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The student news site of iUniversity Prep in Grapevine, Texas

iHoot

The student news site of iUniversity Prep in Grapevine, Texas

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HOW POPULAR MUSIC HAS CHANGED

The state of current music, Gen Z’s relationship with it, and the band that’s changing it all
HOW+POPULAR+MUSIC+HAS+CHANGED
Amirah Santos Figueroa

Disclaimer: Some of the songs mentioned contain lyrical content not suitable for 5th graders. iHoot does not endorse any of the songs or artists mentioned in the article, so make sure to seek parental permission before listening to any of the songs mentioned in this article. 

 

Music binds our world together. For thousands of years, our species has manipulated sound as a means of self-expression, and the art has changed over time about as much as we have. However, the birth of the internet has caused a comparatively drastic change in a relatively short amount of time. Not only has the accessibility of music-making shifted dramatically during our lifetimes, but so has our generation’s appetite for specific styles and even our relationship with music itself.

 

What’s Changed

 

Today, pretty much anyone with access to a modern laptop or computer can digitally produce a song, post it on some platform or another, and go viral. No experience with instruments or music theory necessary; only wifi. However, this also means that anyone can make music, share it with the world, and become famous. No matter where they are or whether or not they can afford lessons in music, they have access to software that allows them to express themselves in a way that sounds just as professional as today’s pop stars. This in addition to music-sharing platforms, such as YouTube and Spotify, means that young music enthusiasts around the world are no longer limited to the confines of their parents’ garages. 

 

For some expertise on this subject from one of our school’s many amazing teachers, I interviewed Mr. Sexton, an expert in all things music. When I questioned him on whether he thinks it’s important for current artists to continue studying music theory and learning to play instruments, he responded, “I do. Only because it adds legitimacy to their status as an artist and as a creator. A lot of artists now are strictly just singers—and there’s nothing wrong with that as a performer—but if you’re actually going to write and going to create you’ve gotta be able to write and share that in a way everyone will be able to participate in.”

 

Music-making isn’t where the differences end. In recent years there have been multiple studies showing a trend toward negative tones and themes, and away from cheerfulness in modern popular music. In 2018, the Journal of Popular Music Studies published an analysis of lyrical trends in popular music. After analyzing 6,150 Billboard 100 songs spanning from 1951 to 2016, they found a significant decrease in lyrics expressing joyful, positive themes, and an increase in those expressing sad, angry, and negative themes. 

 

Mr. Sexton shares that while he has noticed a change, it’s because Gen Z tends to be more open to expressing our emotions than previous generations have been. “Certainly there are examples of that, I don’t think it’s overwhelmingly, but there’s certainly more than in the 80s. There wasn’t a lot of sadness going on, unless, again, I think that may be a function of the evolution of the youth culture. They are more in touch with their feelings and want to express them.”

 

The internet gives people today more opportunities to express themselves and share their thoughts with the world than humanity has ever seen before. This has resulted in our generation having been raised exposed to a new social norm, thus causing Gen Z to generally feel more comfortable with sharing our emotions. 

 

Another element of mainstream music that has changed in recent decades is timbral variety. Timbre is defined as a sound’s color; it’s the quality of an instrument that gives it its unique sound. Having timbral variety means having a diverse range of sounds in a piece. While technology gives today’s musician access to a greater range of unique sounds than they’ve ever had before, as long as the sounds are electronically produced, the song would still lack diversity in timbre on a more technical level due to the absence of non-digital sounds. To see how this is impacting today’s music, a study done by Scientific American found that there has been a decline in mainstream music’s timbral variety since the 1960s. This means there has been a decrease in the variety of instruments used, less overall range in pitches, and less experimentation in recording techniques. 

 

This trend goes along with current mainstream artists’ tendency to favor digitally produced music to real instruments and unaltered vocals. Less timbral variety in the song also means less work for the artists, since there is less complexity and thus fewer components to consider. Furthermore, it would be more difficult for artists lacking an education in music to include a variety of unique sounds than to let the computer generate a simple track to support their lyrics. 

 

Mr. Sexton has noticed this drift away from variety too. “To sum that up in Layman’s terms, it all starts sounding kinda alike. There’s really no unique sound. Now, there are certainly artists that are, like, as soon as you hear them, you say, ‘Oh, I know exactly who that is.’ [But, generally] it’s all kind of homogenized together, all started sounding the same.”

 

To offer an example of this, take a few of 1976’s top hits (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Dream On,” “Disco Lady,” etc.), and listen for how many distinct sounds there are in the song. Now, pick a few of today’s top hits (“Dance the Night,” “Cruel Summer,” “Get Him Back!,” etc.), and compare how many different timbres occur in these tracks to those of 1976. There’s a noticeable difference, and not only in the variety, the timbres present are also significantly different. Now, these examples do include songs from different genres, but both are from lists of top songs of their year, which also shows that rock has lost popularity and been replaced by pop and dance music. As seen with these current examples of popular songs, pop and dance tend to be composed only of digital, computer-generated sounds and the singer’s voice. In contrast, “Dream On” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” feature a plethora of unique sounds, including different instruments and a range of distinct vocals. 

 

But why is this trend happening? The internet has resulted in enormous changes in music making, so shouldn’t that give us more opportunities to create and use unique sounds now that we have more tools than ever before? The answer may lie in our generation’s relationship with music. To illustrate this, I’ve collected data from iUP students in Mr. Sexton’s World Music class. 

 

Gen Z’s Relationship with Music

 

While the effect technology has had on music-making is undeniable, I was curious to see where our generation’s stance was on this change. With the help of a Google form and Mr. Sexton’s World Music class, I conducted a survey to see where iUP students stand in regard to the music world. 

 

In general, all students who participated in the study agreed that the internet has made music making more widespread and accessible. Additionally, multiple students mentioned how tools such as autotune have shaped today’s hits, allowing anyone to sing as well as any contemporary pop star. But when it comes to students’ opinions on whether these changes are a good or a bad thing, there seem to be two distinct sides: those who see it as more opportunities for artists, and those who see it as an excuse for modern music-makers to be lazy. 

 

For example, one student believes that “modern technology has affected contemporary music in a way where musicians and singers can be more creative in the rhythm and background music, as well as adjusting the lyrics and vocals with things such as autotune, mashups (where they combine two or more recordings and combine them into one whole section of the song), and other tech similar to that.” On the other hand, another student felt that “The internet and technology have affected music by completely changing artist’s voices because of autotune, so anyone could become famous in music if they have the right autotune to their voice to make it sound good.” As the quotes show, our generation’s opinion is split. Using autotune as an example, some see it as purely beneficial to music, while others see it as a sign of inauthenticity and laziness.

 

The survey also asked students of their preferences when listening to music. Unsurprisingly, pop was the leading genre of choice, but rock was one of the least popular choices. Most of the participants who didn’t choose pop were split between multiple genres, such as country, R&B, and even classical and video game music. Additionally, exactly 50% of students said that current music was the era they listened to most often. The rest were split almost equally between the 80s, 90s, and 2000s.

 

The most surprising response from the survey was what students look for in music, and why they enjoy listening to songs they can connect with. But what is it, exactly, that lets us connect with a song? What makes that favorite song so special to us that we listen to it over, and over, and over again without growing tired of it? This study found that of the main elements of music, 100% of students included rhythm and beat in the features that allow them to deeply connect with a song. Vocals and lyrical content came in close after. This finding is especially fascinating because rhythm and beat are some of the most crucial components of modern dance and pop music. Besides the catchy lyrics, the beat is the most memorable part of the song; it’s what makes it so easy to dance to. 

 

As for the reasoning behind why students listen to music, the results were nothing short of shocking. The leading answer choice, making up 83% of responses, was that students listen to music with the purpose of having something playing in the background. Not emotional expression, not for the enjoyment of exposing yourself to new music, but to provide background noise. 

 

How This is Impacting the Music Industry

 

Does this desire for background music reflect something important about our current relationship with the art? As the studies mentioned earlier in the article have shown, music has grown less complex over recent decades, possibly as a result of technology allowing people without an education in music to have their work go viral. Simpler, easier-to-understand music is not only easier and cheaper to produce, but also easier on listeners–especially those just looking for something nice to play in the background. 

 

As a result, this growing trend in society’s music taste encourages musicians to play it safe and stick to creating music that will adhere to this trend, pleasing as many people as possible. This especially applies to those looking to gain fame as a performer or influencer. Since this quality of music is so simple to produce, as it is made up of a couple of computer-generated components with catchy lyrics sung over them, it is now much easier for people new to or inexperienced in music to quickly gain fame. 

 

Another result of this trend is that mainstream artists tend to be less experimental, both because of the public’s current lack of open-mindedness toward unconventional music and because there’s less of a need for artists to create entirely new and unique sounds. Compare Pink Floyd or The Doors–both extremely popular bands of their time and highly experimental in their music–to Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran. Both Pink Floyd and Taylor Swift have significantly impacted the music industry with their work, but in very different ways. Pink Floyd brought something entirely new to the music world; something bold and strange that challenged society’s ways of thinking. Swift, on the other hand, has gained enormous fame, but has stuck to a traditional style of popular music without risks or experimentation. Pink Floyd was famous for being different, and Taylor Swift is popular for following trends. 

 

Now, it is unfair to say that Gen Z just has bad taste in music, or that we’re uneducated. Having been raised to listen solely for catchy lyrics and a good beat when determining a song’s quality, we won’t notice what our music is missing without having studied it formally, or without having also listened to music from before our generation. However, there is a prevalent counterculture that prefers listening to older eras of music, which is where the other 50% of iUP students come in. The fact that so many students prefer listening to a blend of different eras in music says something significant about our generation. It is also unfair to say that artists today only care about following trends. There are certainly plenty of musicians who are taking the risk, but they simply aren’t making it to Billboard 100. 

 

Due to the convenience of making popular music, especially when it follows this trend, it’s easy to say that any attempts to break it and change our current taste in music would be very difficult. But there is a band that is proving otherwise. 

 

Greta Van Fleet

 

Greta Van Fleet is a Michigan-born rock band formed in 2012. They started small, like many great bands have done, by writing and playing music in their garage as high school students. The band consists of two sets of brothers: the twins, Josh and Jake Kiszka, and Sam and Danny Wagner. The band first made itself heard with their EPs, From the Fires and Black Smoke Rising, containing songs that became some of 2016 and 2017’s top hits in rock. They continued to gain popularity and were recognized by major artists, such as Elton John and Led Zeppelin, after their debut album Anthem of the Peaceful Army. From there, Greta Van Fleet became known for their authentic sound, and have even been called “classic rock revivalists.”

 

Hearing Greta Van Fleet amid the rest of modern music, you might think the radio station had made a mistake and accidentally played something from the 70s. Their music truly sounds as if the band had time-traveled from the era of classic rock. They remind us of just how moving it can be to hear real instruments. Additionally, Josh Kiszka’s vocals are something truly extraordinary compared to the bland repetition of modern rock. 

 

Greta Van Fleet’s work also has cinematic qualities and elements of storytelling unseen by any other current major artists. The band has stated that they aim to create fantasy worlds through their music. This world-building is especially prevalent in their two most recent albums, The Battle at Garden’s Gate and Starcatcher

 

Greta Van Fleet is challenging current norms in music. They not only use mainly non-digital instruments but, unlike the majority of current music, give the instrumentals the attention they deserve. In fact, a great deal of their music features only instrumentals, something mainstream music hasn’t seen for a good while now. For example, “The Weight of Dreams” from The Battle at Garden’s Gate captures every way in which Greta Van Fleet is transcending current trends, as it offers long stretches of pure, epic instrumentals and larger-than-life vocals, including a magnificent guitar solo. In contrast to so many of today’s mainstream artists, the band’s lyrics are predominantly impersonal and choose to focus on larger themes such as climate change, faith, war, and peace. 

 

As to what has inspired the band to write music so different from what our generation is used to, the members have said that they’re influenced by what they grew up listening to at home with their parents, such as blues and classic rock. However, they have also clarified that they aren’t necessarily trying to directly copy a certain style of music; the resulting sound is simply what the members are drawn to the most. Josh Kiszka stated in an interview with the New York Post that “You sort of end up sounding like your influences,”  “It’s, like, part of your DNA. You can’t really remove that element. That’s something that’s living and breathing [inside]. That’s where you’re coming from.”

 

Is there a chance that Greta Van Fleet could start a new movement back to the traditional style of composing music? Could they be the trailblazers reminding society of how valuable quality music is? It’s definitely a possibility, as similar occurrences have been seen countless times across music history. Some bold artist comes along and shocks the world with something new, inspiring others to follow their path, and creating a new movement. For the world to transition back to primarily traditional instruments and non-digital sounds would be quite a stretch, but Greta Van Fleet has a chance to at least make an impact on other upcoming artists in their genre. They’re already showing that it’s possible to go against current trends and still be successful musicians, all while inspiring and encouraging our generation to be open-minded toward traditional music production. 

 

Music has changed, and whether it’s been for the better or worse varies from person to person. While it has, and will, remain a form of expression, the way in which we use it and determine its value has shifted along with the rest of modern culture as technology evolves. But the truth is, like any other tool, technology is neutral, and the quality of the music that it’s used to make depends entirely on the artist and how they choose to use it. 

 

Works Cited:

Matson, J. (2012, July 26). Is Pop Music Evolving, or Is It Just Getting Louder?. Retrieved Oct 21, 2023 from Scientific American: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/is-pop-music-evolving-or-is-it-just-getting-louder/ 

(2023, November 29). Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1976. Retrieved October 14, 2023 from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billboard_Year-End_Hot_100_singles_of_1976 

 

Napier, K; Shamir, L. (2018, March 30). Quantitative Sentiment Analysis of Lyrics in Popular Music. Retrieved October 15, 2023 from Journal of Popular Music Studies:https://online.ucpress.edu/jpms/article-abstract/30/4/161/106385/Quantitative-Sentiment-Analysis-of-Lyrics-in?redirectedFrom=fulltext 

 

Brand, C; Acerbi, A. (2020, February 6). Why are pop songs getting sadder than they used to be?. Retrieved October 11, 2023 from Big Think: https://bigthink.com/high-culture/music-is-getting-sadder/ 

 

(2023, December 1). Today’s Top Hits. Retrieved December 1, 2023 from Spotify:https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37i9dQZF1DXcBWIGoYBM5M 

 

Arnold, C. (2021, April 15). Grammy-winning band Greta Van Fleet is keeping classic rock alive. Retrieved November 28, 2023 from New York Post: https://nypost.com/2021/04/15/grammy-winning-band-greta-van-fleet-is-keeping-classic-rock-alive/ 

(2023, November 21). Greta Van Fleet. Retrieved November 28, 2023 from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Van_Fleet

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Persephone Battle, Staff Writer
My name is Persephone Battle, I am a staff writer, and this is my second year with iHoot. I am now in 10th grade and have been with iUP since 5th. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for students to have their writing published in such an amazing newspaper with such a great variety of article topics! I love all forms of literature, both writing and reading them, and am grateful to be around fellow students with the same appreciation for writing. While I plan on majoring in astrophysics and am devoted to science, I have a great appreciation of the arts and have been working for the Mesquite Arts Center since the summer. Outside of school, I enjoy various outdoor activities (especially snowboarding), playing piano, chess, and fencing. In my free time, I like to travel, watch good sci-fi movies/shows, read, garden, and enjoy music.
Amirah Santos Figueroa, Photography & Graphics Editor
My name is Amirah Santos Figueroa, and I'm a sophomore here at iUniversity Prep. This is my 3rd year at iUP and this year I will be your Photography & Graphics Editor at iHoot! I am extremely excited to start this job as I thoroughly enjoy creating graphics and collaborating with other students. Some more things I love include photography/cinematography, reading/writing, cars, and collecting vinyl records. Outside of school you'll probably find me working out, traveling, and listening to music! I'm happy to be a part of iHoot this year as the Photography & Graphics Editor and can’t wait to read and assist you guys with your graphics and articles :)

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