Old music was better

For a long while — decades at least, I’ve had the impression the modern popular music is not as good as it was in the 60s, and indeed when I was growing up in the 70s or even the early 80s. What do I mean by “not as good”? I mean less melody, less harmony, less lyrical invention and most of all, a growing uniformity, where every song sounds increasingly the same as every other song.

But I’ve always been suspicious of my impression, because I know it’s not only near-universal, but it always has been. I particularly remember some time around 1977 (the year when Don’t Give Up on Us, Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, Knowing Me Knowing You and Show You The Way to Go, among others, were #1 hits in the UK) when my dad came home with an Johnny Ray album. He was telling us how much better it was than all this modern rubbish. He put on the first track, Yes Tonight Josephine, and the very first thing we heard was “Yip yip way bop de boom ditty boom ditty“. It didn’t make a strong case.

So is it just nostalgia? Is each generation condemned to believe that the music that was popular when they were growing up was the best? I’ve been sceptical about that conclusion for one reason; and today another reason occurred to me. First, the old reason: ever since I’ve been aware of a progression of popular music through time, I’ve felt that the music of the 1960s is better than what I grew up with in the 70s and 80s. Whatever you think of the 1977 selection, you’d be have to say that, for example, 1965 (You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’, Tired of Waiting for You, Ticket to Ride, Mr. Tambourine Man, Satisfaction) was even more varied and interesting. But I think if I really just stuck on what I grew up with, I would be blinded to that.

Then today I realised something else: TV series are getting better over time. Old episodes of Star Trek and Doctor Who seem desperately slow-moving and poorly acted compared with more modern TV sci-fi. I’ve been enjoying Happy Days in its retro way, but again it seems very vague and unfocussed compared with more modern schooldays dramas such as Buffy or Veronica Mars. There is far more intelligence in The West Wing or House than in anything from the 60s or 70s. There’s more wit in Frasier than in I Love Lucy. (You may, and no doubt will, dispute some of the specific claims in this list — I know for example that Old Who has its die-hard adherents — but the general thrust stands.)

The fact that I think TV has been getting better over time makes me more confident in my assessment that popular music has been getting worse. At any rate, I’m confident that if I’ve mistaken, then at least it’s not because I have an innate tendency to think that Older Is Better.

(In another sense of course, right now is the golden age of music — because there is so very much of it and it’s so accessible that you can easily fill your life with wonderful music and ignore all the dreck.)

13 responses to “Old music was better

  1. I think your last point is the key. There’s *more* popular music being composed than ever before, and more ways of getting it out to people, so we’re seeing the same distribution with more data points. More outstandingly brilliant stuff, drowned in an ever-growing sea of ever-worse dreck.

    (Much the same is happening in self-published fiction. I mostly pay attention to edited, i.e. *curated* short SF and fantasy these days, which serves to cut off the dreck end of the spectrum, and these days there is *far* more good new stuff than you can possibly read, far more than the old three or four magazines-worth, and almost all in largely or completely online venues. Heck, even the old magazines are basically ebook venues these days…)

  2. David Starner

    When Billboard Magazine produced “Top 10 songs of All-Time (1958-2013)”, the top song is Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”. The next song, jumping forward 40 years, from the early 60s to the late 90s, is Santana’s “Smooth”. The verbal and musical complexity of the latter is much higher.

    I think time has a way of focusing on the good. The Great Gatsby has at least a claim on the best English-language novel of 1925, but is not on the top 10 bestselling books of that year. It’s very hard to look at our time, or recent time, in the same way as the curated past.


  3. See also Clay Shirky’s comments on how TV sitcoms were basically the equivalent of gin in the industrial revolution https://web.archive.org/web/20080604020024/http://www.herecomeseverybody.org/2008/04/looking-for-the-mouse.html

    Or Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good For You”.

  4. Nix, yes, absolutely. It’s not even just that there is so much more stuff to choose from these days, it’s that there are so many more discovery mechanisms. Artistically, it’s a great time to be alive.

    David, it’s interesting (and not at all unusual) that The Great Gatsby, now considered a classic, was not particularly recognised during its own time. What’s even more interesting is how sometimes an artist or artwork is acclaimed in its own time, then falls out of favour, and is subsequently rediscovered. In general, I think we have to conclude that neither contemporary opinion not present opinion is necessarily a very reliable guide to greatness. (Remember for example that Joni Mitchell never had a number one album in the US or UK, and in fact only two of her albums even cracked the top ten in either country!)

    I’m not sure what criteria Billboard were using, though, that meant the artists responsible for the all-time top ten songs, aside from the Beatles, were Chubby Checker, Santana, Bobby Darin, LeAnn Rimes, LMFAO, The Black Eyed Peas, Los Del Rio, Olivia Newton John and Debby Boone.

    Sam, thanks for the Clay Shirky link. As always, it’s fascinating. The banner datum for me is that every weekend, Americans spend as much time watching TV adverts as all the man-hours that have gone into Wikipedia.

  5. I do think there’s a big difference between comparing the best music from an era, and comparing the popular music of an era (see, as a point of reference about the limits of putting too much weight on chart-toppers, Gore Vidal’s classic essay about reading the bestsellers of the year — part 1, part 2).

    The Beatles are a great band by any standard, but they’re particularly unusual in the degree to which they combined critical and popular success, so that’s going to give the 60s an advantage when you ask which era had the best hits.

    I will, however, mention that George Starostin wrote a great polemic about how much better the pop music of the 60s was than everything that came after it, which I enjoy even if I don’t entirely agree.

    On the other hand, as other people have noted, the past is always going to have an advantage over the present in that people have had more time to find and identify hidden gems. I remember reading the All Music series on “AllMusic loves [year]” and thinking that the year which looks really good in retrospect is 1979. Just from the albums their contributors list I’d pick out my favorites of):

    Terry Allen – Lubbock (On Everything)
    Joe Jackson – Look Sharp!
    Gang of Four – Entertainment!
    The Clash – London Calling
    Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces
    The B-52’s – The B-52’s
    The Specials – The Specials
    Marianne Faithfull – Broken English
    Fleetwood Mac – Tusk
    Talking Heads – Fear of Music
    Squeeze – Cool for Cats
    Nick Lowe – Labour of Lust

    If I was stuck on a desert island with those 12 albums, I could be happy for a long time. But I don’t know how many people in 1979 would have heard all of those. In particular, I think the Terry Allen is an absolute masterpiece, but I doubt too many people were listening to that and the Gang of Four.

  6. Of course there’s a huge difference between the best and most popular music of an era. That’s why I didn’t even try to compare the best of two eras, which would be wildly subjective; but the most popular, which is easy to quantify through sales.

    So — you say that “the past is always going to have an advantage over the present in that people have had more time to find and identify hidden gems”. But I think that is only true as regards best music, not most popular, which one can hardly help but find.

  7. Well yes, I agree that it’s much easier and more precise to compare the most popular music, I just deny that it’s all that useful :)

    If for no other reason than that the audience for popular music shifts over time. So you have three different variables at work [the music being produced during the era], [what’s most popular among the music buying public] and [who is the music buying public].

    So I’m not sure what point you would want to make by comparing popular music across generations (except, the limited point that some eras will look better than others).

  8. I suppose I should add that I’m biased.

    Very little of the music that I am most fond of was popular at the time it was released, so . . . I am inclined to push back against any survey of music which focuses just on popular music.

  9. Andrew Hickey

    Another possible explanation is that popular music is generally aimed at people in their teens or twenties, while the TV shows are being made for older people. I suspect if you chose *children’s* programming from when you were growing up and compared it to now, you’d feel rather differently.
    (And the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12…)
    You’re also picking TV made over a twenty-year period here, while looking at individual years in popular music. And you’re cherry-picking with the examples, in a way you’re not with music — you’re not choosing just the most popular TV. You could make a similar argument in the other direction — compare Monty Python to Little Britain and sketch shows have gone downhill; Fawlty Towers to Mrs Brown’s Boys and sitcoms are worse; the Nigel Kneale/Peter Cushing version of 1984 to Torchwood…
    And while all the music you name from 1965 was great, remember the biggest hit of 1965 was Tears by Ken Dodd. I don’t think Zorba’s Dance, A Walk In The Black Forest, Pop Go The Workers by The Barron Knights, or The Special Years by Val Doonican, will ever be on anyone’s list of the greatest ever music either.
    There are other factors too. It’s much cheaper to record a single than to make a TV series, and so music has been able to be far more experimental, with the result that music production has changed and advanced far more quickly than TV production, which has only basically had four or five massive technological innovations, compared to the hundreds or thousands of innovations in popular music recording. That means it’s much easier to grow used to changes in TV and have them seem normal, while changes in pop music can make it sound unpleasant (I can’t cope with autotune at all) and give you less chance to adjust.
    All of which said, yes, it may well be that popular music is worse now, and I could think of a lot of reasons why that may be the case. But I don’t think it’s anywhere near that cut and dried…

  10. Andrew Hickey

    Deletable comment because I forgot to subscribe to the comment thread…

  11. David Starner

    I don’t think “most popular” has nearly as much meaning in the 21st century, either. The general consensus is that music has fragmented since the Internet; there’s not nearly the one dominant “popular music” now. Personally, 20 years ago, I would have had a choice of rock, country, pop or Christian radio stations. Today, I listen to a custom Pandora station on the run, or a selection of MP3s and Youtube videos that in many, maybe most, cases have never been released to any physical medium.

  12. If there is such a thing as “goodness” — if “good art” doesn’t just mean “whatever art I like” — then it must follow that some art is better at some times than others. Mustn’t it?

    I think it is at some level true that the children’s TV was better when I was a children, because I happened to grow up when one of the best children’s story tellers who ever lived, Oliver Postgate, was making children’s television. On the other hand, I grew up in an era where the popular music was notoriously poor: kids at my school who were into music were into The Osmonds, David Cassidy, The Bay City Rollers, Garry Glitter. I truthfully believed that “music” was therefore just not very interesting. If I’d lived ten years previously, I could truthfully have said that Paul McCartney was one of the best popular-tune-writers who ever lived and that I was buying pop records when he was making them.

    On the other hand, something can be very good and also very much of it’s time. There is no point in telling children that Diary of a Wimpy Kid isn’t as good as Grange Hill, any more than there was any point in telling us that Grange Hill wasn’t as good as Billy Bunter. There will always be a market for school stories which reflect kids current experiences, and which will go out of date almost immediately. And you have to be a very good writer to write that kind of thing.

    I don’t know if it is true that New Doctor Who is, in some objective sense, better than Old Doctor Who. What is definitely true is that Old Doctor Who involves a style of acting; a style of production; a type of story telling; a set of social attitudes which already look terribly Old Fashioned. If you want to find out how good Talons of Weng Chiang is in some objective sense, you have to teach yourself to ignore the Old Fashioned Bits. (Some people say that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to watch a black and white movie or a movie with subtitles, but most people find that with a bit of practice they stop noticing.) But why go to all that trouble when they are making new stuff which doesn’t have those kinds of obstacles?

  13. More and more popular music is recorded to an unwavering ‘click track’ to ensure 100% consistent BPM, taking out a lot of organic feel.

    Then there is the effect of the ‘loudness wars’ killing dynamic range in music:
    1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Gmex_4hreQ
    2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMNJEC1G-fE

    Much modern music is ‘composed’ by gluing samples together of other songs, and while it is sometimes done artfully, it often isn’t….

    3) The fascinating site http://www.whosampled.com/ is a lot of fun to explore in this regard….

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