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.