When an old pop lover looks at the state of pop today the reaction is often one of despair. The music isn’t doing what they want it to. There is a venerable army of protestors who say that modern music is not modern. Simon Reynolds shouts loudest amongst writers, having devoted nearly 500 pages to the subject in Retromania. But there is also Jaron Lanier, who asks: ‘Where is the new music? Everything is retro, retro, retro’. And David Stubbs, who sees music ‘debilitated by its state of thrall to its increasingly distant yet seemingly inescapable past’. Older musicians are also concerned. Tracey Thorn has claimed that ‘pop music is exhausted’. Even Noel Gallagher, who many view as the harbinger of the retro age, has moaned that there is no longer ‘anything genuinely new’ happening in music any more.
This isn’t the only concern. Older analysts are also worried about the sound of modern music. Simon Reynolds complains about the ‘super-compressed, MP3-ready, almost pre-degraded’ tonality of pop; recordings that are ‘engineered to cut through on iPods, smartphones and computer speakers’. He is also concerned that the ‘glistening and majestic’ recordings of Aerial Pink, which are made to sound like the chart hits of 30 years ago, won’t ‘make the tiniest dent on today’s radioscape’. There is particular anguish over the state of pop singing. Mark Ellen has despaired about the ‘hollow vocal fireworks’ popularised by X Factor and its ilk. Tracey Thorn believes that this type of singing, although supposedly about self-expression, ends up being far from ‘individualistic’. She’s not alone in thinking that soul has become soulless. David Hepworth pithily describes the modern style as ‘lungs of a whale, tears of a crocodile’. Greil Marcus goes further. Beyoncé’s take on gospel, he says, is ‘a form of blasphemy.
Pop has many musical characteristics, but most people would place vocals and timbre as being among the most important. Today’s pop has a distinct sound, one that is determined by a broadcasting ethos and a compressed musical file. There is also a particular style of singing that defines the present time. It has even brought with it new performance conventions: audiences clap in the middle of vocal acrobatics in a way they would never have done before. Modern pop might not be modernist in its intent, but it’s not overwhelmingly retro either. For the most part it is doing what pop has always done: being here now.