As I’ve written about extensively in previous articles, I’m a total media addict. While this addiction usually manifests itself in the movies and TV shows I watch, I also try to keep up to date with other aspects of pop culture, including music. I go out of my way to listen to as wide a variety of music as possible, including just about any song or album that reaches a certain level of popular success. If a song hits Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, pretty soon it’ll wind up on my iPod, and within a few days I’ll know all of its lyrics by heart. That’s just the nature of my obsessive personality.
An obsessive personality is an enormous benefit to a film student because it leads to greater pattern recognition abilities. Sure, writing and creative thinking skills are great, but I’ll take the student who has seen a whole bunch of different things and is able to draw parallels between them.
In this light, I humbly submit the following: that while I’m not a music critic, I do think I’m pretty good at recognizing patterns. And if there’s one thing I’ve noticed from listening to all of the über-popular songs over the past couple of years, it’s that they all pretty much sound the same.
Just like with movie genres, in each of our minds we’ve got some vague sense of different musical genres: there’s rock, pop, R&B, dance, rap, and a variety of others. Each genre is supposed to have its own artists and its own sound. But nowadays, when you examine the most popular musical acts in the world, it all blends together into a kind of Techno/Pop/Rock/Hip-hop jumble. Top 40 has usually been the term used to describe the most popular songs on the radio, but until these past few years I don’t believe you could say it was ever truly a genre unto itself. Now, the walls have totally broken down. Katy Perry – pop queen – records a track with rapper Kanye West. Kanye works extensively with pop/R&B artist Rihanna. Rihanna records a song with rock band Coldplay. And it all sounds the same. Sure, there are exceptions. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a retro bluesy Motown tune, and it has somehow become the most popular and successful song of the past year. But most of the time, the types of songs that reach the top of the charts these days are songs that exhibit elements of several genres, and it almost doesn’t matter who the individual artists are: Jay-Z, Kelly Clarkson, Lady Gaga, LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, The Black Eyed Peas, Britney Spears, Eminem, Bruno Mars, Lil Wayne, Maroon 5, B.o.B – increasingly, their musical styles are indistinguishable from one another.
These first few paragraphs have been an extremely roundabout way to make the following point: that if there’s one word I’d use to describe this unholy melange of musical styles, it’s BUSY. When you listen to these über-popular songs, your ears are clobbered by wave after wave of various sounds, many of which are not indigenous to the natural world. There are, of course, sung lyrics, but there are also rapped verses, four-on-the-floor dance beats, auto-tuned squeals, loud and forceful drum parts, non-musical sound effects, synthetic drum machines, producer signatures (if I hear one more song that starts with “Kane is in the building,” I’m going to hurt someone) and all manner of electronic bleeps and bloops. And all of these elements are layered one on top of the others so that your ears frequently have no idea what they’re supposed to be listening to. The young person in me wants to call it an ‘immersive experience’ and the old geezer in me wants to complain that it’s, y’know, all loud and bangy. Either way, hit records have never been so hectic.
If you want a couple of good examples of all of this stuff working together in practice, listen to the Katy Perry/Kanye remix of “E.T.” or “The Show Goes On” by Lupe Fiasco:
So after several years of listening to song after song of this exceedingly busy style of music, something else occurred to me. Like Spidey-senses tingling to action, my pattern recognition skills brought me to an unusual inference: if this kind of thing is happening in popular music, it’s probably also happening in other media, like movies and television. Hmmm…
On that cliffhanger, I digress for a moment to explore something else. (Like a good Seinfeld episode, I promise to tie everything together at the end.) If you’re my age or younger, you’re probably just like me in that you no longer have any semblance of an attention span. This is extremely problematic when your field of study requires you to routinely sit still for two to three hours at a time. Even during great movies, I’m constantly checking my watch, shifting around in my seat, thinking about various things (some of which are connected to the movie I’m watching and some of which aren’t) and generally feeling understimulated by the whole experience. If I’m watching a movie or TV show at home, I’m likely to be simultaneously surfing the internet on my laptop or even playing a video game. Multi-tasking has become the norm.
I don’t understand exactly why this has increasingly become the case for me and many others, but I chalk a lot of it up to the technological options at our disposal. When I was a little kid, there was no such thing as the internet, so you were kind of forced to just settle in and watch whatever it was you were watching. The multitude of options in today’s world, though, means that I constantly feel the pressure to experience them all at once – I desperately need to know who’s e-mailing me, how many people are reading my blog, what’s happening in the news, what’s new in the video game I’m playing, who won the football or hockey game, who wrote what crazy thing on Twitter, etc., etc., etc.
Here’s the thing about movie and TV producers: they have pretty good pattern recognition abilities too, and my theory is that either consciously or unconsciously they’re tailoring their products to capitalize on the Millennial Generation’s complete lack of attention span – just like their music-producing counterparts. If there’s one thing the contemporary Top 40 mish-mash style is good at, it’s keeping your ears busy, and recent Hollywood blockbuster films try to do the same thing for your eyes. Take the Transformers movies, for instance. Those suckers are edited at a break-neck pace and leave almost no time for any kind of plot or characters. But from the perspective of film producers, that stuff doesn’t matter – what does matter is that the endless stream of pretty CGI, explosions, sound effects, lens flares, cheesy one-liners, 3-D effects and the like keep its young audience sufficiently busy so that they aren’t texting on their iPhones, reading their e-mail, IMing with friends, and so on. It keeps their butts in the seats.
Television series are increasingly doing the same thing, though they go about it in a different way. Without the budgets necessary for the cornucopia of visual stimuli evident in Hollywood action movies, they concentrate on what they do have the resources to do: come up a list of every plot twist they can think of, throw them all at the wall and see what sticks. While this can sometimes lead to really interesting serialized shows (the first couple of seasons of Lost, for instance), it can also lead to repetitive or simply nonsensical developments that make a show progressively less accessible (the last couple of seasons of Lost, for instance… yeah, you probably saw that slam coming from a mile away). 24, Prison Break, Heroes and Battlestar Galactica are other examples of shows that lived or died by their ability to juggle unexpected plot developments, and while Battlestar generally did pretty well, the others weren’t so lucky.
I’m a strong believer in the idea that cultural trends have a way of transcending media; if something interesting is happening in music or literature, it will eventually find its way over to film and television. While this recent trend towards progressively busier movies, TV shows, and music might not exhibit much in the way of artistic merit, it certainly reflects the multitudinous ways that our world is changing – and the resultant ways that we ourselves are changing. For me, the unanswered question is this: is this contemporary stimuli-based style simply a reflection of our own preferences, or is its success to some extent the result of the fact that it’s all we’re being presented with by the major media companies? Are we gradually being conditioned to accept this busy style as the new normal? If major movie studios went back to the type of movies they made in the 1970s – movies with great characters, social and political themes, and copious symbolic and metaphorical meaning – would people even go see them? I’d like to think the answer is yes – but knowing my own attention span, I’d probably be texting and tweeting the whole time. Sigh.