Saturday, September 11, 2010

Three year old article still very valid today

The Decline of Country Radio
originally posted by 
MATT C | JULY 19TH, 2007

For the most part, I have little patience for individuals who exhibit unmitigated scorn for popular music. There’s something uniquely arrogant — yet also cowardly — about dismissing all hit songs as some kind of opiate for the masses. Nevertheless, in the past several months, I have become increasingly disenchanted and unsatisfied with mainstream country radio. Understand my perspective: I did not discover country music through Haggard and Jones or even Jackson and Strait. Country music has been “contemporary” ever since I’ve listened to and enjoyed it, and that’s why I’m quite concerned that my dissatisfactions are genuine and well-founded. I’ve also determined that, mirroring my dissatisfaction, country music radio has declined significantly in the past year, at least with respect to the criteria that I outline below.

In a comment on my recent post on “The Imagined World of Country Music,” Andrew wrote:
I could be completely wrong here, but I’d be willing to bet that most people listen to country music for one of two reasons:
1.) As a form of escapism to listen to songs where people sing about things (the listener) actually believes in, and away from much more controversial lyrics in other 
outlets, or
2.) Their everyday experience is as straightforward as most country music is (you are straight, and you believe in God).
His comments inspired much thought about the nature of music itself and exactly why I dislike the current radio product. At least for me, music is ultimately more emotive than experiential. I “identify” with traditional “drinking and cheating” songs, despite the fact that I’ve never done either one for two reasons. First, I appreciate the artistic merit of a well-crafted and genuine piece of work. Second, I can somehow identify with those songs on an emotional level despite the lack of common experiences. I’m able to be emotionally affected by the reality of a well-crafted song despite not having experienced that reality myself.
I think today’s songs have become much more experiential. Ironically, they’ve accomplished this by abandoning most of the genre’s traditional narrative elements, which is why I think that many current radio hits are of low quality.

I’ve described many current radio hits as “slice of life” songs that I find very uninteresting, and I think that the embrace of this structure has accelerated greatly over the last year. On a superficial level, I find these songs uninteresing because they simply don’t parallel my life experiences. I don’t have a family so I can’t identify with a guy who sings about how much he loves his wife. I’m not a teenage girl so you won’t see me praising the latest Taylor Swift single. And I’m not old and cynical enough to look back on my youth with any form of nostalgia, so I don’t identify with all the nostalgic songs that we’ve been hearing lately.
However, my having personally experienced a song’s subject is not prerequisite to my enjoying that song. My objection to these songs is that they posses no element of artistry beyond their ability to evoke personal memories, thus more or less necessitating that the listener is willing and able to identify with the song in some sort of experiential manner. I addition to diminishing quality and universality, this has the effect of rewarding lazy songwriting. Since the experience itself is all that matters, the song’s narrative structure, the novelty of its descriptive and approach and even the hook itself become secondary if not optional. The result is lyrics that sound like lists that simply attempt to encompass as many life experiences as possible.
This change has sacrificed many of the elements that make songs memorable and artistic. If country songs were photographs, listening to current radio fare is like flipping through another family’s photo album. I suppose that I might find the little boy building a sand castle to be interesting and emotional if he were my own son, but everyone else is just looking at a picture of someone else’s kid.
I think that this is also why we’re seeing a dramatic increase in “happy” songs on country radio. If you’re going to write a song that does nothing except evoke personal memories, you might as well make those memories happy ones.
I don’t intend to tar all of modern country music with the same brush or pretend that every artist and song currently on the radio are awful. Artists like Josh Turner, Joe Nichols, Carrie Underwood, Gary Allan, Sara Evans and (usually) Brad Paisley release interesting, well-crafted songs that are anchored in tradition and exhibit strong vocal performance. Among those that receive less radio airplay, Miranda Lambert and Ashely Monroe are probably the two most talented young females in the genre. However, the talent of many of these artists would be less noteworthy if their contemporaries were more capable.
My ultimate fear is that country music is embracing an audience composed primarily of casual music listeners instead of music fans, people who play music in the background at work or in the car and like being able to say “that happened to me once” about a song that they’ll forget next week. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of music and I don’t resent the artists who record it or the people who listen to it. However, I don’t think that it will be able to maintain the popularity and identity of America’s most listened-to genre, and I certainly regret that radio talent hasn’t been more courageous in recording more of the excellent material that must be out there somewhere.

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