The Honest Truth: The current state of popular music

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By Gregory Hicks, Daily Arts Writer
Published December 3, 2014

Picture this: you’re shopping through a supermarket, pushing a cart down the right side of the aisle, taking note of all the most popular brands, and when you see something that tickles your fancy, you toss it in your cart.

Oftentimes, however, there’s one more step thrown in for those who take pride in their self-awareness: flipping the item around and scanning through the ingredients and nutrition facts.

140 calories, 8 grams of protein, some red dye No. 40 thrown in there. Check. Toss it in the cart.

Now imagine if we treated our music this way.

A clap on the second and fourth beat, a few doo-wop backing vocals, some brass in A major, female empowerment lyrics thrown in. Check. Toss “All About That Bass” into your iTunes library.

Professors at the University are here to act as your musical nutritionists. With the year coming to a close, it’s time to consider what exactly you’ve digested with radio and popular music characteristics in 2014. If asked, could you pinpoint the year’s biggest trend? You might be surprised how much your listening habits have changed in the past few years.

Pop goes the weasel

American Culture Prof. Bruce Conforth sits at the desk of his Haven Hall office. There’s a guitar case resting on the floor next to him, just below a large portrait of Robert Johnson — all cast in the orange glow of a lamp-lit room. Not coincidentally, Conforth is on the executive board of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation and is a performing blues musician himself.

But most importantly, Conforth is an expert when it comes to popular music. As the first curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the highly regarded American culture expert has worked with everyone from Ringo Starr to Aretha Franklin, and here he is now, delivering his expertise on Taylor Swift —The magazine's 2014’s most buzzed-about artist — without even being prompted.

“Time Magazine just had Taylor Swift on the cover of their recent issue, and the caption on the cover was ‘The Power of Taylor Swift,’ so I had to read the article. At the very beginning of the article they called her ‘America’s most important musician.’ That’s a direct quote from Time magazine. Taylor Swift is America’s most important musician.”

Conforth isn’t a fan of Swift, however, nor does he believe that the country-gone-pop singer is representative of any sort of long-lasting artistic legacy. What he does believe is that Taylor Swift is the pinnacle of 2014’s biggest commercial trend: hyper-produced, hyper-honest anthem pop.

“You’ve got these two tensions going on in pop music,” Conforth said. “You’ve got this tendency towards the homogenization and blandness of auto-tuned perfection and every song sounding exactly the same, and then you’ve got this other contingent of people who are saying, ‘Well, we want something that sounds a little more honest, and maybe we need to go in a completely different direction.’ ”

And up until this year, Conforth said the two crowds were going in completely different directions.

“The groups like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, Hurray for the Riff Raff, the Avett Brothers — what I call these acoustic pop groups — who the rap on them is that people were turning to them because they wanted something more honest,” Conforth said. “They were sick of the overproduced pop single, and they wanted something that sounded more honest, more real, more authentic.”

That desire for honesty bled into today’s dance pop, even if not as poetically as the acoustic pop groups of 2012.

Reflect for a moment.

A few years ago you were satisfied with jamming out to “On the Floor” by Jennifer Lopez. The major hit contained lyrics ranging from “La la la la la, la la la la la la la la la, tonight we gon’ be it on the floor” to the occasionally personified “It’s getting ill it’s getting sick on the floor.”

A few years ago you were also satisfied with jamming out to “Till the World Ends” by Britney Spears. This major hit’s lyrics ranged from “Oh oh whoa oh oh oh oh, Oh oh whoa oh oh oh oh” to the occasional shout-out “DJ what you, what you waiting for?”

These hits are extremely dated in their form. Why is that? Because in 2014, empty words and phrases accompanying dance music doesn’t work. Now, it’s all about the anthem — something that’s danceable but also has some personal fire behind its lyricism.

You’re gonna hear me “roar,” so just “shake it off.” We’ve got one fewer “problem” without ya, so just “break free.” Why you gotta be so “rude?” Is it because I still get “jealous?”

When you’re losing your voice singing along to today’s hits, you’re actually taking the meaning of the song into more consideration than you've derived from songs from a few years ago.

The funny thing is, it’s not just the songs that we’re seeking more real-talk from. We’re seeking more “realness” from artists altogether.

What drove Taylor Swift to the top in this particular year? The fact that her music is not only this so-called anthem music, but is also authentic. There’s never a doubt in our minds that the only thing better than music that sounds brutally honest is music that actually is brutally honest.

And it’s not just present in these modern pop hits. It’s present in the nature of today’s other thriving genres.

Country and Hip Hop — Brothers from another mother

“And when we land I’ll call her up and tell her ‘Kiss my ass,’ ’cause hey — I’m drunk on a plane.”

No, this is not one of our consulted University professors. This is Dierks Bentley with his second number-one country hit of the year, “Drunk on a Plane.” In the track, Bentley narrates the story of being stood up at the altar and making the most of his non-refundable honeymoon plane ticket to Cancun.

Country has never been a stranger to the real-talk appeal. The “kiss my ass” empowerment anthem has gone on since the dawn of the genre itself and this year there’s a resurgence of people who are more willing than ever to consume both pop and country, since both genres share a multitude of similarities in 2014.

And despite three (or in this case four) chords and the “truth” now becoming a widespread phenomenon, country still maintains the highest degree of authenticity over pop.

“Our social stereotypes about working-class people — who are the class of people associated with country music — are that we think they’re not sophisticated enough to have any guises,” said Nadine Hubbs, professor of music and women’s studies. “Authenticity has always been part of the country artist’s shtick. Part of it is our beliefs about country, and we really exaggerate the extent to which it’s completely literal — the ‘what you see is what you get.’ ”

Hubbs isn’t your run-of-the-mill country music expert. Located kitty-corner from North Quad in her Lane Hall Department of Women’s Studies office, Hubbs’s walls are decorated from head to toe with LGBTQ- and feminist-oriented posters — territories where most country music goers would never dare set foot. Hubbs takes on a genre from its most challenging perspectives, and in her most recent book “Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music,” she proves to be the ideal consultant for deconstructing country’s demographic.

“There’s a country music scholar called Jimmie N. Rogers, who named these phenomena the ‘Sincerity Contract,’ and he acknowledges that it’s a special thing in country music that fans expect,” Hubbs said. “They expect the songs that a country artist sings to connect up with their actual biographies. They expect a core response between the artist’s biography, the themes, the topics, the lyrics and the image of the musician.”

Lest we forget that Taylor Swift earned her initial keep as a country teen who had an uncanny ability to connect with the masses through music that had a uniquely general yet specific narration.

Then — out of the blue — Hubbs threw another genre into the mix.

“Let’s look at hip hop, another type of music where an incredibly high degree of authenticity is demanded,” she said. “Why do we expect of our hip-hop artists that they have to have realness? If your life deviates from this incredible brutality, violence, misery and hyper-masculinity that audiences pay for and expect the rapper to bring, you can be in real hot water. We’ve seen that. Kanye had to do some fast explaining when he was new on the block. He was preppy, he was college-educated, his mom had a Ph.D. and he had to explain all that. And other people who have seen to be ‘frontin’ ’ have had P.R. disasters on their hands.”

In this year in hip hop, we witnessed these P.R. disasters. Iggy Azalea took one punch after another from the rap community (including artists such as Snoop Dogg and Eminem) for her apparently phony stage persona. A high-profile white, blonde, female, Australian rapper is a recipe for hip-hop revolt. And while there are examples of white rappers, female rappers and non-American rappers, to qualify for every position is an extreme deviation from the characteristics that the community deems to be authentically hip hop.

“(Country and hip hop) music are linked to underprivileged social groups in America,” Hubbs said. “We expect them to bring us a kind of realness for our consumption that shows us the shadier side of life in a way that we can handle and in a way that is interesting to us.”

Perhaps the “fancy” side of life wasn’t what the hip-hop community was looking for this year.

Unpolished music as polished authenticity

“There’s a backwash of people who are thirsty for how the music would sound if the artists weren’t recording in the studio. You get a CD that’s been re-mastered and they have four bonus tracks … where they didn’t have this chord worked out or this vocal worked out and people are fascinated by that and they’ll buy that. People want to hear artists working on perfection rather than the perfection itself,” said Carlos Rodriguez, associate professor of music education.

One of the University’s leading authorities on popular music and music education, Rodriguez narrates an unorthodox trend he has seen in today’s tweaked-to-perfection pop music. In fact, whether he realizes it or not, he has just described a significant feature of Taylor Swift’s new record.

It always seems to come back to that.

Swift released three bonus tracks of voice memos dictating certain thoughts and processes she was going through while writing tracks with Jack Antonoff, Max Martin and Ryan Tedder. Swift isn’t the first to do so, but the voice memos certainly are a representation of authenticity and the dispelled illusion of immaculate perfection.

Just look at your Facebook newsfeed and Tumblr blogs. They’re all spitting out the same message. No longer are they an exaggerated outlet of your perfect life and how hard you partied the night before; they’re a bunch of back-and-forth posts on sources and explanations of how not everybody is perfect, how you should feel comfortable with the way you look, of the way you feel and tell everyone who doesn’t reciprocate your feelings to piss off.

Your 2014 music is essentially your Facebook newsfeed and Tumblr blog.

“I heard an interview with Jack White,” Rodriguez recalled. “He doesn’t think of his songs as ‘his songs.’ He says he just looks at the world and looks what’s around him and does what he does and then lets it go. He says he’s just here when it happens, but he didn’t create this. It’s just everything that goes on around him.’ ”

Get drunk on a plane. Shake off the haters. Marry her anyway. If they’re not about that bass, move along.

That’s the biggest trend of 2014. It’s this brutally honest music in your mind saying it’s gonna be all right.