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.)