Last year at a party, my friend and I undertook a daring endeavor: We pushed our way through the throng of sweaty college students to find the DJ. We were going to request a song.
“Do you know ‘Come Sail Away?’” I said to the DJ.
“Can you play it next?”
“Sorry, we don’t play that kind of music. The kids don’t like that kind of stuff.” Disheartened, I shuffled away from the DJ stand. As I left, “Closer” came on, and the crowd went wild.
I hate to admit it, but that DJ is right. All of my friends would much prefer to listen to “Closer” rather than “Come Sail Away.” The Chainsmokers and other candy pop groups like them dominate Harvard’s music scene, and it seems like some students listen to little else. I think that’s sad.
Music groups like the Chainsmokers are successful because they produce catchy music, not because they produce good music. So I urge you to change your radio station every once and a while. Why? Because pop music is unoriginal and uninspired, and there’s better music out there.
Often pop music is not actually written or composed by the artist who sings it. In an article published by the Atlantic a few years ago, Nathaniel Rich describes how “middle-aged Scandinavian men...write most of America’s pop hits.” He discovers that some of the most famous songs on the radio—“Bad Blood” (Taylor Swift), “Hey Mama” (David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj), “Worth It” (Fifth Harmony), “Can’t Feel My Face” (The Weeknd), “The Night Is Still Young” (Minaj)—are, in fact, written through a “formula” overseas and then sold to American record labels. And this music is far from original. Rich explains that these “pop hitmakers frequently flirt with plagiarism,” with “purposeful replication” of successful beats and melodies. This is music fast food: commercialized and unoriginal.
It wasn’t always like this. Some of the most iconic rock songs of the 20th century—“Baba O’Reilly” (The Who), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Queen), “Stairway to Heaven” (Led Zeppelin)—were created by a couple of musicians jamming in their garage, trying new chord progressions, improvising new melodies, and scratching down their ideas on scraps of paper: a true creative process. One of the most important rock and roll albums, Dark Side of the Moon, was written just like this. In an article by Newsweek, Roger Waters, the lead guitarist in Pink Floyd, described this process: “I remember sitting in the kitchen and explaining this idea; that the whole record might be about the pressures and preoccupations that divert us from our potential for positive action, if you like.” This creative composition is real and thoughtful, made through the ingenuity and inspiration of other human beings, not computers. And, in Rogers Water’s case, the result was one of the most famous albums ever written.
My argument here is not that you should listen only to old music; of course, not all contemporary music is low-quality. Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” is a masterpiece. Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” is as catchy as it is woke. Coldplay, Frank Ocean, Eminem, Cage the Elephant, The Killers? All high quality artists and groups. And there’s so much more: Louis Armstrong, OK Go, KC & The Sunshine Band, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Wilco, Stevie Wonder, Wayne Shorter, The Black Keys, Santana. If we restrict ourselves only to the songs we hear at parties, we’re missing out on entire genres of music.
Now I’ll admit, sometimes low quality pop music is a nice break. Sometimes it’s fun to just dance and not think about anything else. But if you’re only ever listening to music as a distraction, you’re obviously not getting everything you can out of the musical world. So I challenge you to go on Spotify and try something new: Look up The Who or The Beatles, and listen to their top five songs. If you’re really adventurous, try Herbie Hancock, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Steely Dan. Then look up “Come Sail Away” by Styx, and I dare you to tell me that’s not good music.
Victor D. Rogers ’20 is a Social Studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.
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