Raising the Standard at UGA since 2013.

Pop Politics: The Parallel Regression of Music and Discourse

Katy Perry at the DNC. (Photo Courtesy Ali Shaker/VOA)


The homogenization of top-40 music over the past few decades has ruined American politics, as discourse has become lazy, uninspired, and repetitive.

The 2016 presidential election was a clear reflection of our nation’s diminishing attention span.

So caught up were we in being deplorables or nasty women, paying attention to superficial appearances, “gotchas,” Twitter gaffes, and dueling insults that we never really digested either candidate. By Election Day, many voters had to invest their hopes in a “lesser of two evils” scenario in which the two candidates were tough to stomach for many hesitant voters.

The current state of our politics is also a product of its infiltration by the entertainment industry. The impotent rage of virtue-signaling left-wing celebrities, whose policy knowledge is as deep as an internet meme, has contributed to this superficiality. Kid Rock’s ostensibly viable flirtation with a bid for Senate can certainly be attributed to Donald Trump’s remarkable upset in the presidential race. While some conservatives have claimed that the Kid Rock fervor is a win against establishment politics, the diminution of politics to this level is ultimately negative.

Culture is upstream from politics. Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general have always tended toward the left-wing, but the most destructive aspect of their recent headlong foray into the political arena may be the effect that it has had on our attention spans.

So, what happened to them?

Well, the diminishing process has taken time, and one of its biggest contributors is the aforementioned infiltration by entertainment, and more specifically, the pop music industry. No, not anti-Bush activism from the Dixie Chicks or a Trump diss from Snoop Dogg. In fact, our attention spans have been drastically affected by how record companies have operated and how music distributors have evolved over the last five decades.

One detractor of our attention span is the dumbing-down of the songs, themselves. A 2012 Reuters article, “Pop Music Too Loud and All Sounds the Same” explains a study performed by the Spanish National Research Council using an archive called the Million Song Data set. This archive broke down popular songs from 1955 to 2010 based on lyrical and audio content. The council’s team leader and A.I. expert John Serra explains, “We found evidence of a progressive homogenization of the musical discourse. In particular, we obtained numerical indicators that the diversity of transitions between note combinations – roughly speaking: chords plus melodies – has consistently diminished in the last 50 years.”

Perhaps most importantly, this study found that the timbre, or overall quality of sound as distinct from pitch or intensity, has diminished. This is likely due to the higher average volume at which music is now recorded. Physics dictates that a sound cannot be made louder than the volume at which it was recorded without reducing its quality, but the competition to grab the attentions of passive radio-heads trumps quality any day of the week in some producers’ minds.

The way that companies produce and manage music has evolved over the years as well, and this aspect demands analysis. In the 60s and 70s, record companies operated in much riskier fashion. They would regularly sign new and promising acts to contracts and, as per the free market, the good acts sold well and the bad ones never made it. It was a high-risk tactic, and would be evermore so today with increased production costs. Over time, the larger labels have decided to stray from this towards a far safer, albeit much less honest strategy: they simply flood the airwaves. They totally saturate radio stations and public places and eventually, the mere exposure effect begins to take place. The mere exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to prefer things simply due to familiarity. This is what makes repetitiveness so effective in pop songs. It’s brainwashing, and it lulls the listening public into a comfortable, albeit uninspired cycle of hearing, in essence due to homogenization, the same song over and over for years and years.

Another explanation for the decline of pop music is its mode of purchase. Decades ago, people trekked to the store to buy records. Now, everything can be done in seconds with a smart phone. While this evolution is not, in and of itself, bad, it has reduced our attention spans. If someone buys a vinyl record, chances are, they’re apt to play the whole thing more than once, becoming able to analyze and appreciate the nuances of each song. Phone downloads are prodded by hearing samples of songs, thus the climax of the song must arrive earlier in order to capture the fleeting attention of the listener. This too has contributed to the industry’s sonic homogenization. The shock waves of this effect can be felt in several arenas of our culture, especially politics.

Homogenization coupled with a dip in quality eerily mirrors the political parties of modern America. Watching Hillary Clinton debate Bernie Sanders in the primaries is as much a reflection of the homogenization of politics as a University of Georgia Student Government debate. Just as producers reside safely within the uninspired confines of pop music, candidates are quite aware of their limits. They will always take the “safe” route, and use repetitive tactics to which they believe people will respond. They will always use the “racist” label for anybody opposing the welfare state, because it is the worst label they can find, with or without substantial evidence. They will always draw complicated policy, like resistance to affirmative action, and unjustly simplify it to just racism. Broad, lazy, uninspired, and ultimately meaningless campaign slogans like “I’m with Her” (usually “Her” was capitalized, supposedly to advertise Clinton’s god-like status) surely result from short attention spans. This slogan tells us nothing other than the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman.

Propagating identity politics is no new strategy from the Left, and it has become much easier to do given our limited attention span. We have become easy pray for cable news segments and short Facebook videos that exhibit quick sound bites that confirm our biases and elicit emotion. We want the answers to be as simple and as easy as possible, so we do not bother taking time to research those answers. It is easy for a voter to be with “Her” lest that voter be labeled a sexist. It is just as easy for the Left to hit Donald Trump with every “-ist” label they can find, because simplicity is much easier for Americans to digest than looking into Trump’s real character and qualities, not to mention what he actually does and plans to do as president. It is easy to think that the whole system sucks, so let’s just give it to Bernie (the undisputed master of the demagogic sound bite). Unfortunately, America needs something much more complicated than a system reboot. It needs problem solving, and problem solving is hard. It takes time.

When it comes to using the pop music strategy of homogenization and aggressive repetition in politics, Donald Trump is no angel either. “Make America Great Again” is just as lazy and almost as meaningless as “I’m with Her.” The not-so-profound message of “there are problems and I want to fix the problems and I remember when there were not so many problems” is simply packaged into a bite-sized nationalist sentence.

The comical nicknames given to primary opponents, the reactionary lambasting of “cuckservative” never-Trumpers and the general use of anti-establishment populism were all tactful exploitations of a short attention span. However, this is what makes Trump a better candidate than Mitt Romney. People do not want to hear about diminishing the 47 separate unemployment benefit programs run by nine federal agencies or why we should cut the corporate income tax from 35% to 25%. People want to #LockHerUp!

This trend does not bode well for American politics.  On the bright side, just as there is still good, creative music out there, there are good politics as well. One could reasonably say that the right has responded better to the current political marketplace, especially on college campuses. A few political figures have adopted popular personas and gained fame from instances of rebellion, much like the punk rockers of old. Take Jordan Peterson for example, who gained fame for the controversy he caused at the University of Toronto for his refusal to use the potentially infinite numbers of gender pronouns in his sociology courses. The videos of Peterson being shouted down by U of T students while trying to make rational arguments gained fame, and have turned many young minds on to his brilliant lectures on sociology, as well as other topics like postmodernism and religion. Ben Shapiro has similar success from his ironic fan-made “thug life” videos (a persona he only reluctantly embraces) in which he artfully retorts leftist arguments on television and in campus lectures. His podcast, The Daily Wire, has recently become one of the most popular political shows in the country.

Perhaps pundits of the same cloth as Shapiro and Peterson can work to inspire the next generation of creative and open-minded thought leaders. The 2016 election proved that there is a sizable anti-establishment sentiment in the U.S., but so far that has not been channeled into much meaningful legislation. An optimistic merging of these two and a rejection of pop-politics may yet be on the horizon.

This piece is adapted from one of the same name in the Fall 2017 edition of The Arch Conservative in print.

J. Thomas Perdue is Associate Editor of The Arch Conservative.

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