Upon its release a few months ago, ABBA’s album “Voyage” topped the music charts all over the world. What was touted originally as a few new songs to supplement the group’s already-famous corpus of music ended up becoming the most successful album of 2021 in many countries, including the United States.
While it’s not exactly noteworthy that such a big name in pop music does well with a new album, it’s rather remarkable that this big-name releases this album 40 years after the group’s last one and they sound exactly the same as they did four decades ago. While other aging musicians, like David Bowie or Paul McCartney, would change with the times (for better or for worse, often the latter), ABBA seemed to stand still, or even regress somewhat from the time they recorded “The Visitors.”
Not only does the massive success of “Voyage” suggest that people’s musical tastes haven’t changed, but it also suggests that pop music itself has hit a dead end. Even in the days of the internet, smartphones, and Bitcoin, people still like to jam to retrograde disco music that would’ve fit right in the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. Moreover, it took the two elderly divorced couples from Sweden to come back together to really make this music work.
Ted Gioia discusses this disturbing trend in an excellent essay, “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” Old (or dead) musicians have gradually taken over the music industry. Instead of big record labels investing in new artists and promoting their work, they will eagerly seek to buy up rights for older musicians and repackage their work. “The new music market is actually shrinking,” Gioia writes. “All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.”
Much of this has to do with who listens to music seriously anymore, which consists mainly of Boomers and Gen Xers. They have money and the will to actually patronize favorite musicians they liked as teenagers, whereas actual teenagers and adults in their 20s and 30s will stream playlists compiled by an algorithm. And, because older generations dictate what’s played everywhere, the younger generations will unwittingly find their algorithms and media playing the same oldies bands.
Some of this is just the way the pop music industry has always operated. Morrissey, the lead singer for the 1980s New Wave band The Smiths, sings about the risk-averse vultures squeezing all possible profits from a “dead star” in “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” “Reissue! Repackage! Repackage! Reevaluate the song! Double-pace with a photograph (Extra track and a tacky badge).” The irony is probably not lost on Morrissey himself as he continues to do the very same thing with his own music.
Thus, for many people, pop music has become a wasteland of derivatives, devoid of originality or creativity. If it’s not old dinosaurs and cover bands rocking out to hits from so many years back, it’s underwhelming new pop stars flaming out after a few singles and mostly producing musical excrement.
At least, this is one way to look at it, especially if one limits themselves to listening to the radio—which most millennials and iGen do not. Another way to look at it is that pop music is becoming more rarefied and meritocratic. The best pop musicians may not be as popular as their forebears, but in many ways, they are smarter, more talented, and objectively better.
“There are plenty of outstanding young musicians out there,” Gioia rightly notes. “The problem isn’t that they don’t exist, but that the music industry has lost its ability to discover and nurture their talents.”
Many new bands are recovering the textures, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of the past to make something new and wonderful. This was my main takeaway when I reviewed the phenomenal album “Titanic Rising” by Weyes Blood. Here was the best album of any genre in more than a decade, and hardly anyone would ever know about it.
True, many will dismiss these new artists as unoriginal hacks who lack the raw experimental authenticity of their days. To that, today’s listeners can justifiably respond, “Good riddance!” It’s going to take a lot more than some sensitive guy with a guitar or a crew of teenagers strumming the same three chords in their garage to make it in today’s musical environment.
Pop music is experiencing something similar to the evolution of classical music, which started with amateur monks and troubadours and grew into the colossal productions of Wagner’s operas and Mahler’s symphonies. Pop musicians today need to know how to write and perform music. They need to study the masters of the past, be well versed in different musical genres, and cultivate a deep understanding of music studios and equipment.
The innovation in the newest generation of pop musicians certain exists, but it’s more subtle than innovation in the past. Those demanding something more obviously new and experimental should be careful what they wish for. Like modern abstract art, this kind of newness generally dispenses with the things that make the art form enjoyable and relies heavily on shock and absurdity. It produces pop stars like Cardi B singing about her genitalia, Lil Nas X making satanic homoerotic music videos, or Taylor Swift (perhaps the last pop superstar) whining about the patriarchy supposedly working against her.
Paradoxically, the place where people can discover good pop music is the same place that killed pop music as most people have come to know it: online. Even though Neil Young and Joni Mitchell have left Spotify, many great young artists much better than them can be found there as well as on many other music apps. Of course, this will require listeners to move beyond the algorithm and seek out these new bands themselves. And if they’re any good, they should recommend them to their friends and family.
As Gioia concludes, the history of pop music is filled with grassroots movements ushering in new musical personalities and styles into the public consciousness. Although media moguls try to dictate what the masses should like, they will more often end up following the masses since this ultimately makes them money. And this is even more true today than at any time in the past, as a host of artists with internet access have the potential to build their audiences and promote themselves without having to go through gatekeepers that invariably compromise their art.
It’s an exciting time for music. Whenever people are willing to accept reality and move on from their oldies stations, they will be happily surprised by what’s out there. It will lift their spirits and even restore their faith in humanity—but only if they let it.