The very notion of "popular" music is evolving before our eyes and ears. The appeal of a catchy tune hasn't changed, but we are no longer the mass audience we were during most of the 20th century. Hence, massively popular hit songs are becoming fewer and farther between. We go off by ourselves and listen to new music that appeals to us individually. But when we get together in large numbers we keep using the old songs, over and over again.
Two recent observations have reinforced for me the idea that as a society we are coming to experience and use pop music very differently than we did during what I am starting to think of as the "golden age" of recorded music.
1. I'm at a college hockey game. What do you think they are playing over the P.A. to get the fans excited for the home team's appearance on the ice? A new song by the Foo Fighters? Something off Jay-Z's new hit album? Guess again. It's "Won't Get Fooled Again," a 36-year-old track by The Who. And what does the pep band play in the stands during a pause in the action? "Jungle Boogie," by Kool & The Gang, from 1973.
2. I'm watching TV. A commercial comes on for some baby product or other. The music: Steppenwolf's 1968 hit, "Born to be Wild." Too much time has gone by for it to be meant as a nostalgic appeal to the parents; this music predates the formative years of most of today's baby-mommies and baby-daddies. It's simpler than that: "Born To Be Wild" is a song just about everyone knows, whatever your age.
If you had told me, back in the 1970s when I was in high school, that the records my friends and I were playing at our parties would still be supplying the theme songs for sporting events – and college sports, at that – three decades in the future, I'd have said you were nuts. After all, 30 years before my musically formative period, big band swing and Frank Sinatra were all the rage, and no one was listening to that any more (except "old" folks experiencing nostalgia). As a rule we didn't appreciate, or even like, the music of one or two generations back.
And we didn't have to. We had our own defining songs and bands that everyone our age listened to. Sure, tastes varied – some liked southern rock, some liked the Dead, some liked the heavier stuff, and some got into disco – but whether you liked or hated "Sweet Home Alabama," whether "Hot Stuff" made you boogie or cringe, you knew those songs, and so did everyone else.
How many recent songs – and by recent I mean since the age of downloads began – can we say that about? I can think of a few monster hits, like "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by Green Day. But mostly all I can come up with are 1990s hits like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Oops! I Did It Again," which, while they still feel recent to me, date from before the Great Splintering.
It's not that songs with catchy melodies and great hooks aren't being written anymore. On the contrary, with recording technology accessible to just about anyone, excellent independent projects abound, and talented songwriters flower more and more readily. While the ability to write "hit-worthy" pop tunes remains relatively rare, it can be found all over if you pay attention to indie music.
But 99.9% of the great pop tunes being written today will never reach a substantial audience, not to mention penetrate the culture at large. The releases are far too numerous, the audience much too splintered. Most of the more traditional obstacles to commercial success haven't gone away either. So where and how are you going to hear these great new songs?
Even the most popular music websites and blogs have vastly fewer readers than the big radio stations had listeners in their glory days. You might discover a great new song or band, you might tell your friends, but even if you're today's version of a tastemaker – an Originator, as the psychologist and media consultant David Jennings calls it in his recent book Net, Blogs and Rock 'n' Roll – your "public" is still a very small subset of the culture at large. Hence the same will be true of the audience for your new favorite song.
So where will the next "Born To Be Wild" come from? The next "Mysterious Ways"? The next "Oops! I Did It Again," even? It's the wrong question. The right question is, how will they spread? – and there's no good answer right now.
Is there something inherently good about the existence of mega-hit songs? Maybe not; maybe the new paradigm isn't fundamentally a bad thing. But it certainly seems like a sad thing – not because I'm still going to be singing Beatles tunes in the shower in the year 2040, but because a kid born today might have to be doing the same thing.
Note: for a more succinct (and tuneful) expression of the point I'm making, listen to Bruce Springsteen's new hit "Radio Nowhere."