Top 40 Music, Kids These Days, and the Bland Middle

Is popular music today worse than it was when I was a teen in the 90s and was more aware of popular music? Of course! Generational decline is an ironclad law. Millennials are the worst!

On her blog, Libby Jacobson has a nice analysis of this, comparing a Top 40 list from 1996 from one today. She notes that in the 1996 list, “only Alanis Morissette had two songs in the Top 40,” while in today’s list,

Taylor Swift has two songs in the Top 5. Meghan Trainor has two songs in the top 10. Maroon 5: Two songs in Top 20. Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Sam Smith, Sia, and Ed Sheeran appear twice in the list. When you include collaborations, Drake, John Newman, Tove Lo and Juicy J also appear multiple times on the list. Not only does pop music all sound the same these days, the mainstream-successful stuff is largely being made by the same people.

She concludes that “pop music is converging both in terms of style/sound and in terms of the talent & personalities producing it” and asks young people to “put down the Taylor Swift and go exploring.”

The thing is, I’m not sure she’s reading the data correctly. Let me offer an alternative take, while admitting that I could be totally off.

I bet if you look at the percent of the music-listening public who listed to/heard/recognized each of the songs on the top 40 lists, you’d fine that it’s declined dramatically between 1996 and today. In other words, the most popular music today isn’t as popular as the most popular music in 1996.

Music has always had call it a “bland middle.” There’s always been a set of bands that are both popular and kind of all sound the same. (I say this as someone who chiefly listens to 90s punk rock, which is quite often utterly interchangeable.) There are people whose taste runs to that bland middle, but there area great deal of people whose tastes don’t.

One thing rather dramatically different about music today from when I was a kid is how easy — and cheap! — it is to access both a lot of it, and a lot of variety. Used to be, I had to save up for a CD, which was around ten or fifteen bucks, and then listen the hell out of it until I had money for another. With Spotify, I can pay that much on a monthly basis to have unlimited access to basically any song there is. This has the effect of dropping the marginal cost of music exploration to zero and making such exploration very easy. Just click around and listen.

Let’s say that among the audience for music, there are 100 “tastes.” There are 100 kinds of music people prefer, with different people ranking those tastes differently. If music is expensive, you’re less likely to try all 100 tastes. Instead, you’ll stick with the ones that you know you like. And if exploration is difficult, you’ll be less likely to even know about all 100 possible tastes, and even within your preferred tastes, you’re likely to only know about the most popular bands because those are the ones everyone else knows about and so are the ones you’ve heard of.

But if music is cheap, you’ll try out more, if not all, of the 100. And within each, you’ll try more bands. (This is made even easier by services like Pandora or Spotify Radio, which let you in effect say, “Here’s my particular taste. Find me things within it I don’t know about.”)

What does this all have to do with the makeup of the Top 40 list? Well, the Top 40 list is a relative ranking of popularity. It’s the most popular stuff at any given time, but it doesn’t tell you how popular that stuff is compared to the most popular stuff from yesterday or years ago.

So my hypothesis is that in 1996, the average number of tastes that had a sizable share of the listening public’s attention and the average number of bands each person listened to within those tastes was lower than today. Today, individual people’s tastes likely diverge more, and within those tastes they likely listen to more variety.

Thus what looks like more variety in the Top 40 in 1996 is actually representative of less variety among the public as a whole. More of those 100 tastes are popular enough to make the Top 40 because people have converged more on a subset of those 100. And what looks like a lack of variety in the Top 40 today is actually representative of more variety among the public as a whole. People are more divergent in their tastes and they’re listening to more bands within those tastes, which means the taste/band combinations that make the Top 40 are those that only slightly edge out all the others people dig. And those are likely to reside in the bland middle.

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