In the fall of 2010, I did everything I could to stand out. As my friends listened to Rihanna, I streamed Bullet for my Valentine. When girls struggled to get past the no-nonsense debates on what color nail polish best suited their skin tones, I jammed with the metal-heads. No, I may not have made a case for myself with the boys, but I was unique.
Well, so much for that.
In a world that’s increasingly focused on diversity — or a lack of it — it’s remarkable how minimally diverse we really are. Earlier this year, a Wall Street Journal report showed that the top 10 singles on radio last year were played twice as often as the top hits from a decade ago did during their heyday. The most played song of 2013, “Blurred Lines,” performed by Robin Thicke, was played 2,053 times a day on average. More startlingly, Clear Channel Communications Inc. tracked over 70 new Top 40 radio stations in the last ten years.
As much as I try to differentiate myself from the crowd, the rate of return for a varied taste in music is far too low. Each time I let Avenged Sevenfold ring through my laptop speakers, I hardly receive a second glance. And if I plug in my headphones to indulge in my personal favorites, then I’m essentially cutting myself off from the outside world.
There’s a sense of community that comes with popular music. Pop music is permeable and adaptable to any sort of social scenario. By the transitive property, I can walk into a party or a club and feel an immediate connection to the stranger next to me if we can both recognize the song being played.
Music is culture, and culture comes in groups. Culture is recognizable, it’s viral and it’s what helps define a generation. Radio stations and music streaming services will never lose their appeal as long as they serve to reinforce the cultural camaraderie that comes with popular music — ad revenue notwithstanding. And if that means playing the song of the summer for three months on a loop, then so be it.
This sense of diversification bias — the false assumption that we, as humans, crave more diversity than we really do — isn’t unique to music. A 2011 study by decision theorists Jeff Galak, Justin Kruger and George Loewenstein found that when people consumed high-concentrations of anything over a short period of time, they were more likely repeat their choices. Over time, however, they were more like to switch out their old tunes to new ones.
I’m still optimistic. As the line between pop music and other genres fades out, musical hits like “Royals,” by Lorde, “Somebody that I Used to Know,” by Gotye and “Get Lucky,” by Daft Punk start to permeate everyday radio and turn obscure artists into overnight hits. It’s clear that online media has the power to keep hit music sounding fresh. There’s no doubt that as generations evolve, the sound of popular music will evolve too. On the other hand, if our community tends to listen to music that is more obscure than those songs that are nationally or internationally trending, then that obscurity becomes popular within our own sphere of existence.
More often than not, we place ourselves outside the trend. The trend is seen as something independent of our being and the choice to follow or separate ourselves from this becomes our autonomous choice. Slowly though, the trend becomes us.