The Future of Pop Music as We Know It

Posted September 19, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

The Mileypocalypse gives us all the perfect magic ball glimpse into the future of pop music

I almost didn’t want to look at the industry reports this week. I knew what was going to happen, and wanted to postpone the inevitable. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said. But had he had a tiny glimpse into the next century, he might have feared Miley Cyrus twerking on an award show stage and working her “Wrecking Ball” up the pop charts.

But we knew this kind of thing was coming. Unlike earthquakes or mudslides – natural disasters that creep on us without some sort of sign or without any prior knowledge, this was pronounced early on. It was we that wasn’t prepared.

The first sign of the Mileypocalypse – a silly term I’ve concocted since discovering that a sharknado wasn’t really real – actually traces back to…Robin Thicke. Yeah, sounds freakin’ scary, don’t it?

With his best Marvin Gaye “Got to Give It Up” imitation, Thicke exploded up the charts this summer with “Blurred Lines.” Inside the dancefloor jam were catchy one-liners (“you’re the hottest bitch in this place”), bad boy antics (“what rhymes with hugh me”) and silly sing-a-long techniques (“hey-hey-hey”) – enough to turn a dry wedding reception into a Soul Train re-run. According to Billboard standards, Thicke earned the coveted title of being the summer song of 2013, trumping the safer alternative of “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk. But underneath the covers of Thicke’s party starter lies a super magic trick that Billboard created that will help turn almost any track into an instant winner. Because no one is buying physical singles anymore, the folks at Nielsen SoundScan decided to pour some extra physics into their weekly chart data by updating their methodology of determining hit records. In February, they announced that they would also factor in activity made on streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. Music videos on YouTube are also a part of that equation. And when a song is being propped up by an international phenomenon like those never-ending, do-it-yourself Harlem Shake videos, you’re sitting on a gold mine. When originally released, Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” made very little noise, occasionally becoming the conversation at R&B blogs. But when he decided to drop the NSFW version of that video, which featured half-naked supermodels wearing absolutely no bras, Thicke found his own gold mine. Although it originally was censored from YouTube’s servers, the combined videos (edited and NSFW) has since attracted 197 million views. And that’s excluding the dozens of videos containing only the audio that are being posted by AdSense-hungry third-parties.

The second sign of the Mileypocalypse can be found in her own summer song, “We Can’t Stop.” Factor in the key ingredients to Thicke’s surge to success and you can literally hear Hannah Montana’s marketing team scheming their way to the top. Package the lyrics with bad-girl antics by talking about “red cups and sweaty bodies everywhere” and the use of Molly while cooking up a concept video that throws in some cultural phenomenon bits, which happens to be this suburban fixation on the black folks’ mutation of “Doin’ da Butt” called “twerking,” and we have a winner. Cyrus’s song would be shunned from the Number One spot, thanks to Thicke’s juggernaut hit, but it managed to hold tightly to number 2 on the Hot 100 for weeks. Before the sand in the hourglass ran out on Summer 2013, Cyrus did earn an extra surge of sales to “We Can’t Stop” with her naughty tongue-wagging, finger-flicking, ass-tricking live performance with Thicke on the MTV Video Music Awards. The performance was universally panned by the media and by music critics, but it was all the attention she needed to get her name out there. Like her or not, Cyrus is not trying to win cool points for being a great singer. She knows she’s not the next Madonna, but she’s making cash. And while she’s riding this wave of phenomenon, even as her offense to blacks for the use of bad “twerking” hits an all-time high, Cyrus is preparing to release the next wave of her Mileypocalypse.

In comes the wrecking ball. Propped up by a controversially borderline-porno music video and the momentum she’s gained since her VMA circus act, “Wrecking Ball,” her follow-up single to “We Can’t Stop” and the precursor to her highly-anticipated album Bangerz, shot to number one on the Hot 100. And that’s all because the counts for her VEVO Certified video – which means she’s racked up 100 million views already – are now a factor in what becomes a Number One pop hit. And you actually have to give her some credit on this. Even if people were only nosy to see what she was going to “twerk” up next, the music video broke VEVO records for being the most viewed video in 24 hours, gaining 19.3 million views in one day. It also sold 477,000 digital copies on its first week of release, putting her up there with Katy Perry’s “Roar.” It’s a change of pace for Cyrus, especially since “Wrecking Ball” is an emotional pop ballad. Some are calling it her “Cry Me a River” moment. But let it also be said that “Wrecking Ball” would not have sold as many units or have flown to the top of any chart without the help of the controversy and the new changes made at Billboard.

Plus, you have to consider the construction of the modern-day pop song, which has everything to do with accessibility. Pop songs, at least of the modern kind, are often easy to digest, instant and packaged with plenty of preservatives (hooks would be the appropriate word). It’s also usually derivative of past glories. When you’ve heard one Number One hit, you’ve heard them all – at least the ones that are trailing behind it. See, there’s this common law used with musicians to copy what’s hot. Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”  sounded like a trip back into Studio 54 disco; so Robin Thicke did the same thing with “Blurred Lines,” and so did Justin Timberlake with “Take Back the Night.” Last year, the international craze was all about Adele and the power ballad. “Turning Tables,” “Set Fire to the Rain” and “Someone Like You” – all taken from her massive best-selling 21 album, were all making their ascensions, so did the Lumineers’s “Hey Ho,” Ed Sheeran’s “The A Team,” Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake,” fun.’s “We Are Young,” Rihanna’s “Stay” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” When I interviewed Harry Wayne Casey last year, he shared that “Rock Your Baby” was partially inspired by the Hues Corporation’s “Rock Your Boat.” Makes sense when you consider that the George McCrae Number One hit pushed “Rock Your Boat” from out the Number One slot. In some instances, what’s being pushed out from the hot spot is usually a better version of what was in the hot spot. So it’s doesn’t take a brain surgeon to strategize a way to rocket to number one on the charts; all you need is a better version of what’s already up there, or something better altogether. Better yet, just put up a NSFW music video exposing lots of skin. That always works.



Looks like I was right. The alternative album cover for that forthcoming album, Bangerz, is this:











In this instance, I wish I made this shit up. But it’s becoming more and more impossible for me to do that. Sigh.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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