Ask any musician what he or she thinks about the current state of pop music, and it’s almost a guarantee that you will be met with a barrage of disparaging remarks. This article does not aim to attack or demonize current trends. Its goal is to analyze what is happening in the pop music markets and make an informed opinion about where the future of the genre is going. While I find the following points personally unfavorable, everyone is entitled to enjoy what he or she enjoys.
Since that disclaimer is out of the way, let’s dive in a check out ten traits of current pop music and how they are being used (and overused!).
The following rhythm appears all the time in pop music, usually as a repeated phrase (ostinato). It’s most commonly heard on a higher-pitched percussion instrument (like the clave), but can appear on any instrument:
Most hit songs pull from the same small library (or libraries) of high-quality recorded samples. If a sound engineer or artist is able to record a sound effect, specific percussion hit, or other desirable sound, he or she is able to market it and charge high fees for its use. Because the pop market is controlled by a few large record labels and music companies, like Warner Music Group*, almost all of the songs pull from the same collections of samples. This results in us hearing the exact same effects over and over again which, in turn, contributes to pop music sounding “generic” or similar across the genre. For example, you can hear my personal nemesis in a ton of pop songs: a group of male voices repeatedly shouting “hey”, usually placed on the offbeat. Fancy uses this sample. Be advised that the song is explicit.
*: There is a lot of current controversy over Warner Music Group monetizing YouTube and social markets over rights violations. Proceed with caution when researching them.
Using Samples Out of Context
Piggy-backing on the previous point, the limited selection of useable samples results in the weird inclusion of those samples in songs. For example, the “hey” shouts that I mentioned show up all the time in songs that don’t necessarily call for it. Recognizable samples like that trend more towards a feeling or an idea and are used to invoke that recollection on the song, regardless if it makes sense with the lyrics. Using those shouts in a mid-tempo ballad would be odd, but it would cause the listener to equate the song with typical club or dance music. This may be desirable by the artist or producer to maintain consistency with a certain brand.
The Reggaeton Rhythm
This rhythm is abused all the time. Like the Millennial Clave, it derives directly from Latin and Cuban music. The cultural blending in music is admiral, but everything is good in moderation. There is a problem when this rhythm is in nearly every single Latin pop song (and many non-Latin pop songs to boot!). You can hear it clearly in Despacito.
Bass Buildup and Drop
This one has been around in common practice since the 90s. I have noticed a slight reduction in its use, but it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. This occurs typically in the pre-chorus or bridge of a song when the percussion builds up in rapidity before a dramatic pause and bass drop. Start listening around 0:20 for one of the most famous and original uses of it with Sandstorm.
This term refers to when pop singers exploit the effectiveness of microphones to whisper-sing in close proximity to the recording device. While this invokes intimacy and can be used as an interesting effect, it is easy to over-use and can quickly become a detriment to a song. Listen to it here in Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy.
Simple Chords and Progressions
I know, I know. Every musician ever has complained about this. However, it’s worth noting that some of the most famous chart-toppers are surprisingly simple. Did you know that Uptown Funk is composed of only two repeating chords? Turn Down for What is arguably only one chord. (The beginning snare sample is also a variation on the Millennial Clave, and the “hey” shouts show up here, too!) Jackie Chan uses a five-note major scale as a melody (which most piano students learn at their first or second lesson). Simplicity is fine once in a while, but its use is concerning if it becomes the absolute norm.
Sampling and Using Other Songs
There have been several recent chart-toppers have unabashedly used previous hits as the body of the work. For example, Aloe Blacc’s The Man is really just Elton John’s Your Song. Train’s Play That Song is just Heart and Soul. Clearly, everyone benefits from collaborations like this – the original artist claims royalties and more clicks and the newer artist gains revenue and a stronger fan base. However, reusing old material and claiming it as new is irksome if the new material does not drastically improve the original work. This is incredibly subjective, but I find a subtle nod to a previous work much more admirable than using seventy-five percent of it to create a “new” song – and then market it as such.
The pop chart-toppers all sound perfect – almost too perfect. Innovations like Autotune, Melodyne and other post-production techniques in the studio have gotten so advanced that our ears have become accustomed to hearing perfection. Recordings that are not perfect, such as live cuts, folk music, classical music, and older hits from the 1970s or earlier, now sound vastly different and unpolished. For example, see if you can notice the slight rhythmic and tonal fluctuations that make this song a classic: All Along the Watchtower. Today, commercial recordings are also incredibly compressed (enhanced so that the sonic field is reduced to a specific range of frequencies). This makes the tracks louder, but finer sounds and finesse are lost in the process. I have noticed that current tracks in 2019 have been using more blatant autotune. Its use has shifted from a state of being either a deliberate effect or a tool that is not supposed to be noticed to an ambiguous blend of the two. For example, listen to Sam Smith's How Do You Sleep. Can you notice the digital artifacts that pull his voice to pitch, especially when he does short vocal runs?
Acoustic Drums are Gone
Even in genres that call for the use of acoustic drums like metal and rock, it is hard to find tracks that actually have recorded real drums. Almost every major-label band uses drum samples and synthesized sounds to perfect the music. Doing so, in my opinion, sterilizes the sound of the band and makes all bands who use the same samples sound similar. The same can also be said for genres like pop that veer away from real instruments in favor of more synthesizers and electronic sounds. Every acoustic instrument has its own unique sound and timbre that cannot be replicated. If everyone uses the same bank of electronic sounds and samples, how can everyone not sound the same?
Where Does Pop Music Go from Here?
No one has a crystal ball, but I suspect that the 2020s will see a shift in focus in pop music. Because the same sample libraries and sounds have been overused, I predict that artists will shift towards perfecting timbre and the sound qualities that cannot be replicated and used by everyone else. This may result in more interesting vocal techniques and may cause a resurgence in the use of real instruments. Artists and labels will begin to care how to stand out and create new sounds in order to be noticed and break away from the pack.
See if you can notice these ten trends in pop music the next time that you turn on the radio. Check out loads of our other informative articles here, and until next time, keep actively listening and practicing!