During a discussion with a friend, who spent a career in the production side of popular music, ending up as the head of a fairly well known record label, the question came up as to what actually constituted a “standard” in popular music, that is, a song recorded and/or covered by a number of well-known performers. Our friend the former music industry executive immediately pointed out that each generation had its “standards,” to which I rejoined that not all “standards” were necessarily equal, because there can be a difference between standards, particularly given in the technical skill of the composer and performer of one generation’s standard, and that of another generation’s standards, and that there also can be a great difference between popularity and artistic excellence.
That brings up several questions. First, how can a listener tell the difference? Second, does it really matter? And third, assuming that one can tell the difference, why does it matter?
To begin with, most listeners can’t tell the difference, not really, because a listener can’t tell the difference if he or she hasn’t listened to a broad range of music, and the majority of listeners tend to listen in a narrow comfort range, both in terms of type of music and the time and style in which it is/was played or recorded. In addition, if someone doesn’t know something about the technical side of both instrumental and vocal music production, the distinctions are merely based on likeability or familiarity. That’s fine from a personal point of view, but it means that such a person really can’t see how music has changed.
Does being able to see the changes and what they indicate really matter? Again, on the level of whether one enjoys the current “standards,” it doesn’t. On a cultural and societal level, I’d submit that it does. When complex melodic patterns are replaced on a wide scale by short melodic repetitions, when repetitive rhythms and percussive effects overshadow melody and meaning, when lyrics become increasingly crude and simplistic in popular music, those all reflect a considerable societal change. But anyone who hasn’t listened to poplar music spanning decades or hasn’t studied it won’t even see the change, much less consider the implications.
Popular music is symptomatic of culture, and the issue goes well beyond music. The same issues apply to popular fiction, what art is popular, what movies and television shows earn the most or have the highest audience ratings, and even what theatre is most popular – or what entertainment form is dominant.
The majority of those immersed in a society/culture really don’t see, let alone question, what such changes mean… and what they foretell. Part of that is that most members of any culture don’t understand their own history, let alone the broader path of past history.
In the early days of Rome, gladiatorial contests were rare, and semi-religious. Chariot racing was small-time. By the time of the empire, particularly after Augustus, both had become popular blood sports. A century ago, football in the United States was a collegiate sport, and limited to comparatively few colleges at that, and baseball was the national sport. There was auto racing, but it was the habit of a few, generally wealthy, individuals.
Now, football has become the national blood sport; basketball has gone from being a generally non-contact sport to a contact sport, and NASCAR is a multi-billion dollar business. And, oh, yes, the most popular music is incredibly simplistic and linguistically almost unintelligible (while sounding pretty much all alike), and a greater percentage of movies now incorporate more and more sex and violence.
Do you see what I see?