Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hit Music: The Assault on the Brain

Let's take on the pressing mystery of a type of so-called “hit music,” such as the kind often played on Virgin Radio. A few days a week I leave work at lunch to get a sandwich at Mr Sub, and they always play that radio station. I’m treated then to certain recurring songs, interspersed by the banter of Ryan Seacrest and the blather of ads.

What these songs have in common is minimalism. There’s hardly anything going on in them. I’ll give you some examples: “One Dance,” by Drake, “Love Yourself,” by Justin Bieber, and “Hands to Myself,” by Selena Gomez. Not all the hit songs on that radio station are minimally musical like those examples. Most, in fact, are dance, rap, or soul songs. In the case of rap or soul music, the instruments might be low-key because those songs feature the lyrics or the soaring voice. But then there are these minimalist songs where the instruments, the voice, and the lyrics are hardly even there. Those are the ones that especially cry out for some explanation. Why do they exist? What do these ghostly, gutted songs reveal indicate about the current state of Western art?

Now, in my opinion, 98% of all Virgin Radio’s hit music is abominable: balless, brainless, vapid, happy-talking, and/or annoyingly repetitive. But if I were to vent that opinion for the next little while, that would be a mere cliché. Hit music is made mainly by young people for young people—younger than me, at least. And we all know that older people lose touch with young people’s culture. Besides, we’d be talking about taste in music, and that’s subjective. So instead of committing the old guy’s fallacy of mistaking his aesthetic taste for knowledge of some objective fact, I’m going to leave aside the value judgment and point straight at the objective features of those minimalistic songs. On YouTube, you can listen to the ones I listed and then you’ll know what I mean, if you’re not already familiar with them.

For some background, I recommend this video interview of John Seabrook, author of The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, and this article that discusses the recent history of hit-song writing. The upshot is that hit music today is manufactured by teams of song engineers who fill in the blanks of the track-and-hook template, following rote procedures made possible by the computers on which almost all of this music is made. The beats are separated from the melodies, and teams of producers are swapped by studios to work on dozens of songs for each headlining “artist,” like Rihanna, Britney Spears, or Justin Bieber, which are then pared down to form the CD. This method of engineered, assembly-line music-writing is very different from the romantic one of the 1960s and 70s, in which individual artists expressed their vision on account of their personal talent. Think of The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, or Led Zeppelin. Hit music now is like fast food or the Marvel comic book movies that have taken over Hollywood. The food is manufactured to exploit weaknesses in the human brain, such as its love of sugar and fat, just as the movies are made by armies of computer graphics engineers who serve up action and teenager fantasies. Apparently, the brain also has an infantile love of repetition. The brain releases dopamine if we can predict when the song’s hook will reappear, so a hit song must be simple and catchy.

This, though, is the formula for hit music in general. Again, the result is commercial music that has no existential impact and poses no artistic challenge to dubious conventions. But where does the absurd minimalism of a subset of hit songs enter the picture? Here are a few possible explanations. First, the musically-minimal songs push the boundaries of computer-driven hit music, by catering to no one, with virtually no attractive features. As machines and computers dominate the landscape, we must dehumanize ourselves to adapt to that inhuman environment. Hit music isn’t aimed at whole persons, with our everyday concerns and existential questions. Instead, the music targets the brain’s pleasure center: the song is formed by mechanisms of mass production that trigger the listener’s complementary neural mechanisms, to complete a capitalistic exchange of money for the fleeting pleasure taken in the bare-bones sounds inserted into the track-and-hook template. 

The minimalistic songs, then, constitute an austere form of this corporate denial of substance or sustenance. Hit music enriches some so-called artists and music producers, but fundamentally it expresses capitalistic logic and the power of computers. What it doesn’t do is tackle the age-old questions posed by genuine artists. Why are we here? What is life for? What’s the best way to live? Hit music is motivated not by an artistic vision but by greed, it’s made largely by the computers themselves, and it caters to an isolated neural mechanism. Minimalistic hit songs are stripped-down in that they provide nothing of interest except for whatever it takes to trigger the dopamine rush with the very least amount of musical effort. In a sense, hit music isn’t for us; we, the listeners are eavesdropping on something happening in an infamously-degrading social system and in an artificial, increasingly digital environment. If we want our art to challenge us with the artist’s attempts to wrestle with profound questions, using various forms of expression, the minimalist hit songs reveal that there’s no there there in hit music. Hit music endures despite that inadequacy because the systems and machines that produce it don’t and even can’t care.

Alternatively, the minimalistic songs may arise as conscious or unconscious critiques of the hit music industry, by the song engineers who are frustrated because they have pent-up artistic impulses that aren’t being met, due to their industry’s commerciality. The absurdity of these minimalist songs may be a result of their functioning as parodies of hit songs. As I said, the idea would be to drive the industry’s logic to its anti-art conclusion—except that instead of arising mechanically in the manufacturing process, these songs may arise from some producers’ comedic or satiric intention. Along these lines, the song engineers may be rebelling against the temptation presented by computers to construct a hundred layers of artificial sounds in each song, returning to a back-to-basics approach. Perhaps, then, these renegade songs are meant to awaken the listener to the fact that hit music in general is as empty as these absurdly-empty minimalist songs. As to why the audience welcomes minimalist songs that may subliminally critique hit music culture, the answer is implicit in what I’ve already said. The audience doesn’t personally approve of any of these songs. A song is a hit if it meshes mechanically with the brain’s pleasure center. Indeed, the ambiguity of “hit song” is itself revealing, since it suggests that this kind of song is an assault against the audience, a striking of the pleasure center rather than, say, an artistic appeal to our better angels or our higher cortical processes.

A third possible source of minimalism in hit music is the headlining artist, who’s reacting not against the music industry but specifically against the audience, punishing us with low-effort products in response to our stealing of his or her work on the internet. The artist may be asking herself: “Why put soul-searching effort into my music when the fickle, treacherous audience won’t even pay for the songs but will download them for free? Why not just phone it in, given how little value the audience itself evidently places on music?” If we appreciated the artist’s work, we’d pay for it. But we steal it, so we must not care about music. Thus, why should the musician care about her music, either? In this case, the auto-tuned voice in many of these hit songs would represent an insult to the audience. Again, the artist may be thinking, perhaps unconsciously, “I have contempt for my audience that shows contempt for me by stealing my music. So I’m not even going to let them hear my true voice. They don’t deserve to be in my presence, so all I’ll give them is a computer-distorted, Frankenstein mishmash. And when it comes to live performances, I’ll lip-sync them for the same reason, to further punish the cheaters.” Of course, some of these “artists” can’t sing, being selected by corporations for their looks or attitude or family connections, and so they must rely on the computers to provide a tolerable voice track. But those who can sing and still resort to auto-tuning and lip-syncing appear to be involved in a cold war with their audience.

However, this third explanation has a chicken-and-egg problem. The reason music-listeners stopped paying for music is because music became disposable, thanks to the rise of the track-and-hook method in the 1990s. First came the musician’s ceding the artistic territory to the engineers and corporate producers, the result of which was that music CDs were filled with a few hits that tended to sound the same and with seven or so duds that didn’t catch on. Then came the audience’s response to that corporate takeover of music, which was to pirate that music, extracting the pleasure from the hits and moving on to the next duplicitous music CD, ironically using the same digital technology to steal the songs, that unleashed hit music in the first place. The audience thinks to itself: “Why pay for something that we unconsciously feel isn’t wholly music in the first place? Why reward fraudsters who claim to produce art, whereas they’re really engineers churning out disposable, disappointing products?” 

There are, then, at least two kinds of art. There’s the noble kind, often called modern but which is better called existential, which is all about the individual’s quest for meaning after the death of God. Existential art isn’t just historically recent, since it likely was produced at the dawn of Neolithic culture when humans unlocked the cognitive power to ask existential questions, prior to the imposition of organized religious answers. Once those latter answers fell into place, another kind of art was born: propaganda. Any art that reinforces mass delusions for the sake of social unity is propagandistic, preserving conventions instead of philosophically subverting them in a search for the deeper truth. Propaganda can be religious or secular. The religious kind includes the medieval Church stained-glass window and the Gregorian chant. The secular kind includes corporate advertisements and the hit songs in question, the insipid noises you hear on Virgin Radio that preach the message that everything’s alright in the world. Far from being earned, that happiness rests on fantasies which assuage the anxiety that’s the authentic reaction to secularism. Minimalist hit songs are ambiguous in that they while they’re crushingly onerous to tolerate, they may serve either existential or propagandistic functions. 


  1. Minimalist hit songs are ambiguous in that they while they’re crushingly onerous to tolerate, they may serve either existential or propagandistic functions.

    Existential seems a long draw of the bow, if I understand you right. And to exactly what audience - just the ones who find it onerous? How big a demographic is that? Maybe such 'hit' songs are designed to appeal to the grumpy philosopher as well? To put down pop culture and leave it behind? A satisfying rejection!

    Anyway, it does seem to me that music has become 'really awesome elevator music' (and this is from my listening to JJJ the most - an Australian youth radio that's government funded, not a hardcore commercial station). Like, if you want to listen to it, it's good, buuuut if you want to ignore it you can. It doesn't demand you listen.

    Junk food music - not a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down, just spoon fulls of sugar.

    And it's the irony - how people want to be told the world is just fine because they, the large demographic that makes these economies of scale work, can feel the burn approaching them. The capitalistic system keeps growing a harvest of desperation and reaping that harvest by selling 'everything is gunna be al'right' messages.

    The thing is, I wonder if people want it - desperation grants meaning to their lives. It's like a video game where your character is gunna die - you just focus on that. Maybe peeps fear a lack of focus from not having to work like dogs and fear they'll loose that work - because being freed from that desperation focus will leave their brains raw to the existential questions. Perhaps such questions are a briar patch for philosophers - we don't mind being thrown in. But the general demographic - how do they fare at having their brains thrown amongst the briar thorns? Perhaps they'd prefer the yolk over that?

    1. "Existential art" means the kind that grapples with big philosophical questions. Often this art is produced in the secular context, and often it's the lone, Byronic individual artist with a vision who's responsible, but this art can be religious and collectivist as well (if it takes up the Kierkegaardian themes, as in the Jewish psalms or John Donne's poetry). Sometimes these themes are only in the background and the artwork is deceptively simplistic. Some country music, for example, is explicitly about a guy who loses a girl, but the universality of the message can't help but touch on the big questions.

      Propaganda can be interpreted as having some relation to the big questions too, as can anything else in the world. But propaganda leaves no opening for the viewer or the audience to investigate further, within the confines of that artwork’s assumptions. This conventional art sets up false borders like a Potemkin village that displaces the viewer to distract her from reality. Propaganda, then, is fantastic, whereas noble, existential art is realistic. Some fantasies, such as Game of Thrones, aren't really fantastic; they're allegories or metaphors that do say much about the real world, only by indirect means. Those fantasies can be existential. But advertisements and hit songs and formulaic, mainstream blockbuster movies and romance novels, for example, are entirely anti-real. They're produced by the intention to mislead the public.

      I agree that hit music is like elevator music or junk food. In that respect, as I say in the article, I'd compare it to formulaic blockbuster movies made by committee rather than by artistic vision, and made for the sole reason of cashing in by catering to the lowest common denominator. These corporate products are hollow, and minimalistic songs are extreme examples since there's literally almost nothing to them. It's like a cappella (a voice with no instrumental accompaniment), except that the voice too is doing nothing special. The singer's practically talking rather than singing and is also saying nothing interesting, because the lyrics are afterthoughts to the computerized process of making this junk music.

    2. Well, I guess you said 'may' be used for existential questions - I kind of read is as 'are' being used for existential questions (in some significant amount). My mistake.

      Why don't you try out some of the auto tune applications out there, Ben, see if you can hijack the hijacking of music? I mean in practical terms of making an audio track - obviously you don't have the massive PR machine at your disposal, so I'm not requiring a 'hit' in order for a hijacking to have occurred.

    3. It's interesting you should suggest that I get into music-making, Callan. I've actually been thinking of turning some of my ideas into raps. I've already written one on new atheism. I've got to find time to write the rest. I have a MIDI controller, so I just have to get hold of a microphone, create some beats and freaky ambient sounds, and put it all together. Should be fun.

      My other plan is to produce a graphic novel version of this blog. But I'm still searching for a hook to fictionalize the philosophy. I did so with the novel, God Decays, but I'd like a more comedic scenario for the graphic novel.

  2. Lately I've been listening to a lot of dark ambient inspired by Lovecraftian themes, e.g. I guess my motivation for doing so is to somehow transcend the neural mechanisms that you mentioned (although I realize this is ultimately impossible). I've started to consider instruments, lyrics, and even the structure of composition to be anthropocentric relics, if that makes sense. I'm intrigued by the possibility of non-human (or perhaps trans-human) experiences, e.g. how would an alien or a Cthulhu-like entity experience reality, and this genre of music has the ability to suggest that (at least to me).

    1. Thanks for the link. I hadn't heard of that label, Cryo Chamber. I listen to some dark ambient, but mostly to put me in a certain mood, such as when I was writing my zombie novel God Decays. Have you heard any Lustmord? It's crazy stuff that sounds like how I'd imagine hell would sound. There's one track that has what sounds like giant lumbering beasts crying out periodically while you're scurrying along the crags of some wasteland. I think it's the first track on Heresy.

      Ambient music of that sort isn't fully music, though, because it's closer to virtual reality. Music should be metaphorical, in my opinion. The song's structure should mean something. If you have only a soundscape, you're inserted into a (partially realized) alternate world and so you have no reason to compare those sounds to what happens in the actual world.

      Science fiction has trouble portraying posthumanity, for the same reason that it's boring to imagine gods in heaven. Hell is more interesting than heaven because it's a place for flawed people. Posthumans would have no flaws, according to the progressive myth.

      An interesting question is whether a Cthulhu-like entity should be considered flawed. Would it perceive everything, like a god, or would it ignore parts of reality, such as lower forms of sentient life, according to its biases?

    2. I have several Lustmord albums, but they're a bit too "gothic" for my taste. The dark ambient genre walks a fine line between "conventional horror" and "cosmic horror", and I tend to prefer soundscapes that evoke cosmic horror.

      Here's another ambient album that I've listened to a lot, NASA's Symphonies of the Planets:

      It's based on EM recordings of different solar system planets made by the Voyager probes, with a lot of audio processing to make it sound "pleasant".

      About Cthulhu's flaws, Lovecraft himself said that his Mythos entities were just aliens obeying a set of natural laws, who only seemed godlike to the limited human intellect. So I think it's entirely possible that Cthulhu would have perceptual biases and ignore parts of reality, although the nature of those biases would probably be incomprehensible to us.

    3. Eerie stuff. I'd also recommend some drone music, especially Eluvium (try "indoor swimming at the space station," from Copia, which is the first link below; try also "don't get any closer," from the second link, or "New animals from the air," from the third link). I find some of that sort of music balances ambient soundscapes with melodies. The music goes somewhere, as they say. If we're talking postmodern, digital "classical" or instrumental music, I especially like the epic, cinematic stuff, like Johannsson's Fordlandia (in HD; fourth link below).

      But some CDs I can listen to over and over again without ever getting tired of them are M83's "Hurry up, We're Dreaming" and Appleseed Cast's "Low Level Owl" (2 vols.) Then there's Sigur Ros...

    4. Thanks for the links. This isn't related to music, but today I stumbled upon a concept called the Gervais principle, which seems to mirror some of your ideas on alpha / beta / omega hierarchies. It's about organizations rather than society at large, but the concept is the same. It argues that people in any organization can be divided into three archetypes: the sociopath, the clueless, and the loser. The sociopath is a nihilist in the Nietzschean sense who realizes that all human interactions are a power game, and whose aim is to assert his will on others. The clueless is a naive idealist who believes in the organization's stated principles at face value and works to promote them. The loser is a downcast individual who comes to the same realization as the sociopath about the nature of the organization, but who either doesn't have the temperament or is unwilling to profit from it. It's a very entertaining read:

    5. Many insights in that discussion. I haven't read all the parts, but I like how the author just takes it for granted that success breeds nothing short of psychopathy. And you’re right that it’s remarkably similar to what I’ve been saying on this blog (alphas, betas, and omegas). For example, I think the author is right in saying that the sociopaths and the losers are on the same page at least with respect to their disloyalty to the firm. I’d explain that sort of parallel by talking about them as outsiders, alienated from the world by their excessive egos or objectivity, as the case may be.

      However, I certainly wouldn’t call the losers “happiness-seekers.” In my system, it’s the betas who seek happiness. Losers in the economic sense are more likely to seek wisdom than happiness, assuming they’re not driven to self-destruction. They’re alienated and so are cursed to see things as they are. The more you know, the less your chances for happiness, unless you’re blessed with abundant powers of self-deception.

      Moreover, I doubt the Gervais Principle can be applied to all of The Office. And I think there's a big flaw in the principle itself. The principle is: "Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves."

      But sociopaths don't act in their best interest! On the contrary, they sabotage their chances, because they're flippin crazy. I prefer my take on these dynamics. I see the power elites as the models for our gods: they create worlds, as Nietzsche said, for the pleasure of channeling the monstrously creative powers of nature, but they also tear down these worlds to start over again, or else nature tears them down to select new avatars to represent the cosmic monstrosity.

      The point is that the sociopaths who are corrupted by their absurdly concentrated power--which no human alive or ever born could use wisely--are monsters. They're not merely strategic thinkers, contrary to game theoretic models or Ayn Rand's fictions. They are selfish and they do manipulate people, but they don't plan things out so much in advance. They don't care about the consequences, because they can't feel complex emotions. They end up going way too far, like O.J. Simpson or the Wall Street bankers who reveal their shortsightedness and the incoherence of their worldview, when they move from one rigged bubble market to the next, relying inconsistently on the government and the exploited masses to bail them out.

      But there seems much to learn from that presentation to which you referred. Thanks for the link. I'll have to return to it since this is just the sort of work that I trust can inspire me to further flesh out my worldview.

  3. I am somewhat of an aficionado of dark music. Here are a couple of lesser known dark/ritual ambient groups.

  4. I find this experimental hip hop group (one of my favorites) to fall in line with many of the themes on your blog.