Irving Berlin said, “Popular music is popular because a lot of people like it.”
Recently the metrics meets storytelling site polygraph (poly-graph.co) published a piece by Matt Daniels on the most timeless songs from the 1990’s. More specifically, using Spotify plays as a yardstick, Daniels took a look at how resilient songs from the 1990’s were for today’s all-the-worlds-music-at-my-fingertips streaming music listeners.
As you might expect cultural clarion calls like Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit, Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Under The Bridge, Radiohead’s Creep, and Eminem’s My Name Is dominated. These songs are all different…or are they? After all, they’re all personal declarations of adolescent pain. The kind of pain that has fueled much of the great rock and hip hop of the last 30 years. These songs are variations on “I am hurting, the world is a mess, it’s in my kiss deal with it”.
The 60’s gave us My Generation, we were Comfortably Numb in the 70’s, The Smiths and songs like Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now helped define the 80’s, and then came the 90’s. For every Smells Like Teen Spirit or Creep, there were hundreds more where they came from. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and a legion of downcast “complaint rock” bands ruled MTV and radio in the era. Apparently, in the 1990’s it was hip to be bummed.
OK then. Through the ages, teenage angst has been constant in pop music. But when listeners are not bummed out, and they can listen to any song they want from the anonymity of their smart phone and headphones, what else do today’s streamers want to hear?
Apparently, they want to hear…crap.
The kind of “crap” that in the pre-Napster Rock era (1964–2000) you had to be ashamed to buy. Or more charitably…a concentrated set of incredibly catchy, sometimes dopey, wonderfully catchy pop songs, formerly known as Guilty Pleasures.
You see, streaming music sites like Spotify, Pandora and Slacker have done more than open up the catalogue of all music to anyone with broadband — they have killed Guilty Pleasures. This has happened gradually but surely over the last ten years. No one needs to know exactly what you are listening to in those headphones, and even if they did judge you for your momentary dalliance with Roxette or Bryan Adams, it was just momentary. There are a million other songs just a click away, so what’s the big deal? It’s not like you’re going to get a Spin Doctors Two Princes tattoo, right
Contrast our present day ease of entry, ease of escape with the 1990’s. Can you imagine the walk of shame for a 16 year old Gen X’er as she ambled up to the Tower Records counter with a CD or two from Britney or The Spice Girls along with her Sonic Youth and Nirvana masterpieces? That was simply not going to happen.
Guilty Pleasure pop like Britney’s Baby One More Time and The Spice Girls Wannabee were mortal enemies before streaming. Now they are playlist kissing cousins. These songs dominate the catalogue spins across the streaming services.
Songs like Collio’s Gangsta’s Paradise, Celine Dion’s My Hear Will Go On, Blackstreet’s No Diggitty and Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn are no longer Guilty Pleasures at all. They are simply fun oldies. Perfect for your Songs That You Think Sucked…But Don’t playlist, or Wussiest Songs Ever station or Yes I’m Listening To Lite Rock, So What.
On a revenue level, these are massive catalogue streaming hits, generating huge market share gains for their labels.
Perhaps there are cultural and personal economic forces at play here too. The path to employment isn’t an easy one for millenials. Student loans, 24/7 connectivity and the resulting social media pressure have created a perfect sociological storm for disposable pop. Maybe impending adulthood sounds like crap a lot more than a Coolio song ever could. I’ll leave that one for the social scientists.
Financially, these songs are most certainly not crap. Thanks to streaming, these former Guilty Pleasures are now simply songs we love. Gangsta’s Paradise, Wannabee, and Britney’s hits are the new catalogue smashes. These are great pop songs ready for your “Hipster Karaoke”, “Stadium-Singalong”, or “Yacht-Rock Party”. Whatever your station or playlist is called, these songs are perfect.
Guilty Pleasures are dead. They’re also bigger than ever.