through.

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    1. When the Music's Over ... turn out the light

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  5. My take on tech influence on culture has always been the reverse -- social / cultural changes come first, and they lead to the adoption of new tech, or new uses of existing tech.

    There's no reason that MTV in the '80s couldn't have played a new buzz-worthy video a day, and retire them the next day, similar to TikTok. Although on TikTok that's entirely driven by the users; preferences, not a central programming committee from the tech platform itself.

    But back in the '80s we still had a fairly cohesive culture, and therefore the audience would not have wanted to flit from one thing to the next on such a rapid schedule, which would've prevented a single national culture, and some sub-cultures, from taking shape.

    They weren't obsessed with taking and displaying selfies either, although the tech existed -- cheap cameras, Polaroids, etc. True, you couldn't show them to the whole world, but most selfies today are not seen by the whole world -- the typical teen or college student's selfies are only seen by their IRL social circle.

    Teens and college kids back then could've done the same with plastering Polaroids on their doors, bulletin boards, and other publicly viewable places.

    But they did not do any such thing, because they weren't that obsessed with themselves. They were more other-oriented.

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  6. Albanian mafia strikes again, as Bebe Rexha's new single "Sacrifice" is one of the precious few 2021 songs to be put into rotation on the contempo hit station.

    Maybe their hand was forced by its immediate widespread success in the Euro markets, where dance music is always in higher demand than here. US stations may not want to feel too out-of-touch with what the cool, sophisticated Euro stations are playing.

    Similar to "Kings and Queens" by Ava Max last year, blowing up in Europe, and only catching on here by late summer, despite an early-year release.

    "Sacrifice" is not a bad song either -- early '90s house-influenced dance-pop. The video is like Blade, with raver-vampires.

    Bebe still looks hot into her 30s, btw, although like most Albos she's still shamefully bleaching her hair. Dua Lipa's the only one who has maintained her alluring Med color.

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  7. Definitely a sign of imperial decline that the most dynamic music-makers for the empire, both in the core nation and EU / NATO clients, are Albanian performers and Swedish composers.

    Albania and the Balkans generally have never been within the Anglo sphere of influence, whether Britain or America. Other than Greece belonging to NATO, but they're not the ones furnishing a half-dozen pop mega-stars these days.

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  8. "Thus, not to do with Biden himself, but the climate of anarchy, unpredictability, and anxiety that has come from seeing a blatantly stolen election (and those in the GA senate races) go through more or less unchallenged. No one is in charge, it's every man for himself, sheer will to power. Not a very comforting climate to be living through."

    But we can't discount that the Biden administration will collapse, and a more Trump-like admin taking its place(or, it morphing into).

    I don't see anarchy per se. The zeitgeist needs to be analyzed in context of the crime rate - low trust vs. high trust. We're actually entering a period of higher trust, which means more rough-and-tumble, and a higher level of political polarization(so people stop being phony and polite too each other). But I guess the beginning of this can seem like anarchy as people find their feet; though, like I said before, must also be interpreted according to excitation theory, with the 'manic' phase being the craziest periods, when it feels like the world is coming apart at the seems.

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  9. I wouldn't call this a result of declining culture. It's more attributable to technological decentralization. It's so cheap and easy to record your own things like music, podcasts, etc. and have a distrubution and monetization network outside of traditional record companies. Consider Billie Eillish creating herself up from nothing(or at least cultivating that perception). Recording studios with industy contacts don't control the game anymore. Outside of the traditional distribution network radio stations use, only niche college stations staffed by youngish people play anything unique because it's partly a passion project and they aren't working off market tested numbers Clearchannel stations have fallen into relying on. "Atomized culture" is a function of technological factors more than anything else. American folk norms are less universal than they were 30years ago for sure, but they're moreso than 130 years ago since national-level broadcasts and mass culture products created homo americanus out of the disparate and isolated tribes who came here

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  10. Couldn't this simply be COVID? Plenty of tours and concerts have been postponed or cancelled, and it wouldn't be surprising to find out that a lot of music that's been recorded in the lockdown has been withheld because the likelihood of it fizzing with no national shows to promote it is high. How long has the latest James Bond movie been on the shelf?

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  11. No, they're making music -- but not playing it on the radio. Or, they were playing it on the radio in 2020, but no longer in 2021.

    That rules out COVID as the excuse -- typical, anytime someone blames COVID for something.

    The post lists all sorts of songs and artists who put out new songs in 2020, were played in 2020, but have been wiped out in 2021. And that's not because other, even newer songs and artists took their place -- but because the "contempo" station has gone back to 2019 and much further, to source their playlists.

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  12. All that gay online shit has been out since forever, at least since the early 2010s. This change is very recent, like in the past few months.

    People making their own content online has nothing to do with it. If audiences wanted a single national culture to belong to, or even a large-scale sub-culture -- a la metalheads, goths, etc. -- then their bands of choice would be filling the airwaves, rather than the corporate big label stuff.

    Instead, there is no national culture or sub-culture anymore. Tech had nothing to do with it, since the tech potential has been there forever. Attitudes changed, not tech. Also, tech doesn't force anyone to use it at all, let alone in certain ways rather than others, let alone at a large scale.

    Blaming / crediting tech changes with other big changes is always wrong. I've never seen a single persuasive case.

    It's not worth arguing, though -- some people's brains are wired to blame external, exogenous shocks / invasions / contaminations for internal changes. Other people's brains can see the internal dynamics unto themselves creating such changes.

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  13. We were struggling with what it meant to be an “American” for the last 20 years. So many people have realized that the word no longer has any meaning. After “sanctuary cities” and states, and the government Stopping The Wall, it doesn’t even mean “someone with their paperwork in order.”

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