Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Sounds Revolting

Big data is big news. In Spring 2015 two reports about popular music gained worldwide attention. The first came on 22 April, when Ajay Kalia posted his blog entry, ‘Music Was Better Back Then’. It was followed on 6 May by a report in the journal Royal Society Open Science. In their article, ‘The Evolution of Popular Music: USA1960-2010’, a team of academics from Queen Mary and Imperial College London used data to investigate ‘the evolution of popular taste’ and determine periods in which there had been ‘rapid change’. I have written about Kalia’s research in a previous blog entry. This second article has much in common with it. The public was drawn to the reports for similar reasons: their eye-catching and over confident use of data; the way this data can be contested; the focus upon ‘new music’.
The academic researchers believe that their data forms ‘the basis for the scientific study of musical change’. They have analysed 17,000 American chart hits from 1960 to 2010, classifying their ‘harmonic and timbral qualities’. The resulting data has then been employed to chart the rise and fall of these qualities through the time span of their study. Their conclusion is that ‘musical evolution is punctuated by revolutions’. There are three years in particular in which they posit rapid change: 1964, which saw musical developments in rock and soul, 1983, which had advances in new wave disco and hard rock, and 1991, which witnessed the break-through of hip-hop.
Although the researchers believe that ‘Those who wish to make claims about how and when popular music changed can no longer appeal to anecdote, connoisseurship and theory unadorned by data’, there are several grounds upon which their quantitative analysis of musical qualities can be challenged. The first is that it does not include enough musical data. Where, for example are lyrics within their analysis? Moreover, where is the music that lies outside of the Billboard charts? Many would suggest that musical revolutions first occur within the underground. Secondly, although the researchers have taken genre into account, they have not made any allowance for different rates of progression. While change is the hallmark of some genres, others are relatively static. In the former case, wild diversions can be the mark of stability rather than change; in the latter, mild alterations to the form can be of great significance. Thirdly, their research can be criticised for not including enough non-musical data. Genres are not about music alone, but also about the ways that music is articulated and presented. Finally, the research can be criticized for not considering a wide enough range of statistical data. Two of their peak years – 1964 and 1991 – can be explained, in part, by changes to chart rules. Billboard did not have a separate chart for black music between November and January 1965. As a consequence, there was an influx of soul music into the Hot 100 in 1964. Similarly, it was in 1991 that Billboard first used the sales information from barcodes to determine its chart positions. Hip-hop consequently gained a greater chart presence, as it was selling more records than had been previously been quantified.
The academic researchers are media savvy. They have pointedly come up with three revolutions, thus tapping into the ‘rule of three’ beloved by storytellers, politicians and joke tellers alike: if you want to make a list stand out, then give it three items. They have also come up with three curious years. 1964, the year of the Beatles invasion of America, might be the most obvious of their dates for musical upheaval, but the researchers excitedly report that the Beatles were the result, rather than the cause, of this revolution. They also stress that 1991, the year of hip-hop, represented the most revolutionary phase of all. This revelation has prompted headlines, such as CNN’s ‘Hip-Hop is More Important than the Beatles’. The musical revolutions are not, in fact, the main emphasis of the scientists’ paper. They are instead more concerned with publicizing their data methods as a whole. The team has nevertheless latched on to the fuss they have generated and have re-branded their material for more popular media. In The Conversation they boast: ‘How We Discovered the Three Revolutions of American Pop’.
The two big data reports are both concerned with age and new music. They come at their target from different angles, however. Kalia analyses new music in purely quantitative terms. For him it represents the latest releases by the latest artists. He seeks to determine the age at which we lose interest in these new forms. ‘The Evolution of Popular Music’ adds a qualitative dimension. The academics want to know the eras in which music was at its newest: were there times when it was more revolutionary than others? In doing so, they address a widespread belief, particularly amongst the old, that there is ‘a relentless decline in cultural diversity of new music’. The two surveys could be said to answer each other: one reason why older people are not interested in ‘new music’ is because it is not, in fact, new.
Things aren’t quite that simple, however. The team from Queen Mary and Imperial College retain a faith in newness. For them, ‘musical diversity has not declined’. I agree with them. As I have argued before, the music of the modern era has a distinct timbral quality and it features particular ways of singing. Does this mean, then, that Kalia is right: older people no longer have the appetite for newness?
Well, it all comes back to which meaning we want to wrestle from that word ‘new’. The word can have qualitative meanings: it can point towards things that are ‘unfamiliar or strange’. It obviously has quantitative meanings as well, but these are complex. The OED defines ‘new’ as being ‘produced, introduced, or discovered recently or now for the first time; not existing before’. It also states that the new can be ‘already existing but seen, experienced, or acquired recently or now for the first time’. In addition, new can be ‘superseding and more advanced than another or others of the same kind’. It is therefore quite possible for an old person to lose faith in the new because they feel that is already exists. On the contrary, they may turn away because they find the new too new. It is strange. They think that it’s revolting. 

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