Talk amongst yourselves, the Partridge family they were not a partridge nor a family
Is pop music getting worse? As a rock critic in his fifties, I am tempted to respond, “Well, duh.” It almost goes without saying that if you grew up in the swinging Sixties, swaggering Seventies, dazzling Eighties or bombastic Nineties then you prefer golden oldies to the auto-tuned digital beats of today. But it turns out even millennials feel the same.
A surprising US study of young adults aged between 18 and 25 found that they were more likely to recognise songs made between 1966 and 1999 than the hits of their own era. But can it really be that a generation who became adults in the 21st Century are fonder of Percy Sledge than Justin Bieber and more likely to hum along to Blondie than Britney Spears?
For people my age it’s tempting to say they don’t make them like they used to. But actually the truth is a little more complicated than that.
No generation has a monopoly on talent, and much modern music is thrilling, amazing and wonderfully original. Whether you enjoy the glistening pop of Ariana Grande, the eccentric hip hop of Kanye West, the audacious rock of The 1975 or the continuing creativity of vintage stars such as Paul McCartney, there is plenty of new material for every possible taste. But that is part of the problem.
Hi-tech recording technology is now accessible to any computer-literate musical wannabe, with the result that we are practically drowning in a sea of new releases – so there’s far more dross to wade through before you discover any gold. And apart from a few world-beating superstars like Adele and Ed Sheeran, there is very little agreement on what is worth our precious listening time.
With unlimited access to music through phones and PCs, we no longer attach ourselves to songs as we once did Credit: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
In a new era of stream and shuffle, listening habits are dictated by the delivery technology of smartphones and PCs. There are fewer shared spaces where all generations can hear music together. There’s no Top of the Pops for families to fight over. Radio stations cater for ever more specific genres and demographics.
Meanwhile, millennials are glued to their screens, buds lodged in their ears, listening to algorithmically curated playlists built around their own ever-narrowing tastes. They don’t even share their favourite music with each other, let alone annoy their parents with the latest craze. The internet has completely atomised popular music.
Young people, in particular, scroll through playlists the way they do social media sites, getting a short dopamine buzz and moving on to the next hit.
Their attachment to individual songs is tenuous, no longer nurtured by the kind of scarcity that made their parents lovingly obsess over vinyl, tapes or CDs. Back in the days when you could only occasionally afford to add an album or single to your collection, you would listen to the same songs over and over again, until they penetrated deep into your very being.
Which is one reason why millennials may be more familiar with their parents’ music collections than their own. They grew up listening to those songs, too, and they carry with them a reassuring sense of familiarity and community.
They continue to be heard in the last remaining public musical spaces –- on TV talent shows, cinema soundtracks and in shopping malls. Oldies may be the one thing we can all still agree upon. But when millennials remove their ear buds long enough to raise families of their own, what songs are they going to be able to share?